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The Mystery of Ill Opinions

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London, September 1588

John Watson had endured many measuring looks in his life, but none made his shoulder blades itch as powerfully as the stare belonging to Lord Holmes, Earl of Rutland.

John knew better than to look Lord Holmes in the eye, but no matter where John looked, from the sable trim on the earl's jerkin to the ivory-handled rapier that hung at his side, he couldn't escape the aura of power and influence that emanated from the man who regarded him from behind his writing desk.

But it was the piercing gaze that seemed to take in everything, from his salt-stained boots to the stump where his right arm had been prior to England's great victory over Spain, that would have unnerved someone less accustomed to inspections than John was.

“Step into the light, Watson,” he said at last, the first words he had spoken since the footman led John into the earl's presence.

John did so unhesitatingly, and the earl made a soft noise of understanding.

“My steward tells me that you wish to join my service,” said the earl, with what sounded like deliberate blandness to John's ears.

“Aye, my lord,” said John tugging his forelock in automatic salute.

“And yet you held a warrant on the flagship of our national hero,” said the earl, his disdainful tone of voice indicating what he thought of Sir Francis Drake. “Surely he could find you suitable position.”

“Begging your lordship's pardon,” said John, “but I don't want charity. I only want to work.”

The Earl was silent for a moment, considering. “You were on the Golden Hind.”

“I started as loblolly boy on the Swan, but yes, by journey's end I was ship's surgeon on the Hind.”

“And in the course of your duties, you cared for injuries, illnesses, and all manner of invalid.”

“I treated men with ailments I know not how to describe,” said John. “And when I couldn't help them, I did what I could to make them comfortable.”

“That will do,” said the earl.

He clapped his hands twice, and a liveried servant stepped into the room. “See that Watson is fitted with new clothes and shoes. No livery, I think. It would send the wrong message to the patient.” The earl looked down his pointed nose at John, which when combined with the pointed beard on his chin gave him the look of the very devil. John resisted the urge to cross himself. “But you must be cognizant that you represent the Holmes family at all times in both your clothing and your conduct. When you've been respectably turned out, report to Mr. Stamford. He shall enumerate your duties.”

“Aye, your lordship,” said John, responding as he would to the captain of a ship, which he supposed the earl was, in a sense.

Holmes gave him a narrow smile and returned to the stack of letters on his desk.

John followed the servant from the earl's chambers and down the narrow servants’ stairs. “So, what's he like to work for, the earl?” John asked.

“You needn't concern yourself with Lord Holmes,” said the servant archly. “You're not going to be working for him. You're going to be under his brother's thumb, and good luck with that.”

Several facts slipped into place. John wasn't aware that the earl had a brother – it wasn't common knowledge, to be sure, and now he knew the identity of the invalid to which the earl had alluded in that very strange and brief interview. “You know him?”

“Of course I do,” sneered the servant. “My family has served Rutland for generations.”

“Good to know,” said John in a pacifying tone. He knew the servant's type- unimaginative, but steadfast. “What's your name, then?”

“Anders, his lordship's gentleman usher.”

“Many thanks, Anders. If I get lost, I know who I can count on for good counsel.”

Anders puffed up with pride, John was pleased to notice, and he even held the door to a large cupboard open for John and helped him select a fine linen shirt, hose, stocking, shoes, and a black woolen doublet.

After giving John a nod of approval, he picked up John's discarded clothing one piece at a time with his thumb and forefinger. “I'll just take these to be laundered,” he said, making a transparent attempt not to wrinkle his nose. “You'll be quartered with the men-at-arms near the stables. I'll have your things delivered there.”

“Much obliged,” said John. “Can you tell me how to find Mr. Stamford?”

“He'll be in the office off the entrance hall,” said Anders. He closed the cupboard door behind John and paused. “If you don't mind my saying so, Watson, you want to be careful with Master Sherlock. He's... he's not altogether well.”

“Beyond being an invalid?” asked John, who felt quite sure that Anders meant something quite different, but his meaning was obscure.

“The earl is a demanding but fair master,” said Anders, clearly torn between loyalty to the house and wanting to let John know what lay in store. “What a pity that not all masters are.”

“I see,” said John quietly, curious how much trouble one invalid could be.

John made his way back to the entrance hall, which was being cleaned. “Oi, there! Watch your step!” shouted one of the housemaids, a pretty girl with dark skin and a few wild curls that had escaped her cap. “I've just done that floor!”

“And you'll have to do it again if you can't keep a civil tongue in your head,” came a tart reply from an older woman in a white cap who John instinctively knew not to cross.

“Sorry,” said John to both the ladies. “I was just looking for Mr. Stamford.”

“John Watson!” boomed a familiar voice. The door behind the pretty maid opened, and John found his left arm being shaken nearly out of its socket with the enthusiasm of his old friend's greeting. “You got the job, then?”

“Seems so,” said John with a broad grin, drinking in Stamford's appearance. He wasn't in livery, but his velvet was slashed with the green and gold of the Holmes household. He appeared happy, hearty, and well-fed, as befitting the head steward of a distinguished household.

“God help you,” said Stamford, shaking his head. “But I'm glad. I knew you were the right man for the job. The earl told you that you'd be caring for his brother?”

“The invalid, yes,” said John.

“Invalid my eye,” said Stamford in a low voice, closing the door behind him. Stamford's office was tiny and filled with piles of ledgers. “But you'll see for yourself. Your title will be personal assistant to Master Sherlock Holmes. You're to be stationed near his quarters during the day unless he invites you in, though he will go for days without speaking, so you need to learn to judge his moods. You are to keep him supplied with whatever he demands, within reason, and I or the Controller will be able to tell you that until you've become accustomed to his ways. You're to assist in keeping his chambers from piling up with rubbish and ensure that he follows his doctor’s orders and uses the chamber pot and not the corner of the room. You will accompany him to the theatre as frequently as he wishes to go, which is usually at least once each week.”

“Sounds, ah, reasonable,” said John, clearing his throat.

“You needn't wait on him at table, of course, unless he asks you,” said Stamford, “but he rarely appears in the dining hall. One of his many eccentricities.”

“Anything else I should know before I meet him?”

Stamford gave him a measuring look. “Lord Holmes values discretion, a quality I happen to know you possess in great quantities. You could go far in his service, John. I know this was a grievous blow,” he said, gesturing to John's stump, “but even if you can't sail around the world again, the world still comes to London, especially to Lord Holmes's residence.”

John raised his eyes to meet his old friend's, apprehensive about what he would find there, and he was gratified to find no pity, merely affection.

“My thanks, old friend; to you and Lord Holmes.”

Stamford gave a rueful snort as he opened the door. “Don't thank us until you've met Master Sherlock. Sally! Take Doctor Watson to the solarium.”

“Doctor?” asked the pretty maid. “They've already got a physician, haven't they?”

“None of your cheek, lass,” said Stamford. “Watson is Master Sherlock's new personal assistant.”

“Oh? Let's hope he lasts longer than the last one.”

John raised an interrogative eyebrow at Stamford, who flushed. “Master Sherlock was in a bad way, but he's a new man since the doctor's last visit,” he said as he returned to his office.

“Which is saying that he drove the last one off in half an hour,” said Sally, sotto voce.

John managed not to snort aloud, but he couldn't hide his smile.

“We'll see if you think it's so funny in an hour's time,” said Sally, saucily, leading John to the servants’ stair.

“How long have you worked for the Holmeses?” asked John.

“Two years,” said Sally, sighing as she mounted the first flight of stairs. “I worked in Guy de Lestrade's house as a lady's maid. When his wife died and he became the gentleman in charge of Lord Holmes's horses, I came with him. Not that there's much use for a lady's maid here.”

“Lord Holmes has a wife, doesn't he?”

“Of course, but she already has a maid and she stays in Rutland with the children when his lordship is in London. Probably safer, with Lord Holmes on the Privy Council, that pit of vipers. That and she can't abide Master Sherlock. It's one thing when she can keep several wings of household between her and him, but it's another when we're all living on top of one another in town.”

“Isn't Master Sherlock married?”

Sally snorted. “No decent woman would have him,” she said. “I've never known such an ill-humoured cross-bited villain in all my days. You want to take care to give him no weapon, because he will turn it on you, mark my words. Even his words are daggers.”

John hid a smile. “Thanks for the warning.”

Sally paused before mounting the final flight of stairs. “You seem like a good sort, I'll grant,” she said. “When things don't work out with Master Sherlock, I hope you'll consider staying in Lord Holmes's service.”

“It really isn't up to me,” said John, gesturing to his stump. “There isn't a whole lot of work out there for half a man. Keeping a younger son out of trouble may be all I'm good for.”

Sally tutted and swept to the top of the stair. “Have it your way. Here we are.”

“Is that Sally?” called a deep voice from within.

“Yes, Master Sherlock,” she replied, rolling her eyes.

“This won't do. Take this message to my brother: I will not have the shrew.”

“You couldn't have me, even if you wanted to, you prating toad,” said Sally, opening the door and standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips.

To John's surprise, there was a laugh from within. “How fortunate,” drawled the voice, “that I have no desire to upset my balance of humours with a scratched face.”

“As if that would make matters worse,” said Sally. “I've brought your new minder. John Watson, heaven help him.”

“Well, don't just stand in the corridor,” ordered the voice. “Enter. Watson, of course. If I never see Sally again it'll be too soon.”

The solarium was a largish room with a high, sharply gabled ceiling that was flooded with light from a bank of windows. However, the airiness of the room was somewhat spoiled by being filled to overflowing with a hodgepodge of furniture, papers, books, and a host of strange objects. There was a wardrobe along one wall, and next to it a bed whose curtains were drawn on the sunny side, casting its occupant in shadow. However, no shadow could have concealed the man's pallor.

His skin had the waxy look common to invalids, and his cheekbones protruded alarmingly from his face. He was no more than five and twenty, though he appeared younger because his face was clean-shaven. The man stared at John with eyes that were as startlingly pale as his skin, but they were set off with dark lashes. His head had been shaved, presumably by the house physician to treat a deathly fever, and dark stubble was growing in. It was something of a surprise that such a powerful voice had emanated from such a frail-looking vessel.

The younger Holmes had a stare every bit as unnerving as his brother's, but rather than the silent, sustained strain on his composure to which Lord Holmes had subjected John, Master Sherlock's evaluation was over in moments.

Aid, Revenge, or Ark Royal?”


“On which ship were you surgeon?”

“How did you- ?”

Holmes waved an elegant hand in the air. “The position of your feet tells me you spent years at sea, yet your skin is paler than a common seaman's, and your hand lacks a sailor's characteristic roughness, for all that its shape rest makes its capabilities plain. Therefore your position was in the cockpit, seeing to the wounded. What's more, you bear a grievous wound not three months old, sustained, presumably, during the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Of the ships that sustained notable casualties, only the flagship, the Revenge, and the Aid have a complement large enough to require the services of a surgeon. And so I ask: Aid, Revenge, or Ark Royal?”

Revenge,” said John. “When you put it that way, it sounds so simple, but- “

“Why are you here?”

John frowned at the abrupt change of topic. “Because there's not much work out there for a man with one arm. Mister Stamford and I knew one another as lads, and he recommended me for-”

Master Sherlock cut him off with an impatient sound. “Why are you working at all? Revenge is Drake's ship, and if you were on it in battle, then he knew you and trusted you already. That means you were either part of his famed circumnavigation of the world, or his raid on Cadiz, either of which would have given you sufficient prize-money to retire a wealthy man, even after providing for your mother in Norfolk and paying for a tutor for your younger brother.” The pale lips parted in a wan sort of smile. “Have I got anything wrong?”

“The tutor is for my sister, not my brother,” said John, relieved that the man's gaze wasn't as all-seeing as it had first appeared. “Mum believes she'll attract a merchant husband that way.”

Master Sherlock threw his hands in the air. “Of course a woman on her own for so many years would want to spare her daughter the same fate. My brother wouldn't have erred thus,” he said, his tone sulky and resentful. “He doubtless saw your whole dull life written in your clothes. I had much less to work with, now that that fool Anders has had his way with you. There's nothing for it. I've grown dull alone in this room. Today, we go to the theatre.”

There was a snort from the hallway, and Master Sherlock shuffled in his bedclothes until two pale feet emerged from beneath the bedclothes.

“Sally! Make yourself useful and have someone bring wash water. And make sure it's hot this time!”

“And something for him to eat and drink, I think,” said John, eyeing the unnaturally slender legs that followed the feet.

“Nonsense,” said Master Sherlock. “I've broken fast already.”

“Today?” asked John.

The pale eyes narrowed in thought. “Yesterday. Or perhaps the day before. It doesn't matter. I'm not hungry.”

“Broth, if there is any,” said John to Sally. “Some bread and butter, if the bread's fresh, and small beer.”

“I tell you, I'm not—“ said Master Sherlock, but he sighed impatiently. “I will eat. But I will not do anything until you locate my blue velvet doublet with the brass buttons.”

As John dug through the piles of paper in search of the doublet, he could feel his master's gaze on his back. “You never answered my question,” he said. “Why work?”

“My earliest memories are of wishing to go to sea,” said John, opening the wardrobe. It was filled with books. “The rest of my life was spent at sea, with barely enough time spent on land to marry and have a child. I went around the world with Sir Francis, but when I came home, there was nothing left for me on land. And now, there's nothing left for me at sea. Anything is better than idleness.”

It was as much of the truth as John felt like disclosing. Master Sherlock didn't need to know that John's taste for seeing new lands had been soured by watching his betters treat their fellow men as beasts of burden. Still, Master Sherlock was regarding him with his penetrating stare once more.

“Was it ague that took your wife and child?”

John felt as though he'd been punched in the stomach, but he kept his voice light. “Ague or the bloody flux. The two swept through the village almost at the same time. I never got a clear answer as to what had carried them off.”

“Ah,” was the only response.

This was something of a relief. Those who knew his story invariably offered condolences seasoned with well-meaning phrases like, “You're still so young!” or “You could have other children.”

John's gratitude for his master's economy with sentiment was short-lived as the young man lurched to his feet and swayed alarmingly. John was at his side immediately and held out his good arm, which Master Sherlock seized.

“To the window,” he said impatiently, and John moved to obey, noting the sour smell that clung to his master's nightgown was simply that of old sweat, not the stench of illness that he knew too well from his years at sea. This suggested that Master Sherlock's recent fever was the sort that ran its course in a day or two; nothing to justify a shaven head. John had not yet met the Holmes's physician, but he already seemed to conform with John's general opinion of physicians, namely that their physic was more theatre than treatment.

Master Sherlock seemed to be regaining his balance as John guided him to the window, and soon the cold hands were splayed like pale spiders on the sill, and his nose was pressed up against the mullioned panes.

Sensing that the other man was occupied, John continued searching for the missing doublet, which he found behind a sofa that was piled high with new sheaves of paper and a lute. He laid the garment out on the bed, along with a pair of hose that smelled clean. Fortunately, it seemed as though the servants were well-accustomed to Master Sherlock's whims, and the wash water arrived steaming hot, along with fresh linen. Not that the master had noticed.

“Watson,” he said at last. “Help me to my desk.”

“The water's arrived,” said John. “If you don't use it now, it'll get cold.”

Master Sherlock sighed irritably. “Very well. Wash me while I write. But if you get water on the page, I cannot be held responsible for my actions. But for pity's sake, get me to the desk!”

John had heard stories of wealthy eccentrics, but washing a man's nether regions while he was bent over a writing desk was one of the odder things he had ever done.

“Your towelling could use some work,” said Master Sherlock, not looking up from his writing. “You've rendered this line nearly illegible.”

John glanced over his master's shoulder. He couldn't read a word, but knew what he saw was not the looping hands of a scribe. “Are you certain it was me?” he asked.

His master turned to face him with a scowl, but John could see humour dancing in his eyes.

“I need you to lift your arm now,” said John, rinsing the flannel in the basin and refreshing it with hot water from the ewer. “What are you writing?” asked John.

“The definitive work on the art of deduction,” came the reply.

“Deducting what, exactly?”

“Deducing everything,” said Master Sherlock. “Identifying a fletcher by his fingernails or the cottar by the wear of his boots; knowing the cuckold from the trim of his cloak or the candle maker by the peculiar shape of wax-burns. This is an omnibus of behaviours and marks by which you may read a man's life in his appearance and behaviour.”

John scrubbed his master's arm with a towel. “Is that all it is then, just guessing?”

“I do not guess,” said Master Sherlock, offended, offering John his other arm. “I observe, and deduce the most likely explanation for what I have observed. For example, you seemed taken aback that I knew you were a widower, but no woman would let her husband leave the house attired as poorly as you must have been in order for my brother to order you new clothes. As for ague, I'm told it's caused by unwholesome air in the fens, and your accent is that of Norfolk; hence my conclusion.”

“You amaze me,” said John. “But how did you know about my mother and my sister's tutor?”

“I deduced from your current profession and the neatness of your hair that your father was a barber. From how you style it, I estimate that he died some ten years ago. Am I correct?”

John wrung out the wash flannel and soaked it with more hot water. “You are.”

“Of course I am. Now, back to your former state of dress. Besides indicating that you are in no woman's care, it also suggests that you are not spending your fortune on yourself but on the surviving members of your family and that your mother never remarried.”

“Right,” said John, scrubbing Master Sherlock's back.

“Which means it's likely that your youngest sibling is of grammar school age, and now that you are a family of means, you are paying for your sibling to be educated.”

John shook his head in amazement. “Everything right.”

“Nearly. I failed to consider the advantages a daughter might have in being educated.”

“Still,” said John, “if you hadn't explained, I'd think it was magic.”

Master Sherlock ducked his head so that John could wash it, clearly pleased. “It's hardly miraculous.”

“It's extraordinary. Can you do that for anybody?”

John noted that his praise had a salutary effect on his master's energy as the younger man fairly dragged him to the window. “Certainly. See the man in the blue doublet with the red hose? Do you know his profession?”

“He's standing near a cart filled with baskets. He's a weaver?”

“Wrong!” said Master Sherlock triumphantly. “He's a spy, presumably for one of my brother's rivals. Note the iron-clad wheels on the cart. It's far too expensive for even a master weaver to afford. And the baskets are clearly of low quality- you can see how loose the weave is from here, which is why he has no customers, and he's been there for at least twenty minutes, far longer than any real merchant would when no customers are forthcoming. He's also studiously ignoring me, even as others begin to notice my unclothed state. See how that milkmaid blushes, and her friends also.”

John bit back a laugh, but he needn't have bothered, since Master Sherlock let out a delighted guffaw and strode to the pile of clean linen with a confident step.

“Do you believe me now?” he asked, slipping on the shirt and holding out the sleeves for John to tie.

“It's brilliant!”

The corner of the young man's mouth rose infinitesimally. “That's not what the others say.”

“What do they say?”

“'Get thee behind me, Satan,' usually.”

Piece by piece, the pale invalid was transformed into a semblance of a wealthy gentleman. The padded doublet and Venetian hose filled out Master Sherlock's gaunt frame.

When the food arrived, John freed a small table from the sea of paper and moved it next to Master Sherlock's writing desk. He set himself to excavating other piles of detritus while Master Sherlock ate, and discovered a velvet Italian bonnet with an enormous white plume sitting atop a human skull that would cover his master's stubbled head. A fine wool cloak with richly embroidered trim would complete the transformation, and John laid both of them out for Master Sherlock's approval.

To John's pleasant surprise, Master Sherlock emptied the bowl of broth and was wiping the bowl with the last remnants of bread.

“There,” he said, seizing a sword and scabbard from underneath his bed and donning the hat and cape John had found. “I've eaten, and I'm dressed. Let us be on our way.”

To John's gratification, there was little sign of the invalid who had nearly fallen after getting out of bed. In fact, he was going to lose Master Sherlock if he didn't pick up his own pace.

There was a carriage waiting for them in the courtyard below, and John's suspicion that this was usual behaviour for Master Sherlock was confirmed by the number of footmen present to attend to help him into the carriage and provision him with food and drink for the journey.

John caught the driver's eye- a man about his age with grey hair and warm brown eyes. Once Master Sherlock was wrapped in blankets inside the coach, John swung himself up next to the driver.

“You are John Watson, I think?” said the driver, who made a gentle gesture with the reins that somehow managed to signal the pair of horses to begin moving in unison.

“Right,” said John. “You're Guy de Lestrade, unless I miss my guess. Sally mentioned you were in charge of his lordship's horses.”

“Correct, monsieur,” said Lestrade with a grin. “You are a man who notices much.”

“Not as much as the Holmeses, apparently,” said John.

Lestrade laughed and guided the coach around the corner on to the unholy mess of Gracechurch Street. “Do not dismay, Watson. The Holmeses have had many years of practice. In time, perhaps one day we shall be able to apply their methods with some skill.”

“Oh? Are you a student of men as well as horses?” asked John.

Exactament!” said Lestrade. “I can tell you that your father was a barber.”

“Master Sherlock already told me that today,” said John.

Lestrade's smile fell. “Is it untrue?”

“No, he was definitely a barber. Though how that’s come to be common knowledge I have no idea.”

“Lord Holmes says that nearly every ship's doctor was either a barber or related to one, since blood-letting and pulling teeth come naturally,” said Lestrade.

John smiled. “That much is true, at least of the ship’s doctors I know. I can guess that the pattern does not hold true for learned physicians.”

To John’s surprise, the easy smile on Lestrade’s face fell. “I could not say,” he said, “for I have no knowledge of physicians.”

“Lord Holmes employs one to treat Master Sherlock, doesn't he?” asked John.

“That may be,” said Lestrade shortly, “but I tell you, I do not know him.”

John sensed that he would find out no more from Lestrade, so he changed the subject back to one that Lestrade appeared to enjoy discussing. “Lord Holmes seems a fine figure of a man.”

“That he is,” said Lestrade, brightening. “But he is burdened of late by his many responsibilities.”

“His love for meddling, is more like,” came a peevish comment from within. “My brother does so enjoy having his fingers in many pies.”

“Have you already tired of spotting the spies along the road, Master Sherlock?” asked Lestrade.

“Spies don't interest me,” said Master Sherlock, pulling aside the velvet curtain on John's side of the carriage. “What will we be seeing today?”

“The Curtain is performing The Life and Death of Jack Straw today, and The Theatre has Sapho and Phao.”

“What say you, Watson? Tragedy or comedy?” asked Master Sherlock.

The last thing John wanted to see was a whole company of actors feigning death onstage. “Comedy,” he said.

Master Sherlock tutted. “Dull. No worse than Jack Straw, though.”

“Besides,” said Lestrade, “you've seen Jack Straw three times already.”

“I think it prudent to observe what sort of person enjoys such a bloody spectacle,” said Master Sherlock. “Particularly those who have chosen to see it more than once.”

“Someone like you, then?” asked John.

There was an awkward silence.

“I do not attend the theatre to watch plays,” sneered Master Sherlock. “I attend because it is one of the few places that I may research my book without having to concern myself with pointless social interaction, particularly with the sort that enjoy popular entertainment.”

“Right,” said John, ignoring Lestrade's desperate gesture for him to cease speaking. “I'll remember that.”

“See that you do,” said Master Sherlock coldly.

All three were silent as they drove out of the City and past the taverns and brothels of Shoreditch.

The Theatre was an enormous octagonal edifice surrounded by a courtyard thronging with people. There were hawkers and vendors of all sorts, groups of musicians and acrobats that performed wherever there was a break in the crowd, and there was even a man with a trained monkey that reminded John of those he saw on the far side of the world. The smell of cattle was thick in the air, as was the smell of green earth.

Lestrade manoeuvred the cart to an opening in the brick wall that separated the courtyard from the muddy street and handed John a shilling. “Be sure to request Master Sherlock's usual room in the gallery.”

“Aren't you coming in?” asked John, swinging himself down to the ground.

“I'll wait with the carriage by the horse pond,” said Lestrade. “Besides, I've seen this play already.”

“You might as well join me in the box,” said Master Sherlock impatiently. “Otherwise I'll have to sit with someone tiresome.”

Lestrade raised his eyebrows in surprise but tossed John a second shilling without comment.

John opened the carriage door and offered Master Sherlock his arm, which was accepted for precisely as long as it took him to gain his feet.

“Did you want to have a look around?” asked John.

“God, no,” said Master Sherlock, raising a handkerchief to his face. “I'll wait for you by the stage door. Obtain tickets from the gatherer by the entrance, and do be quick about it.”

Having spied a man in shoddy velvet collecting pennies by the theatre entrance, John wound his way through the crowd.

“Two seats in Sherlock Holmes's usual room,” said John, once he'd caught the man's eye.

“Is one of the seats for Sherlock Holmes?” asked the man.

“As a matter of fact, yes,” said John.

“God 'a mercy!” said the man, pressing his hand to his heart. “What unfortunate pillcock has he enticed into accompanying him?”

“Me, actually,” said John, stiffening. All right, so Master Sherlock was a bit of a bastard, but it wouldn't do for low fellows to speak about him thus.

“Apologies, good sir. Meaning no offence to your master, of course,” said the man, spreading his hands in a gesture of supplication. “It's just that Master Sherlock usually sits alone. We could seat others in the room, of course, but we'd rather take a loss on it, since nobody that shares a room with him ever sees another play here. Excepting yourself, we ardently hope.”

“I see,” said John, holding out the money rather stiffly.

“Mark well, I'll give you entrance gratis, with my compliments. Use that shilling to buy yourself an orange or two,” he said with a wink. “It'd do your master some good to have an example of someone actually enjoying himself. Give these to Bellows around the back.”

“Thanks very much,” said John, accepting two worn strips of paper from him.

“Do enjoy our humble play,” said the man with an exaggerated bow.

John sighed as the crowd swallowed him once more. Actors.

He followed the theatre around to the east, but didn't see anything resembling a door or someone called Bellows. He spotted Lestrade watering the horses by a large, muddy pond and asked where he ought to go.

“That's your way in,” said Lestrade, gesturing with his crop to a door to a building off the main amphitheatre that was guarded by an enormous man. “That's Bellows the blacksmith. He knows Master Sherlock, but be sure that you have your tickets ready to show him. And keep an eye out for the urchins. Cut-purses, all of them. They will pick you to the bone as soon as look at you.”

John nodded his thanks and wound his way past a minstrel singing a bawdy song and approached Bellows, who growled at him until John produced the tickets.

“Lestrade told you the way, I trust?” came a voice from just inside the door.

“How did you- ?” began John, but he began to laugh when a familiar dusky odour reached his nose. Apparently, he'd unwittingly stepped in horse dung.

After scraping his shoe clean to Bellows's satisfaction, John followed Master Sherlock up a creaky wooden staircase to a store-room, which held all manner of props and pieces of scenery. To John's surprise, the gatherer who had given him a free ticket had positioned himself in the store-room beside the heavy curtain that separated the store-room from the theatre.

“Master Sherlock!” he exclaimed, giving an exaggerated bow. “How delightful to see you again for the Lyly! Pray, was it Mister Burbage's Phao that enticed you to our Great O once more, or perhaps Mister Kempe as Cupid?”

“Neither,” said Master Sherlock shortly.

“Oh?” asked the gatherer, with badly feigned innocence. “Was it perhaps Mister Hoddleston as Venus or Mister Wishart as Sapho?”

John managed to turn a guffaw into a cough, but Master Sherlock stiffened.

“If you really wish to make a career of acting in order to support your wife and children and pay the debt you owe for your house in Stratford,” he said coldly, “you would do well not to practice your base humour on your betters, particularly those who patronise your troupe. And if you cannot control your idle tongue, perhaps you should return to the glove making trade your father tried to knock into your thick skull.”

If Master Sherlock's verbal assault struck anywhere near the truth, the gatherer made no sign of it as he bowed. “Base humour is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Shall I send up an orange seller for your amusement?” he asked John.

John glanced at Sherlock's pursed lips and shook his head. “We would prefer to be left alone.”

The gatherer eyed John with new interest. “Oh, would we?”

“Hang you, you brazen-faced churl!” exclaimed Master Sherlock as he swept past the impertinent fellow.

The gatherer met John's eye challengingly. He had intelligent hazel eyes and sported a pointed beard that reminded John of Lord Holmes's, but John was in no mood for games. He seized the gatherer by the doublet and slammed him against the store-room's wall.

“You've had your fun,” said John in a low voice. “But it's over now. If I see you so much as raise an eyebrow in my master's direction, by God's bones, you're going to find it difficult to speak your lines through a broken jaw. Am I understood?”

“You're made of sterner stuff than his last minder,” he said approvingly. “Let us all hope that your fortitude will last the next three hours.” He wriggled out of John's grasp and drew back the curtain, flooding the store-room with light.

When John's eyes had adjusted to the light, he saw that a gilded throne with a red velvet cushion and a wooden chair had been set up for their use.

“The cushions are also complimentary,” said the gatherer, closing a set of dark curtains around them.

John couldn't hold back a smile. At least the rogue was as generous with his hospitality was he was with his cheek.

“Our arses owe you great thanks,” said John.

The gatherer gave John a grin as he withdrew.

“What a useless fellow,” exclaimed Master Sherlock, flinging his cloak over the back of the throne.

“I liked him,” said John. “He's all sauce, but it's amusing sauce. You know him, I take it?”

“Of course I don't know him, other than as a bloody nuisance!”

“He let me in for free and gave us cushions,” said John offering his master the extra shilling, “despite knowing how you feel about plays. I can't imagine you being so polite to someone who insulted your book.”

Master Sherlock waved off the coin after a moment's pause. “He's probably someone's spy,” said he said, adjusting the red velvet pillow on the seat before lowering himself into the throne.

“Probably,” said John pacifyingly, drinking in the sight of the theatre below. It reminded him very much of an inn courtyard, though much, much bigger.

A clown was mincing about on the stage, singing to music provided by musicians positioned in the balcony overhead. The majority of the crowd milling in the pit below were not paying attention, even as they continued to be pressed forward by more people entering the theatre. The whole spectacle was overwhelming, and, in John's opinion, quite exciting.

Master Sherlock gave him a sharp glance. “This is your first time at the theatre, isn't it?”

“I've seen plays,” said John, aware that the tips of his ears were likely turning red. “The local inn had bands of players on most feast days.”

“But this is your first time at a public theatre,” said Master Sherlock.

“Aye. When does the play start?”

“It'll be at least another quarter hour until they get all the stinkards packed into the pit. God's wounds, I am terribly sorry that you should have Lyly to start with. It's absurd rot, neither mythology nor history, and actors will insist on singing and dancing, such as it is. The real musicians play in between the acts, which nearly makes the plays tolerable, but then the actors retake the stage for more posturing and shouting. I'd not be surprised if you left my service from being subjected to it.”

“I quite enjoy plays,” said John. “I'm sure I'll enjoy this one, especially from such a comfortable seat.”

Master Sherlock let out a huff of annoyance. “Enjoy the play if you must, but try not to laugh. My observations during the performance must be undisturbed.”

“You won't even know I'm here,” said John, smiling to himself. “Who are those people sitting on the stage?”

“Fools who have been parted from an additional sixpence for the privilege of being spat upon by the actors,” said Master Sherlock.

He fell into silent observation, and John seized the opportunity to drink in the scene. The scale of the event was marvellous. The inn yard where he saw his first plays held seventy men at most, but there were hundreds of people in the pit, and hundreds more in the galleries. Women with exposed bosoms pushed through the crowd selling oranges, and the din was astonishing. Master Sherlock could write ten volumes of his book from the members of this crowd alone, provided he could remember it all.

His eyes had barely travelled the perimeter of the theatre when trumpets blared from the balcony, and the crowd noise fell to an excited murmur.

A bearded man appeared onstage in a creamy doublet and dark blue hose and proceeded to give a prologue so full of absurd contradictions and wordplay that John very nearly laughed aloud. But then he remembered Master Sherlock's admonishment and limited his laughter to a silent hitch of his shoulders.

The play began properly, with a stout man in impressive whiskers introducing himself as the ferryman Phao, the romantic hero of the story, who sought the proud queen Sapho.

However, his plans were soon scuttled, no thanks to Venus, played by a tall, slender man with a proud demeanour, and her son Cupid, an amusingly ugly clown with a golden bow and quiver of arrows. By the time the lovely Sapho appeared with her ladies-in-waiting, John was all but certain that Cupid's arrows would go horribly awry, and he couldn't hold back a guffaw then they did.

Master Sherlock scowled at him, but John didn't care.

There were clever servants and terrible jokes by the ladies-in-waiting, and when the conclusion came about, namely that Sapho was to remain chaste and alone, John let out a soft noise of comprehension. He hadn't realised the play was about England's current monarch.

“Don't tell me it's taken you this long to figure out the obvious allegory,” said Master Sherlock, speaking for the first time since the play started. “Next you'll tell me you haven't spied the assassin.”

“Not everyone is as-- wait, what assassin?”

Master Sherlock sighed. “The fellow stupid enough to wear new riding boots while disguised as a farmer,” he said, gesturing to a man in blue and brown who was skulking slowly toward the rear of the pit and the stairs leading up to the gallery. “Given that he seems to be quite new at this, I'm confident that the victim's men-at-arms will thwart the attempt.”

John glanced over at the nobles in the packed galleries, which were even more crowded due to the imposing-looking men that were clearly ignoring the play so as to keep an eye on their surroundings. John felt a sudden cold feeling in his stomach.

“What if the victim left his man-at-arms with the carriage?”

“Who would be so stupid as—“ began Master Sherlock, and his mouth snapped shut as he grasped John's implication. “Don't be ridiculous. Who would wish to assassinate me?”

John managed to bite back a tart comment about most of the members of his brother's household, but instead gestured to the sword at Master Sherlock's hip. “Do you know how to use that thing?”

“Of course I do. But all of this is unnecessary, and disruptive to my work.”

“If you say so, Master Sherlock.”

“Ugh, don't call me that. It makes you sound like a servant. An insolent one, at that.”

“I am a servant,” said John.

Master Sherlock waved his hand. “Irrelevant. But if I were an assassin, I should strike at the end of the clown's final song, during the din of applause, and then make my escape among the withdrawing crowd.”

“Sounds reasonable,” said John, quietly slipping to the other side of the curtain. He didn't need to be told that Master Sherlock would prefer to have the man taken alive, so when his eyes had adjusted to the dimness of the store-room, he seized the heftiest of the brass candlesticks on a shelf along the back wall and secreted himself just inside the door behind a giant iron candelabra that was partially covered with a dust cloth.

He could make out the sound of a tabor and raucous singing voice, which was met with roars of approval from below. He tightened his knuckles around the candlestick and pressed his back against the wall.

He hadn't long to wait.

The door opened with a low creak, and the man in farmer's garb stepped into the storeroom with quick and silent tread. Master Sherlock chose this moment to give one of his spectacular rattling coughs, thus giving the assassin the opportunity to close the door behind him, which he did. He stood there against the door for several long seconds, presumably to let his eyes adjust to the dark and to listen for signs that his entrance had been marked. John could hear his quick, shallow breaths.

Finally, confident that he hadn't been noticed, he withdrew a wicked-looking dagger from a sheath hidden in his sleeve and began to creep towards the curtain that concealed Master Sherlock. Once thus positioned, he put his eye up to an opening in the curtain to see how best to strike his victim.

John took advantage of the man's pause to step forward quickly and strike the man sharply between the shoulder blades. He let out a loud cry as his dagger clattered to the ground, and John kicked it away. Master Sherlock flung open the curtains, temporarily blinding both John and the assassin.

“Now, villain!” shouted Sherlock. “I have you on the hip!”

By the time the John could see once more, he found the assassin staring down the blade of Master Sherlock's sword.

“Bind him,” Master Sherlock ordered. “Then send for Bellows.”

“Verily,” said John, relieved that his master had things well in hand. There was a quantity of golden cord coiled on a nearby table, which John used to truss the man up like a Christmas goose. When he opened the store-room door and found himself face to face with the saucy gatherer, who was slightly out of breath from running to find the source of the disruption. “Fetch Bellows, and a constable while you're at it,” said John, his voice calm. “This coward has made an attempt on my master's life.”

The man's face paled. “Has Master Sherlock been injured?”

“Not a bit,” said Master Sherlock, baring his teeth at the man in a fierce smile. As the late afternoon sunlight streamed over his master, John noted a bit colour in his cheeks, and for the first time he could see some family resemblance between Master Sherlock and his powerful elder brother.

The gatherer swallowed hard. “I'll see to it.”

“Have you anything you wish to say?” asked Master Sherlock, fixing his would-be-assassin with a cold glare.

The man, though pale and perspiring, shook his head defiantly and glared silently at his interlocutor.

“Interesting.” Master Sherlock raised his eyes to John's. “What do you make of him?”

“He's got on another set of clothes underneath,” said John. “In case you'd bled all over him. And he's probably got a horse outside, judging by the boots.”

“Very good, if obvious,” said Master Sherlock. “But hark! I hear Bellows's dainty footfalls on the stair.”

A moment later, the door burst open, and Bellows seized the assassin in his enormous hands. “Is this the false knave?” he asked.

“I am not!” shouted the assassin, speaking for the first time.

Bellows glanced at Master Sherlock. “He says he ain't.”

“That's because he's a liar as well as a villain,” said Master Sherlock. “See where his dagger lies on the floor, and he has another on his right arm.”

“Naughty fellow!” said Bellows, shaking the man forcefully. “You shall answer for your villainy!”

The gatherer, who had followed Bellows into the room, picked up the assassin's dagger. “Hold him fast, Master Bellows,” he said, placing the blade delicately on the railing. “Here's an adder's tooth, to be sure.”

To John's surprise, the blade of the knife was smeared with a whitish paste. Master Sherlock took the weapon and raised it to his face, sniffing delicately. His expression darkened.

“Sirrah,” said Master Sherlock to the gatherer, “remove the sheaths from this man's arms and sheathe this dagger carefully. You may be an ass, but I wouldn't wish a dog to come to harm by this poison.”

“Oh that all the world should hear me proclaimed thus by your lordship,” said the gatherer insouciantly, yet he did as Master Sherlock bid.

“We could have the magistrate write you down an ass, Willum,” said Bellows, chortling and forcing the assassin out the store-room door.

The gatherer snorted and followed Bellows out the door.

“Well,” said John, wiping his brow. “That was exciting.”

Master Sherlock was sitting in the golden throne once more, gazing out over the crowd with his chin resting on his fingertips. John sat down in his own chair and followed his gaze, but seeing nothing of interest, he rose and set himself to opening the curtains.

His master sat, unmoving.

John cleared his throat. “Master Sherlock- “

“I told you, don't call me that,” he said, snapping out of his reverie at last.

“What am I to call you?” asked John, who had known his share of nobles whose wanting to be friends lasted only as long as his usefulness to them. “Holmes?”

His master blinked in surprise. “Not that. 'Holmes' is my brother.”

“Well, I can't call you by your Christian name,” said John. “That'd hardly be proper.”

“May I address you by your Christian name?” asked Master Sherlock in an oddly formal way.

“You can call me Lady Bawdy Trullpunk and I'll answer to it,” said John.

Master Sherlock let out a huff of amusement. “I shall call you John, and you shall call me Sherlock. Unless you go by Jack?”

“No, Jack was my father. But if I call you-” John paused- “by your Christian name, the servants will talk.”

“What will they say? That I have bestowed an unusual honour on the man who saved my life not three hours after meeting me? Let them. Come, John. You sailed around the world. Surely you have the stomach to call a man as he bids you.”

“Very well,” said John. “But I will not abuse the privilege.”

Sherlock gave him a small smile. “I don't expect that you will. Come, John. Lestrade will be waiting.”

From the sudden hush that fell on the dining hall when his master entered it, John concluded that Sherlock didn't often join the household for meals. This suspicion was confirmed when the gentlemen attending Lord Holmes flew into something of a refined tizzy setting a place for Sherlock at his brother's right hand. Lord Holmes made no expression of surprise, he merely gestured for the ewer to assist his brother in washing his hands.

For his part, John joined the lower table, taking no small amount of pleasure in the stunned look on Anders's face.

The food, particularly compared to shipboard fare, was delicious. Fresh bread, good cheese and ale, and roasted vegetables that reminded him of his mother's. John ate with excellent appetite, and was pleased to see his master devour the small portion of the joint that had been laid on his trencher.

Lestrade, who sat across the table from John, raised his eyebrows. “Master Sherlock enjoyed the play, I take it?”

“I think he was pleasantly surprised,” said John.

At the end of the meal, John heard a soft voice in his ear.

“Lord Holmes wishes to speak with you,” said one of the serving gentlemen from the high table.

John wiped his face on his sleeve and followed the young man to his lordship's office, which felt much smaller and uncomfortably intimate when lit only with candles.

This time, John strongly suspected that Lord Holmes's attention to the papers on his desk was counterfeit, intended to establish his precedence. Unnecessary, given that Lord Holmes paid his salary. The itchy feeling the man evinced was even stronger than it had been before.

Finally, his lordship looked up from his papers. “I'm told you had an unwelcome visitor to your room at the theatre.”

“Yes, my lord,” said John, attempting to buy time as his mind was in a whirl, trying to understand why Lord Holmes was speaking to him instead of Sherlock.

“Pray, what did my brother have to say about it?”

“Not much, my lord. Merely that he was certainly not the farmer he resembled and that he had a horse.”

“What sort of horse?”

“A handsome bayclere, though deserving a better owner, or so Lestrade said,” said John.

Lord Holmes blinked, though in response to what, John didn't know.

“Describe your part in the matter.”

John did so haltingly, taking care to include only facts and not his opinions or observations. As much as he wished to speak to Lord Holmes freely, it wasn't unheard of for nobles to have blood relatives killed for some obscure rule of succession, no matter how solicitous of his brother he appeared to be.

When he had finished his account, Lord Holmes nodded.

“Doctor Watson, I thank you for the part you played in saving my brother's life. I would like very much to keep him out of harm's way, and would like to know I can count on you.”

“Of course you can,” said John, frowning.

“Then you would be willing to accept, say, an extra half-crown a month in exchange for intelligence of a more detailed nature about my brother's state of mind?”

“My lord, no,” said John. “Not that I wish to refuse your lordship anything, but I am a simple man. From what I have seen of your lordship and Master Sherlock, you would do far better to speak with him directly than to rely on my unreliable recollections. I do not desire responsibility for reports on which my master's life could depend.”

Lord Holmes looked at him sharply, and John prayed that his misdirection was credible. He could feel Lord Holmes's gaze sweep the length of his body and did his best not to fidget.

“So loyal so quickly,” murmured Lord Holmes in such a low voice that John wasn't certain he'd heard him correctly. “Thank you, Watson,” he said, nodding in dismissal.

John bowed, bewildered, and mounted the stairs up to his master's room. He found Sherlock at his writing desk, surrounded by candles.

“Did my brother offer you money to spy on me?” he asked without looking up from his work.

“He did. Half a crown each month.”

“Did you take it?”

“Of course not,” said John.

Sherlock sighed. “More's the pity. We might have shared the bounty. My allowance is barely sufficient to keep me in paper, quills, and ink.”

“I'll remember that the next time one of your enemies offers me money for intelligence,” said John.

“You see Mycroft as my enemy?” asked Sherlock mildly.

“Well, I did notice that he hasn't spoken to you about what happened, nor did you seek him out,” said John, feeling slightly wrong-footed. “And, well, we don't know who hired the assassin yet, do we?”

“For all his faults, Mycroft hasn't the stomach for such tactics,” said Sherlock. “Pride is his greatest sin, not wrath or envy.”

“That's good to know,” said John, shivering. The evening chill was seeping in through the room's numerous windows. “Is there anything you require before I withdraw?”

“Bread and butter, and some of Mrs. Hudson’s dark ale” said Sherlock. “I find my strength returning, and I wish it to stay until I finish writing today's observations.”

“I'll see to it,” said John, unfolding a blanket from the foot of the bed and wrapping it around his master's shoulders.

Sherlock didn't look up from his work, but he pulled the blanket tightly around himself as John withdrew.

Chapter Text

After grumbling that she was not a cook and dispatching a page with bread, ale, and a bit of cheese to Sherlock, Mrs. Hudson, the formidable head housekeeper, patted John on the shoulder and escorted him to the outbuilding where he and the other men were lodged.

“Yours is the one with the green wool blanket,” she said, pressing a warm mince pie into his hand. “You're next to Mister Lestrade.”

“My thanks, Mrs. Hudson,” said John, smiling.

“Doctor Watson,” she said, after a moment's pause. “If you don't mind my saying so, I haven't seen Master Sherlock looking so well in months.

“Why would I mind?” asked John, smiling.

“It's just that...” she trailed off. “What I mean to ask is, did you give him any medicine today?”

John frowned. “No. Ought I to have done?”

Mrs. Hudson nodded, as though John had confirmed something she knew already. “Clearly not,” she said. “Lord Holmes won't have anybody say a word against his physician, not since he saved his daughter from the ague, but...” she trailed off again, miserably.

From the state Sherlock had been in that morning, John was inclined to agree that he was better off without the physician's art, but he was slightly stung, professionally. “I'm certain the doctor has Master Sherlock's best interests at heart.”

Mrs. Hudson nodded, even while wringing the corner of her apron. “I'm sure he has, I'm sure he has.”

As John settled into the room to the sound of the other men’s snores, he mulled over the events of the day, from Lord Holmes to Sally and Mrs. Hudson. It wasn't until he was drifting off to sleep that he realised that the pallet next to his was empty.

The next morning dawned cool and misty, and John was profoundly grateful for the warm bread and hearty beer with which he broke his fast. He climbed the stairs to the solarium, where he relieved the young man who had been stationed outside Sherlock's chamber and bade him bring bread and ale.

When he had gone, John quietly opened the door and glanced into the room. To his surprise, Sherlock was still seated at his desk, still wrapped in the blanket John had given him.

“Have you been awake all night?” asked John.

“Of course,” said Sherlock. “I had much to write.” He attempted to stand but his legs buckled, and John seized his arm and hoisted him up over his shoulder.

“That's enough of that,” said John. “You're going to eat something, and then you're going to sleep.”

“Nonsense,” said Sherlock, yawning. “I'm not at all tired.”

“We shall see,” said John, seating him on the edge of the bed. He poked at the embers and added wood to the fireplace, since clearly the servants hadn't wished to disturb Master Sherlock by feeding his fire.

Once his master was fed and snoring, John set himself to straightening the room without waking him. He couldn't read a word of Sherlock's writing, of course, but he knew to replace the lid on the ink horn and he unearthed several articles of clothing, which he folded up and piled on the chair by the desk. The various instruments he left where they had been placed, though he brushed the dust off a few strange objects, removed any books or papers stacked beneath them, and sorted the papers into piles on the desk.

Slowly but surely, furniture and orderly stacks emerged from the chaos. John made a mental note to request more bookshelves for the room from Stamford. He was about to add more fuel to the fire when he caught a sight of a dark shape out of the corner of his eye.

He turned to look and had to choke back a shout of alarm.

The apparition that stood before him wore black from hat to boot and had the face of an enormous bird, which stared glassily at him through brass-rimmed eyes. As John took in the black gown and leather gloves, he knew who stood before him even before the strange voice came echoing from inside the grotesque mask: this was the Holmes family's personal physician.

“What is my patient doing abed at this late hour?” he said in a sing-song voice that most doctors reserved for reluctant children.

“He's been up all night writing,” said John quietly. “He's only just got to sleep. You must be the doctor. I'm Watson, Master Sherlock's new assistant.”

The doctor stared at him in a way that John knew was calculated to insult. “If it pleases you,” John said, keeping a handle on his temper, “I was ship's doctor under Sir Francis Drake and have knowledge of physic. If you have medicine for him or any basic treatment, I would be happy to administer it.”

“You have let a dangerously weak patient over-exert himself and then allowed him to breathe in the foul night air, unprotected,” said the doctor, with more than a hint of steel in his oddly lilting voice. “One can only imagine why I would prefer to treat my patient myself.”

“Has he the plague that you visit him thus attired?” asked John, not bothering to disguise his scorn any longer. “Or perhaps you seek to peck the sickness out of him.”

There was a snort from the bed that John suspected was a laugh, but it was followed by a snore loud enough to fool the doctor into thinking him still asleep.

“A pig would have greater understanding of true medicine than a man with neither letters nor learning,” said the physician. “You must wake him from this unwholesome torpor. He must be bled before he breaks his fast.”

“He has already broken fast,” said John. “And he ate regularly through the night.”

“It is as I feared,” said the physician. “A ravenous appetite suggests that he is growing worse.”

John frowned. He'd never heard of a good appetite being a sign of ill health. Quite the contrary, in fact.

“Master Sherlock's ailment is of a peculiar kind,” said the physician, speaking to John. “When he is bled, he is temporarily weakened from the imbalance of blood and yellow bile, but it is the only way to keep him from running mad. Since I cannot bleed him this morning, he must sleep according to his custom and not eat until he has been treated. Surely even you can remember those instructions.”

John bowed to the physician, though his eyes never left the eyes that he fancied he could see glinting maliciously behind the mask's glass eyes.

“And see that he takes a spoonful of this medicine every two hours upon waking,” he said, withdrawing a bottle of powder from within the folds of his gown.

John accepted the bottle and placed it on Sherlock's bedside table.

The physician regarded him with his head cocked to the side, an appropriately birdlike gesture, and John realised that he'd positioned himself directly between Sherlock and the physician.

“Tell Master Sherlock I will see him tomorrow,” he said at last. “There will be no need for you to be there.”

“I understand,” said John, who did not move to see the man out, nor did he move until the man's tread faded as he descended the stairs.

“That was perhaps the most entertaining visit I have ever had from Doctor Moriarty,” came Sherlock's voice from behind John. “I should accuse you of having taken lessons in insolence from William at the theatre if I couldn't tell from the straw stuck to the edge of your shoe that you spent the night with the men-at-arms near the stables.”

“With most of them, anyway,” said John.

Sherlock gave him a quick look. “Ah. You mean Lestrade. There is no reason why you ought not know. He sleeps in my brother's chambers.”

“Mrs. Hudson seemed to believe that he sleeps in our room.”

“That is where he would sleep if Lady Holmes were in residence. As she is not, Lestrade is my brother's bedfellow.”

“Ah,” said John, as comprehension dawned. He knew all too well how men at sea passed the lonely months, but it seemed somewhat unusual for Lord Holmes to take his master of the horse to bed instead of a mistress. But the Holmeses were nothing, it seemed, if not unusual. And he supposed Lestrade was handsome enough, and Lord Holmes wasn't the only one who thought so. “Poor Sally,” he said at last.

Sherlock smirked. “Waste no sympathy on her,” he said. “While she pines for an unattainable man above her station, she has mocked at least five decent fellows stupid enough to ask for her hand out of suit. Their ears must have burned for weeks.”

Sherlock seized the bottle of medicine from his bedstand, pulled open the stopper, and tossed a measure of it into the fire. The fire flared pink, and the air was filled with the odour of burned garlic.

John began to cough and threw open the window to clear the air.

“Interesting reaction,” said Sherlock, joining him at the window, “though not unexpected. Come, John. I must dress.”

“You must sleep,” said John. “Unless you're planning to follow that charlatan's orders.”

“Of course not,” said Sherlock, “but it's imperative that I seem to do so. Besides, I spy two men, actors by trade, on the street below, and as they can have no business with my brother, I believe they mean to call on me.”

“What business would actors have with you?”

“I cannot begin to guess,” said Sherlock. “My green doublet with gold buttons today,” he said. “And the grey hose, I think. And the hat from yesterday.”

Fortunately, it took less time for John to wash and clothe Sherlock and move a pair of recently unearthed chairs into a semblance of a sitting area than it took for the actors to muster their courage and bluster their way into the house.

“Masters Hoddleston and Wishart,” announced the footman who opened the door to the solarium.

John instantly recognised both men from the cast of yesterday's comedy. Master Hoddleston was uncommonly tall and delicate of face, with expressive blue eyes and a head of reddish-blond curls. He had a rather pretty singing voice, if John recalled correctly. Fitting, as the man had played the goddess of love.

Master Wishart, yesterday's queen Sapho, was smaller, darker of hair and lighter of build than his companion, but he moved with precision and confidence that belied his years, and his aspect was so much changed from what he had presented on stage that John marvelled at the difference.

Both men doffed their caps and bowed in unison.

“Good day to you, masters,” said Hoddleston.

“And God grant you joy,” said Wishart.

Sherlock studied them both with a cool eye for just long enough for Wishart to clear his throat. John hid a smile. Of course an actor would be uncomfortable with silence.

“I am Sherlock Holmes, and this is my assistant Doctor Watson. What business have you with me?”

Hoddleston's eyebrows rose fractionally at hearing John's honorific, but was firm of purpose. “We heard what transpired at The Theatre yesterday, and we were shocked and dismayed that you were accosted thus.”

“No harm was done,” said Sherlock, waving his hand dismissively. “I sincerely hope Burbage hasn't sent you all this way to apologise for it.”

“Master Burbage doesn't know we're here,” said Wishart, “and, with your lordship's help, he won't know we've come, for what we wish to speak with you about concerns him.”

Sherlock sat and gestured for his guests to follow suit. “Continue.”

“As you know, Master Wishart and I are actors with Leicester's Men,” said Hoddleston. “As we are young and of a particular aspect, it falls upon us to play the parts of ladies.”

“And very well, too,” said John.

Hoddleston bowed his head. “It is kind of you to say so. However, Master Wishart and I are reaching the age at which we had hoped to begin playing kings and not their consorts, yet there few in our company who are being trained to replace us.”

“To what do you credit that?” asked Sherlock.

“Uncertainty about the lease, I should think,” said Wishart. “The ground The Theatre stands on belongs to a Puritan named Allen who does not look kindly on our profession.”

“To be fair, there are few who do,” said Hoddleston. “The current Mr. Burbage's father ensured that Allen could not meddle in our affairs until the lease expires, but Allen swears he will be rid of us. Even if he is unable to, it is not yet known if we shall have a new theatre, and if so, where.”

Wishart sighed. “Is it any wonder then, that the company is training fewer young boys, since it is uncertain if we shall be able to support a large company in the future?”

“This brings us to the part we ask you to play,” said Hoddleston. “As men who do not own a share of the company, we have not the position to demand that we be allowed the natural progression into male roles, nor have we the knowledge or means to find the company a new theatre.”

“What we mean to do,” said Wishart, “is establish the Leicester's Men as the finest troupe in London by staging bold new plays, thus earning us sufficient patronage to build a new theatre.”

“I suspect that is Burbage's strategy as well,” said Sherlock, sounding bored.

“Burbage sees no farther than his own roles and those for Mister Kempe,” said Wishart. “If there were but new plays with more roles for young men than simply lovers, he should be forced to rely on all of his experienced actors to fill the ranks.”

“Your meaning is obscure,” said Sherlock. “What is it that you wish me to do?”

The two men glanced at one another, and Wishart spoke. “We wish for you to provide us with plays.”

Sherlock let out a bark of laughter.

“Hear us out,” said Hoddleston, raising his hand to forestall additional comment. “We require someone with learning, which we know you to have, and your desk, piled high with papers, confirms you a prolific writer. We require someone with particular knowledge of the theatre, which we know you to have from the number of times you have graced us with your presence. And most of all, we require someone with special insight into humanity, which we know you to possess. There are not many men able to spot an assassin by his boots and prevent the ill work of his poisoned blades.”

As Hoddleston spoke, Sherlock's face became more and more incredulous. “What in all the world makes you think that those particular attributes will result in great plays?”

“Last year, The Admiral's Men performed a new tragedy called Tamburlaine, which was written by a learned young man called Marlowe,” said Wishart. “Though this play contained many elements common to the plays we present, the speeches, written in noble verse, are remarkable; complex and beautiful, far beyond anything I or my friend have heard on our shores. It did well enough with audience, though I daresay Master Alleyn could hold an audience in thrall whilst reading household accounts. But with a play even half as good as Marlowe's with meet parts for all, we would never want for audiences.”

“If you like Marlowe's plays so much, why not ask him to write you one?” asked John.

“Master Marlowe writes only for Alleyn's troop,” said Hoddleston.

“Besides,” said Sherlock, “Marlowe has other business interests besides writing plays.”

“Oh?” asked Wishart. “Do you know the gentleman?”

“I knew him at Cambridge,” said Sherlock, pursing his lips disapprovingly. “I'm pleased to hear he has other talents apart from currying favour with his betters and gaining second chances.”

“He has indeed!” said Hoddleston. “I hear that he has written Alleyn's troupe a play on the death of Edward II. What attracted Marlowe to that monarch will surely be understood when the play is performed, but what genius to choose one of England's own monarchs to be the hero of a play! This is why we need someone learned; someone who can sift great tragedies and triumphs from the sands of time.”

“With such turns of phrase, you could turn playwright,” said Sherlock.

Hoddleston shook his head. “Not I, my lord. I have not an artist's eye, for all that I can see my character's part in a work as easily as a church by day. And I do not have writing, though one of our company is teaching us to read.”

“Masters,” said Sherlock in a patronising tone, “I must tell you plainly-” he cut off abruptly as John cleared his throat loudly.

“I tell you plainly,” said Sherlock, giving John an impatient look, “that I am not the man you seek.”

“We will pay you,” said Wishart, his hand going to his purse. “We know the rate that others are paid for writing and will be willing to increase it twofold for such a play as we request.”

Sherlock sat back in his chair, his fingers steepled under his chin and fell silent. John caught the eye of one of the serving-gentlemen bringing refreshment, and he bade them enter.

“Who teaches you to read and write?” asked Sherlock suddenly.

“Will Shakespeare,” said Wishart.

“What's he?” asked Sherlock, frowning.

“He's a very hard worker,” said Hoddleston diplomatically.

“He's a tradesman from Stratford,” said Wishart. “Knows nothing about acting, but he's very keen to learn. He's teaching us all in exchange for the opportunity to learn our craft. He pulls his weight with near unbearable cheer.”

“Was he selling tickets yesterday?” asked John.

“The very man,” said Hoddleston. “Balding chap, pointed beard.”

“Has he the talent?” asked Sherlock.

“That's difficult to say,” said Wishart. “He took five minutes to die the first time we put him on stage, but the groundlings seemed to like it.”

“And the man has wit,” said Hoddleston, “though he has yet to learn that not all occasions warrant it.”

Sherlock nodded. “Gentlemen, I am engaged. You shall have your play. Expect to hear from me within a week as to when you may expect the manuscript.”

Both actors burst into grateful smiles.

“Thank you, sir, from the bottom of our hearts,” said Hoddleston, bowing deeply.

“Of course, should you ever have need of actors, we would be honoured to have you call on us,” said Wishart, presenting a well-turned leg.

“Thank you,” said Sherlock, with no irony John could detect. “I bid you both a good day.”

The delighted actors made their farewells, and a footman ushered them out of the room.

When they had gone, Sherlock poured himself a cup of ale and sat at his writing desk. He took a sheet of vellum, sprinkled it with pounce, and began to write with furious speed.

John busied himself returning the actors’ cups to the tray and eating one of Mrs. Hudson's excellent fruit tarts.

After a time, Sherlock picked up the sheet, waved it in the air to dry the ink, folded it, and handed it to John.

“Have someone run this to William Shakespeare at The Theatre.”

“Is the impertinent William to be England's next great playwright?” asked John, taking the letter.

“I have found that when one eliminates all other possibilities, the one that remains, no matter how unlikely, must be God's own truth,” said Sherlock, after a moment's pause. “Shakespeare found his way to our room in such a short time that he must have been following our assassin before he struck, which suggests that he knew the man had no good purpose. What's more, he observed the substance on the knife's blade and concluded its venomous nature. And you yourself observed that he was well aware of my disdain for the theatre he so loves. If Hoddleston is correct, then the man already possesses two of the most important features of a great writer of plays, namely knowledge of the theatre and an eye for human behaviour.”

“But what about the learning?” asked John. “Wishart said he was a tradesman's son.”

Sherlock waved his hand dismissively. “Learning can be easily come by, especially by one who can already read and write. The other two are much rarer attributes to find in a single man. But speak, John. You look troubled.”

“I don't understand why you're helping them at all,” said John. “You loathe plays and actors annoy you.”

Sherlock sat back in his seat and crossed his legs. “It's purely self-interest,” he said. “I see this as an opportunity to ensure that The Theatre will continue to be packed with prime specimens of humanity ripe for observing.”

“That cannot be your only reason,” said John.

"I also recalled something you said yesterday regarding Shakespeare, namely that you doubted I would be as accommodating to someone who disdained my work as I did his. When I think on it, my book owes the company a debt of gratitude. It would not be the comprehensive volume it is today were it not for the thousands who flock to see them strut and shout.”

John put his hand on his hip. “And?”

“That idle fellow has abused me beyond the endurance of a stone,” said Sherlock with a fierce smile. “It's time to return the favour. If it teaches him discipline, so much the better for his desire to be on stage. If it results in a play or two, so much the better for all of us.”

John sighed. “Best keep him away from Sally,” he said. “They'll tear the house apart if they ever cross words.”

Sherlock's smile thinned to a smirk. “I don't doubt it. We shall have Anders deal with him, then. And have someone fetch one of the maids from the Montague household down the street. I would have her do me a brief service.”

John fully expected Shakespeare to be late arriving the next morning, but he was surprised to find him covered in what appeared to be the contents of a chamber pot.

John banished any sign of amusement from his face at the thorough job the Montague's maid had done as he approached the knot of servants attempting to bar Shakespeare from befouling Lord Holmes's threshhold.

“What's this coil?” asked John. “God's arms, Shakespeare, what happened to you?”

“London is a vile cess-pit that stinks to the north star!” said Shakespeare. “Some scoundrel has doused me with his night-dirt!”

“It happens now and again,” said John, leading Shakespeare to the stables, in accordance with Sherlock's plan. “Come along, let's get you cleaned up.”

The grooms snickered as John doused the actor with the coldest water they could find, and the wetter and colder he got, the more creatively abusive he became.

When Shakespeare's teeth began chattering, Anders, who looked entirely too pleased with himself, arrived with a pile of clean linen and stole away with the soiled garments before Shakespeare realised that instead of a man's shirt, the linen underlayer was a ladies' chemise.

“This is the final insult,” said Shakespeare, brandishing the offending garment at John.

John spread his hand out in front of him in a pacifying gesture. “I'll fetch you a shirt from the wardrobe.”

“Do not trouble yourself,” said Shakespeare, pulling on the chemise roughly. “'I shall appear before my master in the clothes he sent me to wear. T'will look quite fetching with the yellow stockings and russet doublet, don't you think?”

He stalked across the courtyard to the front entrance while the grooms hooted with laughter.

Fortunately, the sight of a foolishly dressed actor with dripping wet hair was sufficient to shock Sally into silence for a moment before she started to laugh. This made Shakespeare flush an even deeper red, and he turned to face John with a thunderous expression.

“Take me to him now,” he ordered shortly, and John led him up the servant's stair to the solarium.

They found Sherlock in his dressing gown tuning a lute.

“Master Shakespeare,” said Sherlock. “How good of you to come.”

“Give me my payment, thou base fellow,” said Shakespeare. “I have not come this way to be abused thus.”

Sherlock's eyes narrowed. “Here's sixpence for your trouble,” he said, tossing him a coin. “You may go.”

“What game do you play, villain?” asked Shakespeare, pulling himself up to his full height. “You call me thither me on an errand promising fame and riches, heap abuse upon me, and then send me off like a servant-lad with a few pennies in my pocket. Thou art a cockscomb and a liar and a scoundrel!”

“You forget your place, knave,” said Sherlock coldly. “I invited you to my home on the hour and you kept me waiting until nearly another hour had passed. You arrived looking like one from bedlam, and you spoke to me, an earl's brother, as you would one of your louse-ridden troupe. Consider yourself fortunate that I have not ordered you whipped and turned out into the street. There's fair payment. Take it and get out of my sight.”

“You dare treat a gentleman thus?” asked Shakespeare furiously. “Can you not even do me the courtesy of inventing a reason that I was fetched thither?”

“John, throw this rascal out into the street. And be sure to reclaim the house's clothes ere you do so.”

Shakespeare's face darkened. “Lay one hand on me, thou scabbed jackanapes, and I'll--” he cut off abruptly and made a choking sound. “Not that you have the option of laying two hands,” he said, gesturing at John's stump and letting out a guffaw.

John looked to Sherlock for further instruction, but Sherlock's eyes were on the absurd figure of their guest, who was doubled over laughing at his own joke.

“God's teeth, the man's a lunatic,” said Sherlock murmured.

“Masters, good masters,” said Shakespeare, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. “I fear I have let my temper get the better of me. Master Sherlock, I am truly sorry for the abuse I have rained down on you, for none of the day's comedy of errors can be laid at thy feet. I sit before you,” he said, lowering himself gracelessly to the floor, “your servant, your spaniel. Do with me what you will and let me know how I may best please thee.”

John was somewhat bewildered by this change in demeanour, but Sherlock appeared satisfied.

“You may occupy the floor as long as it pleases you,” he said. “Though what I would have you do would be most readily accomplished whilst seated at the desk.”

“Thank you, master,” said Shakespeare, rising and bowing with a ghost of his old cheek. He settled himself in the chair and fixed Sherlock in his expectant gaze.

“Now, answer me this,” said Sherlock, rising and gazing out the window. “You obtained your learning from your father's position, bailiff, probably, given your height, or possibly alderman. Like most educated in Stratford, you have Latin, Greek, oratory, philosophy, and the Bible by rote. But what twist of fate has brought an educated man with a good, honest trade to the theatre, especially one with a wife and children to support?”

“Simply, I have not a businessman's disposition,” said Shakespeare. “My bonny Anne knew when she agreed to be my wife that I speak all mirth and no matter, and she encourages me to do what pleases me. Besides, I am hardly destitute, even with an old skinflint like Burbage dividing the box. My family may have one of the finest houses in Stratford, but the fact remains that it is in the backwater of Stratford- our needs are not so great. Now, that is more than is of interest as to my past. What, pray, do you desire me to do for you?”

“I wish you to write one or more history plays in style and language surpassing that of Christopher Marlowe,” said Sherlock.

Shakespeare blinked in surprise. “I fear, good master, that you have taken me for a playwright,” he said at last.

“Furthermore,” Sherlock continued calmly, ignoring Shakespeare's protest, “This play is to have numerous complex roles for young men and will prominently feature an English king.”

Shakespeare glanced at John. “Is he in earnest?”

“Deadly,” said John in a mild voice.

“Is he mad?”

“If he is, there's method to it,” said John.

Shakespeare snorted. “You are aware, good masters, that I have no experience writing plays.”

“Oh?” asked Sherlock, pouncing.”What, pray, have you experience writing?”

Shakespeare looked exactly like a child who had been caught stealing sweetmeats. “I have been known to set things down in verse,” he said reluctantly. “The occasional song or sonnet. A mere handful of poems. Nothing of import.”

“By the light, the man writes in verse as well!” exclaimed Sherlock, turning a wild smile on John. “I knew that you must, from the ink stains I observed on your fingers two days hence. You, sir, are engaged, and do not insult my intelligence by refusing. Now, let me acquaint you with the source material.”

“You are in earnest,” said Shakespeare incredulously. “Have you any idea what you ask of me?”

“I ask you to combine the resources I provide with your natural gifts to match, if not surpass, the ill-gotten fruits of a petty crossbiter whose greatest talent is getting people to think well of him,” said Sherlock irritably. “Now, be so good as to don the black cloak and cap with simple trim that lie there on the table. We shall have a visitor presently, and I wish you to appear to him as a scribe. Provided you can resist the urge to caper about in your yellow stockings, he should be fooled.”

While Shakespeare put on Sherlock's garments, Sherlock gathered all of his papers and scattered them on the bed. “John, be so good as to fetch paper for Master Shakespeare, and the Holinshed from that bookshelf. That would be the two strapped volumes on the top shelf, the brown leather ones with brass bosses.”

The volumes were so large and heavy that John was only able to retrieve one at a time. He had no idea what or who Holinshed was, but the books were prodigiously handsome, with decorative patterns pressed into the leather and gold letters on the spine.

Shakespeare sat at the desk and ran his hand reverently over the cover of the first volume. “God's teeth,” he said softly.

“You may take as many notes as you wish and ask whatever you wish,” said Sherlock, “provided John and I are the only men with you. Otherwise, you are to be silent.”

“Even were I to never utter a sound, it will take me weeks to finish reading this,” said Shakespeare. “I have only a few hours liberty each day, and even fewer when I am called upon to tread the boards.”

“You needn't read all of it now,” said Sherlock impatiently. “Leave out Ireland and Scotland for the nonce, and any monarch whose tale cannot be told without putting you at risk of being beheaded.”

“A wise precaution, o my master,” said Shakespeare, unfastening the clasps and opening the first volume with such gentleness that the binding hardly creaked. John replenished the desk's supply of paper and placed it to Shakespeare's right, so that when he felt the need to record his thoughts, he could do so without dripping ink on the beautiful books. Shakespeare nodded silent thanks.

“Any moment now we shall hear our guest's footfalls on the stairs,” said Sherlock softly. “Keep your wits about you and hold your tongue, and all will be well.”

Sherlock set to putting his papers in order while John stoked the fire. They all heard the soft footfalls and pretended they didn't.

“Is this not a cosy scene?” drawled a voice from the corridor.

In the solarium doorway stood a slender man with thinning hair and tired eyes. He was expensively attired in grey velvet with blue samite trim, and he carried a leather case.

“Doctor Moriarty,” said Sherlock. “Thank you for coming again today.”

“I could never dream of doing otherwise,” said Moriarty in the disdainful, lilting tone that set John's teeth on edge. “Good day to you, Mister Watson. Has my patient been following my prescriptions?”

“I'm sure he could never dream of doing otherwise,” said John blandly.

Shakespeare said nothing, though a twitch of his shoulders indicated his amusement.

Sherlock cast off his doublet and rolled up the sleeve of his shirt. “I find myself of a melancholy disposition today.”

“Sit down, then,” said Moriarty, setting his case on the bed and pulling out a lancet at least as long as John's finger. “You have not broken fast?”

“I have not,” said Sherlock. John, of course, knew this to be false, since he himself had seen his master eat with all signs of excellent stomach.

“Excellent,” said Moriarty, tightening a leather strap around Sherlock's upper arm. “This won't hurt a bit,” he said, slicing Sherlock's forearm with a lancet.

Other than a barely audible intake of breath, Sherlock gave no outward sign of pain, and blood began to dribble from the cut into a small bowl that the doctor held under his arm.

John had witnessed his father perform bloodletting from his earliest years, and he himself had performed it on patients more timed than he could count. And yet, there was something wrong, something malign in the doctor's expression as he watched Sherlock's blood run into the bowl. There was nothing overtly incorrect about Moriarty's technique, though he had cut more deeply than John himself would have done, but he watched his master's blood drip and everything in him willed it to stop, or even return to his master's veins where he felt that it belonged.

“What ails you, Watson?' asked Sherlock.

John was slightly taken aback by being addressed by his surname, but he covered his surprise with a bow and played along. “All this talk of breaking fast has made me powerfully hungry. Have I permission to send for food and drink?” he asked, indicating Shakespeare with a jerk of his head.

“Master Sherlock is not to partake of the household's food,” said Moriarty. “He shall have nothing but good porridge with no meat, bread, vegetable, or butter until further notice until I am able to declare him cured.”

John could see curiosity in Shakespeare's eyes, but to John's relief, the man remembered Sherlock's admonition and remained silent.

“As you wish,” said John, giving the smallest bow to Moriarty that courtesy allowed. “Food for me and the scribe, then.”

After speaking with the footman who attended on Sherlock's chambers, John returned to the room. Moriarty's bowl was nearly full, and Sherlock's skin had begun to take on the pale, waxen character he had seen the first time he laid eyes on his master. It was clear to him that Moriarty had drawn entirely too much blood. John knew that Sherlock was putting on an easy disposition for the physician's sake, so he kept his silence, but he stood silently at the foot of the bed.

“I feel as though it were midday,” said Moriarty, glancing at John, “for you now have a shadow that is half a man, Master Sherlock.”

John stiffened, and even Sherlock's lips tightened in momentary anger, though his face soon relaxed.

“Watson has no respect for our methods, Master Doctor,” said Sherlock in a conspiratorial tone. “Yours he dismisses as mere theatre, and mine he dismisses as mere guess-work.”

Moriarty let out a shrill laugh that sent gooseflesh rippling down John's arms. “Such things are for learned men to understand,” he said, revealing small, sharp teeth in a smile that did not enliven his weary eyes. He turned to John. “See that a spoonful of the medicine goes into each serving of porridge. You can do that much, I trust.”

“Aye, and have done,” said John, feigning injured pride.

“Good,” said Moriarty, pressing a bandage to Sherlock's arm and unfastening the strap. “You should begin to improve in a day or so. I shall return in a week's time. If you should feel worse, send for me.”

“Thank you, doctor,” said Sherlock weakly, his eyes fluttering shut as though he were very weary.

Moriarty nodded at his patient and fixed John in a beady glare. “Mark me, sirrah,” he said to John, “if by your ill-considered actions you make him sicker, Lord Holmes shall know of it.”

John wanting nothing so much as to throw the statement back in his vile little face, but he remembered Sherlock's instructions, and held his tongue.

Moriarty blinked in surprise. “How well he's trained his new pet,” he said in a mocking tone. He carried the bowl of Sherlock's blood over to the corner and deliberately upended it into the chamber pot, splashing it on the wall and the floor.

John felt as though he was watching a cacodaemon at work, an evil thing taking pleasure in a black sacrament. He stood stock still, fist clenched, and said nothing.

Moriarty wiped his bloodstained hands on one of Sherlock's shirts that had been draped over a pile of books. “Farewell,” he said, singing the word as one would an amen.

When Moriarty had sauntered out of the room, John let out a breath he hadn't been aware he was holding and crossed himself for good measure. He never would have believed that the man's natural appearance would be even more terrifying than yesterday's masked apparition, and yet he was.

“God's bones,” breathed Shakespeare.

Sherlock opened his eyes. “Come, John,” he said, the appearance of frailty gone and determination in his eyes. “Help me to stand.”

“Not yet,” said John. “Let's get some food into you first. I thought he would bleed you dry.”

Sherlock huffed his irritation. “Surely you saw worse at sea,” he said.

“Aye,” said John, “but those men had foot-long wood splinters suck in them or missing limbs. I've not seen a man bled that much a-purpose that didn't weigh nineteen stone.”

“You fuss more than Mrs. Hudson,” said Sherlock grumpily.

John shook his head, recalling the warning the very woman had given him about Doctor Moriarty, and hoped she was the one who would select what food was to be brought up to the solarium.

Fortunately, that proved to be the case, because the food and drink that arrived was so generous that it had to be carried by three young men: bread, cheese, apples, meat pies with pastry as light as down, and Mrs. Hudson's particular speciality, a dark ale that eased John's worry. Sherlock sipped his ale, and colour began to return to his cheeks, and he even ate a bit of meat pie at John's urging.

Shakespeare did not need to be invited twice and ate heartily of the excellent fare. “I must be back at the theatre by mid-day,” he said, taking a loud bite of apple. “But now that I know the way, I shall return tomorrow morning, if it please you.”

“Here's an angel to carry you thither and back again tomorrow,” said Sherlock, tossing Shakespeare a gold coin.

“The angel need not be so arch,” said Shakespeare, smiling. “For I have at least an hour more for reading before I must depart. Today's play is a tragedy, and I shall die heroically at the end of the first act, which means that I shall not be expected to gather the crowd. Besides, I wish to appear onstage in my own person, not as a loose woman in yellow stockings disguised as a scribe.”

“John, see that Anders returns this man's clothes if they are clean and dry,” said Sherlock. “Otherwise, lend him something appropriate to die in.”

“Will you need to be attired for a swift stab in the back or a prolonged, five-minute death?” asked John.

Shakespeare grinned. “I am a man, and so I most desire the little death, but there are some spectacles that the world is unready to witness on stage.”

John huffed at the bawdy pun and would have relayed Sherlock's message to the footman had there been one in attendance. The lack was odd.

He was about to go downstairs to press one of Lord Holmes's men into service when Lord Holmes himself came striding down the hallway, letter in hand. He nodded at John and indicated that he should follow him back to the solarium.

Shakespeare didn't know his lordship, of course, but he stood at his entrance regardless.

John watched Lord Holmes take in Shakespeare's remarkable appearance and rolled his eyes heavenward before addressing his brother. Sherlock was studiously ignoring him.

“I have in this letter that Lady Holmes comes this day to London,” Lord Holmes said. “We are to make the house ready for her imminent arrival.”

John could have sworn that for a moment his master's face lit up with triumph, but he quickly concealed it with a petulant scowl. “God's spotted bottom,” swore Sherlock. “How long does she intend to say?”

“I know not,” said Lord Holmes, his expression grim. “But I do know this: whatever may have transpired in the past, my lady comes to London for your benefit and to give you succour in your time of need.”

Sherlock made a dismissive sound. “More likely Lady Hunter has a new gown that the woman wishes to have a London dressmaker copy.”

John was impressed that Lord Holmes continued speaking as though his brother hadn't said anything. “I have given you great freedom in the past to speak as you would out of deference to your sickly nature, and my lady has borne your insults and scorn beyond all endurance. But now that you are under Dr. Moriarty's care, I expect you to behave as a man, not as a spoilt child.”

John caught Shakespeare's eye, and they both began to make for the door as unobtrusively as possible.

“Stay, good fellows, I pray you,” said Sherlock. He beckoned them to his side and they helped him stand to face his brother. “Who might be your mother that you would address me thus?” he asked.

“I am your brother,” said Lord Holmes coldly, “and one who has shown you considerable forbearance.”

“And what should you do if I speak to the woman as befits her modesty?” asked Sherlock, his voice dropping scornfully.

“Should you with your final breath scorn her, I should curse your memory and leave your mortal coil as food for the ravens and kites. Have I made myself plain?”

“You need not take pains to make yourself plain, brother, for God has already done it for you,” said Sherlock.

“Watson,” said Lord Holmes, unruffled by his brother's vitriol. “I must charge you with another impossible task: that of hanging a civil tongue in my brother's head. The doctor has apprised me of his recommended course of physic, so I will insist that Sherlock take his meals with the household in order to see his compliance with mine own eyes. I would not ask a man with a physical impediment to serve at table, but I ask it of you starting at tomorrow's dinner, for I would not allow my brother to spoil my lady's arrival.”

“I do my lord this service with all my heart,” said John.

“Good,” said Lord Holmes. “Now, every man must help to move my brother and his possessions to the southeastern chamber downstairs, for my lady and her attendants will require the solarium for their needle-work.”

Sherlock sat up in bed. “There is not half the room downstairs that I require!” he hissed. “What of my books? My instruments?”

“Then I suggest you take with you only what you need for daily use,” said Lord Holmes with maddening calm. “There is room for a writing desk if you move the wardrobe to the store-room, and the window lets in excellent light in the morning.”

“That foul-breathed, sharp-tongued harpy shall set my work back weeks!” said Sherlock, baring his teeth. “Had I the strength, I should throw you down the stairs and your strumpet with you.”

Lord Holmes beckoned the footman who had reappeared in the corridor. “My brother will give you instruction as to what he wishes to take with him to his new chambers. And if he will not, make to throw it out the window. If he arrests you in your errand, then you may be certain that he wishes to keep it.”

“Lay one hand on my things and I will run you through,” said Sherlock, shaking off Shakespeare's arm, seizing his sword, and brandishing it at the servants.

“Watson, if it would please you and the jester to return my brother to his bed. He is unwell.”

Shakespeare, whose eyes were the size of saucers, made an outraged sound at being referred to as a jester, but he did as Lord Holmes bade him.

“If I may,” whispered John in Sherlock's ear, “perhaps we should retreat from this skirmish. There's no shame in withdrawing from combat when the enemy hath the advantage. We shall find more defensible ground.”

Sherlock let out a loud sigh and let the sword fall to the floor. “Very well. But I yield only under great persuasion. Be careful with that, you thrice-damned lout!” he shouted at a servant who had picked up a brass model of the heavens. “Leave me,” he said to John and Shakespeare. “I shall not have my men lift a finger to aid this miscarriage of justice.”

Shakespeare bowed. “I shall see thee on the morrow, good master.”

Sherlock waved him off with a languid gesture.

When they were out of earshot, Shakespeare began to laugh. “I have seen great plays from around the world, but Aristophanes could not have scripted a scene more diverting than the one the Holmes brothers have performed for our pleasure.”

“I knew that Master Sherlock and Lady Holmes were not good friends,” said John, leading him down the servant's stair, “ but she who told me so may have been understating the case.”

They found Mrs. Hudson ordering the maids and footmen about as a general sending troops into battle. After letting out a scandalised cry at Shakespeare's appearance, she waved them in the direction of the cupboard where the clothes for the house's servants were kept. Fortunately, Shakespeare had a good eye and was quick to select a shirt, with which he replaced the chemise, and stockings in a less lurid shade.

John and Shakespeare tiptoed across the newly-swept threshold and between the servants who were scrubbing the stone step clean into the courtyard.

“Tarry a little,” said Shakespeare, stopping John with an emphatic arm across his chest.

“What-- ?” began John, but he silenced himself when he followed Shakespeare's gaze across the courtyard to where Doctor Moriarty stood in conference with Guy de Lestrade.

“Come,” said Shakespeare. “Let us see what poison that spider dribbles into your man's ear.”

John made a show of waving Shakespeare off, and the two met on the far side of the stables, which provided them cover as they approached. Shakespeare pointed silently to the watering trough where he had been doused earlier, but John shook his head and gestured at his stump. It would be impossible for him to crawl quietly.

Shakespeare thought for a moment, then knelt. John did the same, and Shakespeare offered him his own shoulder to lean on as they shuffled along the length of the trough, avoiding the numerous piles of dung.

Fortunately, Lestrade chose this moment to raise his voice. “I swear that Lord Holmes will never know it from me. Is that not sufficient?”

“No, it is not,” said Moriarty. “I require his patience for a fortnight yet, and you must secure it.”

“I cannot do it.”

“You say you cannot do it, but I know you will not do it, which is not the choice a wise man would make, for the deed hath you coming and going.”

“I would that I'd never heard the name Euterpe,” said Lestrade.

“But you did, and she is gone to Elysium,” said Moriarty.

John huffed softly in surprise, and Shakespeare cocked an interrogative eyebrow at him. John motioned for him to hold his silence.

“And for that ill wind, my life is forfeit,” said Lestrade.

Moriarty laughed. “Prithee be not sad,” he said, “for you have rendered me something of greater use than your bond. Why should it not continue as it has been?”

“Because my master's brother is dying,” said Lestrade, his voice hard.

“He has been dying since his first breath,” said Moriarty. “Do not test my patience, Lestrade. A good word in your master's ear is a pittance that none but me would prize to the amount of your debt.”

“He sniffs out falsehood like a hound,” said Lestrade, “and to give you any good word in his presence should be a lie.”

“You needn't write sonnets in my praise,” said Moriarty, shortly. “And if you should even think to cross me, a lawyer of my employ shall press suit against you and demand the full measure of the bond. Have I your word?”

“You have,” said Lestrade with weary reluctance. “Now leave me. My lady arrives tonight, and there is much to be done.”

When Moriarty and Lestrade went their separate ways, Shakespeare tugged sharply on John's sleeve.

“Who is Euterpe?” asked Shakespeare quietly.

“She's one of Sir Humphrey Gilbert's fleet that was bound for the orient,” whispered John. “Lestrade must have borrowed money to invest in her.”

“And now the debt has come due with the ship lost at sea,” said Shakespeare, stroking his chin. “What deed does the scoundrel speak of?”

“I know not,” said John, “but if it's a legal document and Lestrade has a copy, it is likely to be found among his belongings, and his is the bed next to mine.”

“You are the most crooked upright man I have met, John Watson,” said Shakespeare appreciatively, rising and offering John his hand.

“Likewise,” said John, allowing Shakespeare to pull him to his feet.

Lestrade may have been excellent with horses, but he was woefully unskilled at hiding things. Shakespeare quickly found the infamous paper beneath his pillow.

“Well?” asked John, glancing nervously over his shoulder while Shakespeare read. “What does it say?”

“It says that Lestrade is either illiterate or powerfully stupid,” said Shakespeare. “See, here he agrees that if the ship is lost, he shall not repay the debt with money.”

“That sounds like a good contract to me,” said John.

“He is to repay the debt with his very flesh,” said Shakespeare, making a sign against evil on his chest. “To be cut off from whatever part it please the debt-holder.”

“And now we know why Lord Holmes will hear no word against the learned doctor,” said John. “His own right hand is tied to keep from acting in his own defence.”

To John's surprise, Lady Holmes was not only surpassing fair, but also sweet of manner and as far as he could determine, demure. Had he not seen Sherlock’s skill catch an assassin and read his own past from mere observation, John should have thought his master a knave to think ill of the agreeable lady who examined the house with every appearance of delight and whose blue eyes did not linger on his stump.

“You must be Doctor Watson,” she said, giving him a winsome smile.

“Yes, your ladyship,” said John, bowing.

“My husband tells me that you have proved yourself adept at a task that neither he nor I have been able to accomplish, and for this, you have our earnest thanks.”

“It's my pleasure, your ladyship.”

Her brittle laugh broke the spell her beauty had cast over John. “That is the first time I have heard my brother's company described thus,” she said, giving him a smile that now seemed too thin for her face.

Rather than respond with any words that might reveal his dislike, he bowed deeply and watched her glide down the rank of servants who were turned out for her appraisal. Her words were honeyed, and yet there was something like shattered glass in her voice.

She did not remark upon Sherlock's absence within John's earshot. When the men and women of the house were once more at liberty, Lady Holmes's maids swept forward to inspect the house's readiness to receive her.

John's feet carried him to his master's new chambers, where he found Sherlock gnawing on what appeared to be a boar's shank.

“You have beheld the witch,” he said, swallowing. “How did you find her?”

"Her outsides are charming,” said John. “Where did your brother discover such a jewel?”

“He didn't. Our father did,” said Sherlock. “Rutland is not rich, but fortunately, there are merchants' daughters enough who are and desire to be the wife of an earl. Don't look at me that way, John. I wouldn't give a fig were she a milkmaid, provided she were a good wife to my brother. But she is the worst kind of striving jade: one who has received more than her share, yet she hungers for what she does not yet have.”

John nodded his agreement. “As I am to serve you at dinner of the porridge that Moriarty has prescribed, I think it only fair to tell you that I do not trust that man and I fear that his primary concern is not to heal you.”

Sherlock looked up from his repast with a surprised look. “Of course it isn't. He's trying to kill me, and in increasingly reckless ways. Is this why you look as though you had a toothache?”

John blinked in surprise. “Then I suppose you know that he forces Lestrade's silence by means of a contract that would deprive him of his own flesh were it to be pressed in a court of law?”

Sherlock chewed thoughtfully for a moment. “I did not,” he said, setting down the shank and blotting his mouth with his sleeve. “But I am glad to hear it, for I had thought Lestrade my brother's friend. Now I know him to be stoutly so, if overly credulous. Ah,” he said, holding up a hand for silence. “The foot on the stair I am less glad to hear,” he said, quickly hiding the trencher and bones beneath the bed.

He leapt to his feet and plunged his hands into the basin of water on the wash stand and splashed a bit on his face. Having accomplished this, he tore back the bedclothes and leapt into bed, artfully tangling himself in his bedclothes.

Sensing the part he was to play in the ruse, John took the cloth on the wash stand and doused it with the water, which was quite cold, and laid it across his master's forehead.

There was a knock at the door, and Lady Holmes opened it without waiting for a response. John could feel her eyes take in the scene they presented, and because he was listening for it, he heard her satisfied hum.

Sherlock opened his eyes and made a feeble gesture towards her.

“Watson,” he croaked, “Methinks I see an angel.”

“Not an angel,” she said, laughing. “Merely your sad sister.”

“Why sad?” asked Sherlock, his hand dropping to his side as though raising it had tired him.

“My brother is unwell,” she said, walking to his bedside and covering his hand with hers. “I should not that it were so.”

Upon close examination, John could see the gleam in her eye as she felt the coldness of his hand and observed the water beaded on his brow.

“Fear not,” said Sherlock, bringing his other hand to lie atop hers. “For I am being well cared for. It is not every man that can boast he has two doctors.”

“Shall we see Doctor Moriarty soon?” she asked. “Little Mary asks after him.”

“Mary?” asked Sherlock.

“Yes, Sherlock,” she said, irritation flaring. “My daughter and your brother's, the child whose life Moriarty saved last year.”

“Moriarty and Mary and Irene,” sang Sherlock, in an imitation of Moriarty's cadence of speech.

“Yes, Sherlock, it's Irene,” she said. “You do know me?”

“Of course,” said Sherlock, his eyes fluttering closed. “You are the queen. Long live her majesty.”

Lady Holmes pulled her hand from Sherlock's and looked at John.

“How long has he been thus?” she asked.

“Since the doctor's visit earlier today,” said John. “I've given him his medicine, but it doesn't seem to help.”

She nodded, her expression demure, but her eyes alight. “God may yet answer our prayers,” she said, moving to the doorway. “Fare thee well, brother.”

John suppressed a shudder and closed the door after her. When he turned to face Sherlock, he found the man wiping the water from his face and smiling.

“Well, John?” he asked. “The trap has been well set, don't you think?”

“Do you mean to catch her?”

“And the good doctor as well,” said Sherlock, handing John a folded piece of paper and half a crown. “When you have dined, go to St. Andrew Undershaft on Leadenhall Street and give this list to the man you shall find in the garden. Conceal the items well on your person and bring them to me.”

John was about to ask for more information about his part in Sherlock's plan, but there was a hesitant knock at the door.

“Enter,” said Sherlock, pulling the trencher from beneath his bed.

To John's surprise, Mrs. Hudson stood in the doorway looking out of place but no less firm.

“Next time, let Doctor Watson bear thy food to thee,” scolded Mrs. Hudson, taking the trencher. “I am not thy servant to be ordered about, debt or no debt.”

To John's surprise, Sherlock pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Dear lady, you have repaid me a thousand times with your steadfast kindness. It is I who now stand in your debt.”

She blushed prettily. “Say no more on it, Master Sherlock. I must return to the kitchen, and you must hie thee to the dining hall, doctor.”

John gave Sherlock a brief nod and followed Mrs. Hudson down the servant's stair.

“What debt do you owe Master Sherlock?” asked John.

“He saved my life, that one,” said Mrs. Hudson. “When black death came to Rutland under the previous earl, that would be the father of the current Lord Holmes and Master Sherlock, a group of Puritan tenants claimed it was punishment for the family's idolatry. When sickness carried off the earl's third son, the poor lad, they started a lot of foolish talk, and my husband, devout as he was, got wrapped up in it. The earl's knights put them down before any damage was done, of course, but I'd have been hanged alongside my husband if Master Sherlock, who was not yet ten years of age, hadn't said that my fingertips showed I was no part of the plot and bade his father order me to open the pouch on my belt.”

“What was in it?”

“My rosary,” said Mrs. Hudson, smiling as she pulled a handsome string of faceted glass beads from within her partlet. “I said my prayers on it every night when the lamps were out, so George never knew I was a Catholic. But Master Sherlock did, having never set eyes on me before that day. So you see, there's nothing I wouldn't do for him.”

John nodded, unable to think of any words to respond to this extraordinary tale, other than to bow deeply to the old lady.

“Stop that,” she said, knocking him about the ear with a dish cloth. “You've already saved his life once, and those of us who are faithful to him won't forget. Especially Lord Holmes, if I may be so bold. Now, get thee to the great hall!”

As John ate, he glanced at all the members of the household, wondering whose loyalties were to whom. Poor Lestrade looked grey in the face and did little more than push his food around his trencher with a bit of bread, and several of the serving-men who had done many duties in preparation for Lady Holmes's arrival nearly swayed with exhaustion.

The earl himself clearly doted on his beautiful wife, and made poor Anders leap to every anticipated whim. The lady herself was also taking the measure of each person in the room, and John managed a lovesick smile when her eye fell on him. It might not have passed muster at close range, but she quickly shifted her gaze away from him, and John was left to think on his master and the piece of paper in his pouch.

Walking the streets at night in London was a dangerous proposition, and John was profoundly grateful that Lestrade caught him strapping on a rapier and insisted on saddling a wholly unremarkable-looking cob with dappled hindquarters for him.

As Lestrade helped him to mount, his hand fell upon the crossbow that John had hidden beneath his cloak. John nodded his permission for Lestrade to shift the cloak aside and Lestrade whistled as he beheld its gleaming works.

“Can you fire it with one hand?” he asked.

“Sir Francis gave it me for that express purpose,” said John, drawing the crossbow with practised speed. “See, I need but depress this trigger.”

“I do not envy any thief who should steal upon you thus armed,” said Lestrade as he tightened the girth and adjusted the length of John's stirrups.

“Those of us with only one arm must be doubly so,” said John, grinning as he returned the crossbow to its hiding place.

Lestrade returned his smile as he tapped the horse's flank and set John trotting out into the street.

The night was cold, and John followed Watling Street to where it met Lombard, the cobbles ringing dully under his horse's hooves. There were more people than John expected to see walking the streets, many visiting taverns and seeking company for the night. Those on horseback wore guarded expressions, as did those driving carriages, and John made his way to Leadenhall unaccosted, without speaking a word to anyone. Thankfully, there was a streetlight opposite the church, and he had no trouble finding a hitching post for his horse or the gate to the garden alongside the church.

When his eyes had adjusted to the shady darkness, John was able to make out the shape of a man bent over a bed of herbs.

“Good eve, friend!” said the man cheerfully. “What service may I render thee?”

“I bear a letter from my master,” said John.

There was a flash of light as the man lit a lantern and approached. He wore the skullcap and rough cassock of a religious order, and his beard was grizzled. John handed him Sherlock's missive, and the friar bent close to the lantern as he read it. His expression darkened. “Do you know what your master asks of me?”

“No,” said John.

“He asks me to create a vile poison.”

John blinked in surprise. “Is it so dangerous?”

“One who would partake of both blessed thistle and milk thistle should find himself in terrible distress,” said the friar. “And with the addition of mistletoe, he shall then fall into a deathlike sleep from which he might never recover.”

John scowled as the unknown parts of Sherlock's plan fell into place. He wished for Moriarty and Lady Holmes to think him dead of poison, and his stratagem was to poison himself.

“Could this potion not be taken to give the appearance of death?” asked John.

“It would have to be measured to the very grain.” The friar sighed. “If I knew not this hand,” he said, waving the paper at John, “I should not prepare this mixture. But your master hath done me good service, and I trust his judgment.”

John followed him to a small shed in the corner of the garden. The friar pushed open the wooden door and welcomed John into a small room whose ceiling was filled with bunches of drying herbs and whose walls were lined with shelves containing jars and bottles of mysterious substances.

“Good brother,” said John, unsure of how to address the holy man, “I thank you for your pains.”

“I am called Lawrence,” he said, “and I am your master's friend. This recipe bears ill tidings, for I know he would not ask it were it not for his own use.”

John nodded.

Friar Lawrence nodded his head in prayer for a moment and began to throw ingredients into his mortar. “The thistles,” he muttered to himself. “Lobelia, I think, and burdock- no! Yellow dock and dandelion root. And charcoal, sure, to draw off the worst.”

He hummed tunelessly as he worked, and after a few minutes work, he poured a grey powder into a brown paper bag, upon which he wrote several words before rolling it into a cylinder and tying with string.

“Tell your master that he must follow the measurements precisely, or he should risk his very life,” he said, handing the cylinder to John.

John held out the money that Sherlock had given him, but the friar waved it away. “Save it to put in your master's mouth for St. Peter,” he said. “Should such a toll be unnecessary, I shall accept it with thanks.”

It was with a heavy heart that John bade the friar a good night and rode back through the squalid city streets.
He found Sherlock in his chamber scribbling on a sheet of paper. His master did not acknowledge his knock, nor did he speak when John placed the cylinder on his desk.

“What is it you write?” asked John.

“My last will and testament, of course,” said Sherlock, not looking up. “I have stipulated that Lady Holmes wear a horrid memento mori for me for all her days, and my brother will hold her to it,” he said with relish.

John said nothing.

“I have not much by way of possessions,” said Sherlock, “but my finer clothes I shall leave to Anders, for he is one of the few men in the household who would take pleasure in them. My sword I leave to Lestrade, for the love he gives my brother. And my instruments and writings to Queen's College. I should like to leave Moriarty a gold sovereign located somewhere on my person, but given the necessary effects of Friar Lawrence's herbs, I should be hard pressed to keep it where I should most like to secret it.

“Sherlock,” said John, speaking aloud his master's name for the first time.

John was gratified to see his master's hand still. He looked up from his writing and fixed his pale eyes on John and waited for him to speak.

“Do you wish to die?” asked John.

“Of course I do not wish it,” said Sherlock. “I should think that obvious.”

“You send me for deadly herbs that you obviously intend to take yourself,” said John. “I find you writing your will. These do not seem the actions of a man who wishes to live.”

“I have sought these herbs from one man in London capable of fooling a physician into thinking me dead,” said Sherlock. “And should I err in administering the potion to myself, my affairs are in order.” He frowned. “I fail to see why this should vex you so. It's not as if I were to you as Francis Drake.”

“I would rather the devil take Francis Drake than lose such a man as you,” said John hotly.

Sherlock sat back in his chair with a stunned expression on his face. Though John felt his own cheeks stain red, he fixed his eyes on the floor and spoke.

“In the three days since I joined your household, I have seen wonders to rival any in all the wide world. You read a man's life in his clothes and see a man's intentions from his mein. This is a miracle as sure as any learning that would navigate me safely around the world. I need not understand it to know its worth. That you would fain use this learning to save one such as Mrs. Hudson or assist a pair of disreputable actors rather than use it as your brother has done, to aid those who can reward him, that is a treasure beyond reckoning. You are the rarest man I have ever laid eyes on, and I should sooner do myself harm than see any come to you.”

Sherlock's pen fell from his fingers to the floor. “John,” he said in a broken voice, his lips trembling.

"Find some other way,” said John. “Do not deprive those who cannot speak for themselves the voice that you can give them. Take not this dagger unto your breast when you could use it on your mortal enemy.”

“I cannot!” shouted Sherlock, slamming his palm upon the writing desk. “You would have me bring scandal upon my brother's house by dispatching the villain before his villainy be known? You would have me kill Lestrade, for Moriarty should surely press suit. You would have me leave my brother vulnerable to the vipers in his house? This is the only way, John. I have thought it out innumerable times. This is the only way. Do not press me further, for should you continue to do so, I might relent.”

“You credit me with such powers of persuasion?” asked John with a bitter laugh. “I would that I had. I should have been able to convince Sir Francis to forego human cargo.”

His statement hung in the air.

Sherlock stared at John as though he had never seen him before, and then a radiant smile spread across his face. “Thank you.”

“What?” asked John, aware that he had said more than he ought, but unsure of what it was.

“Thank you for confiding in me the true reason you no longer wish to sail with Drake,” said Sherlock, rising. “Thank you for having the courage to speak your mind, even when you knew it would be dismissed. Thank you for remaining a good man despite having seen the worst of mankind. And most of all, thank you for seeing the good in whatever lies before you. It's a gift that Drake was foolish to scorn. Do not think me the same sort of fool.”

“No,” said John, unsure of Sherlock's meaning, but certain that it was a compliment. “I know you to be an entirely different fool from Sir Francis.”

“Steadfast fellow,” said Sherlock in tones of wonder. “Give me thy hand if we be friends.”

John extended his good arm. “By this hand, I do love thee,” he whispered.

Sherlock let out a cry, taking John's hand in his own. “And let any man die who swears I love not thee.”

John knew not the fire that roared in his ears as Sherlock turned his palm to the heavens and kissed it. His master's lips sent a thousand shocks through him. His breath caught in his throat as Sherlock's eyes met his, and he let out a rough sound as he shook his hand free and pulled his master's body against his own.

Sherlock's lips on his were like sunlight, like honey, like words that had not yet been invented. His hands were pressed against John's face, fingers pressed against his jaw. When they had kissed one another into breathlessness, Sherlock withdrew, his eyes unfocused and his lips pink and swollen from John's nipping and laving.

“Lie with me,” he said in a strangled voice. “For if I am to die on the morrow, let my last night be with him whom I love.”

“I shall lie with thee,” said John, unbuttoning his master's doublet, “but only to remind thee why thou must live, and live a long life at my side.”

Sherlock gasped as John drew his body against his and he lowered his mouth to John's.

They spoke no more words.

Death came to both, and both were reborn in one another.

Chapter Text

The next day, John was late to rise, and by the time he reached his master's chambers, Shakespeare was already there, scribbling on a sheet of paper with a volume of the Holinshed open before him.

Sherlock let out an impatient sigh. “We have been waiting for you,” he said. “I had thought Shakespeare would compose an entire play before you should arrive.”

“I have,” said Shakespeare, making a flourish with his pen. “Behold: my first play on the life of Henry VI.”

“The first play?” asked John.

“The first of at least two parts,” said Shakespeare. “The history is too complex to confine it to one. After these two parts shall be the story of that great villain, Richard III. I shall introduce him in the second part of Henry VI.”

“Why Henry VI?” asked John, searching his memory for any heroic deeds done by that king and finding none. “Why not a king of known legend?”

“This is my first play, good doctor, and as I know not how to proceed, I should much rather have a mediocre monarch at the centre of the action, for there will be fewer critics apt to decry my work for love of the king.”

Sherlock frowned. “This isn't a play.”

“Not yet,” said Shakespeare. “But from these notes, I shall wring speeches to break the heart and to seduce the minds of the audience until they know not for whom they cheer.”

Act I:” read Sherlock.

”[Suffolk and Queen Margaret kiss]

Henry VI: I see not that! Tra la la! How goeth the war in France?

Gloucester: Very ill.

Cardinal Beaufort: Pray, whose fault may that be, Gloucester?

Gloucester: Whoreson!

York: [Plots in soliloquy.]

Peasants: Foreshadowing that York intends harm to the king.

Duchess Gloucester: [Abuseth Queen Margaret] O demons and other naughty spirits, will my husband be king?

Beaufort: WITCH!

Duchess Gloucester: God's bollocks!

[Duchess Gloucester is banished]

Beaufort: Ha ha ha!

Gloucester: Fie.

John couldn't help himself. He burst out laughing.

Sherlock's expression was stormy as he brandished the sheet of paper at Shakespeare. “Is this what you suggest I present the men who asked me to find England's next great playwright?”

“Of course not!” said Shakespeare, taking the paper from Sherlock. “This is but the frame on which I shall hang noble verses and lofty sentiments.”

“Lord,” said Sherlock. “I hope thy acting be more subtle than thy frame.”

“Do not concern yourself,” said Shakespeare, “for my frame is loved of all ladies, and my words are cunning and subtle.”

Sherlock sighed noisily. “Gentlemen, we have more important roles to discuss.”

“I agree,” said Shakespeare. “Queen Margaret, for example.”

“Hang Queen Margaret,” said Sherlock impatiently.

“Holinshed says nothing of the kind,” said Shakespeare. “She shall curse Richard III ere she depart my play.”

Sherlock took a deep breath. “Our play is set in the present day,” he said. “One of the queen's valued advisors has married a foul witch who wishes to put her husband on the throne, and it's up to the advisor's brother to expose the witch and her accomplice as villains.”

Shakespeare, who had been counterfeiting disinterest, sat up. “This is a good plot, though it demands meaner witches. And perhaps an exotic setting so as to avoid beheading.”

“Fortunately for the queen, the advisor's brother has devoted himself to exposing the villainous plot.”

“Why is it villainy?” asked Shakespeare.

“Because obviously, the wife intends her husband to have a position that should rightfully be someone else's.”

“That seems an unfair interpretation,” said Shakespeare. “What if the advisor would make the better monarch? Surely the good of the state should outweigh the good of a single exotic monarch.”

A cold feeling settled in John's stomach at the suggestion of treason. “You realize that Master Sherlock is not speaking in parables,” he said.

Shakespeare shrugged. “I am relieved to hear it. Such a plot would hardly bring audiences to the theatre, and it would likely result in beheading.”

“I shall remember that,” said Sherlock sourly.

“Of course,” said Shakespeare, laying down his pen. “It could be improved, given the modern audience's taste for stagecraft. Perhaps a ghost in addition to the prologue? Groundlings love a ghost. And a madwoman, if one can be found.”

“This is no jesting matter,” said John. “Master Sherlock's life hangs in the balance.”

“If I do not jest, then our play has all the makings of a tragedy,” said Shakespeare. “And surely death is not a consummation to be wished.”

“I cannot avoid death, but I shall rise again like the phoenix,” said Sherlock, with far more confidence than John possessed.

“I trust you do not bear such plumage to entertain us,” said Shakespeare.

“My true plumage is hardly entertaining,” said Sherlock. “I have admirably performed the role of brother, of friend, and of soothsayer, yet my brother has failed to note my warning. I hope that the tragedy I perform will bring about greater wisdom than he now possesses.”

“You are a protagonist of an entirely different sort,” said Shakespeare thoughtfully, scribbling a note in the margin of his paper. “Perhaps our villain is as well.”

“God's light,” said Sherlock, laughing, “I seek only to reveal an adder in our midst. What sort of adder it is is none of my concern. Now, are you engaged to play a part?”

Shakespeare's writing stilled. “I am engaged,” he said.

“Good,” said Sherlock. “Take this letter to Masters Hoddleston and Wishart.”

“Hoddleston and Wishart?” asked Shakespeare scornfully. “Those effeminate popinjays? Those counterfeit knaves? Those boys who tempt the greater lords? What use has your lordship for them?”

"They are the men who have asked me to find a playwright to write them great roles,” said Sherlock. “It was on their errand that you were summoned thither.”

“Ah,” said Shakespeare, clearing his throat. “Hoddleston might make an Henry V someday, provided I introduce him as a callow youth to prevent Burbage from stealing his speeches. And Wishart, someone of tragedy, like Richard II, for he hath the eyes for it.”

“Enough!” said John. “It is needful that you understand the trap that we lay.”

“The first thing Burbage taught me is that I need only understand my role,” said Shakespeare. “Have you a side for me, or am I to extemporise?”

“Your role is that of the clown,” said Sherlock.

“It is always thus, for the role of the clown is to speak the truth,” said Shakespeare.

“In this case, the clown must say little and do much,” said Sherlock.

“What is to happen?” asked Shakespeare.

“Firstly,” said Sherlock, “I shall die.”

Shakespeare blinked in surprise. “It's rather unusual to kill the hero in the first act. And will it not prove difficult for you to give testimony when thou art dead? Unless you are to play the ghost as well.”

“I have here a potion that will make Master Sherlock appear to be ill unto death,” said John.

“And when I am seeming dead,” said Sherlock, “Lady Holmes and Doctor Moriarty must never be alone together in the same room unless it is my brother's study, which is at the end of the hall, where Lestrade and my brother will be hidden.”

Shakespeare frowned. “But what if your death be not counterfeit?”

“Then your part is all the more important,” said Sherlock. “For your actions and John's shall reveal the true cause.”

Shakespeare nodded. “What of Hoddleston and Wishart?”

“The details are here,” said Sherlock, brandishing the letter. “They have asked me to provide them with men's roles, and here are their first assignments.”

“I wouldn't have thought those two so hard up for male parts,” said Shakespeare, making a rude gesture.

“Make haste, Master Shakespeare,” said Sherlock, ignoring the pun. “The hour grows late. I should lend you a horse, but Lestrade can know nothing of our conspiracy. Here's half a crown. Hire a coach to bear you three. Wait at the alehouse two streets down until someone is sent to fetch you. Above all things, remember that Masters Hoddleston and Wishart must not be seen when you hide them in my brother's chamber.”

“I'll go on your lordship's errand,” said Shakespeare, clearly dubious of the plan.

“Thank you,” said Sherlock, handing him the letter and pressing the coin into Shakespeare's palm.

Shakespeare bowed and departed.

“There's a merry fellow, to be sure,” said John.

Sherlock sat down on the bed. “I am all out of humour,” he said.

“Not surprising, given how much Moriarty took out of you yesterday,” said John. “Your colour is better today. Have you eaten?”

“As much as I could stand,” said Sherlock. “I must have food inside me in order to have the signs and outward shows of the poison Moriarty believes I have taken.”

John nodded, his worst fears confirmed. “When do you need to take the friar's herbs?”

“Presently,” said Sherlock, though he made no move to remove the herbs from inside his boot where he had hidden them the night before. “I do not relish this,” he said at last in a small voice.

“Nor do I,” said John. “But a great man tells me that it is necessary, and I believe him.”

Sherlock gave him a small smile. “You are too credulous by half,” he said, as his face became serious. “Will you stay with me until it is over? I should be glad of your company, though it is cowardly of me to ask it. It will not be pleasant.”

“Nothing could draw me from your side,” said John. “Is there any service I can do to make the herbs less bitter?”

“No,” said Sherlock, “but I thank you. Bring them me?”

John did as he was bid and handed Sherlock the packet of herbs, which he upended in a cup of ale. Sherlock looked at the cup and raised his wide, frightened eyes to John's. “A kiss,” he whispered. “Give me a kiss, good friend, so that I may gain some of the bravery that you have in such ready supply.”

John sat on the bed and kissed the pale lips with great tenderness. When he opened his eyes he found Sherlock's cheeks stained with red. “Oh,” said John, stroking his cheek. “I feel powerful fear. You have drawn off too much of my courage.”

“How thoughtless of me,” said Sherlock, a ghost of a smile trembling at the corner of his mouth. “Here, have some of it back again.”

Their lips met once more, and this time John felt a promise pass between his mouth and his master's: that this would not be their final embrace.

Sherlock raised the cup in salute. “Here's to my health,” he said. “May it return in full once these dark days are behind us.”

“Amen,” said John, sending a hopeful prayer heavenward.

Sherlock raised the cup to his lips and emptied it, his face twisting into a grimace as he swallowed the draught. John took the cup from him and hid it in the wardrobe.

“Bring the close stool from the store-room,” said Sherlock. “I shall have use of it soon. And give me the chamber pot in the corner.”

“Both at once?” asked John, feeling a frisson of fear for what his master was about to endure.

“Let us hope not,” said Sherlock grimly. “But we should be prepared. Though we cannot, of course, appear too prepared.”

“How long until the herbs have their effect?” asked John.

“Not long,” said Sherlock. “What words are you to tell my brother to guarantee that he will come with you? Tell me.”

“Norbury,” said John.

“Good,” he said. John could already detect a roughness in his master's breath that indicated discomfort.

“Tell me of the day you lost your arm,” said Sherlock.

John pursed his lips in distaste. “You know the story of that great victory. Why do you wish to hear my account when all I saw of the action was blood and injury?”

“It does not matter why,” said Sherlock. “I wish to hear it.”

John sighed. “I was in the cockpit. I knew only when we tacked the ship and when the enemy's guns struck true, for the whole ship trembled. I was tending to the first wave of casualties when another volley struck the ship near the water-line. It struck the table where I was conducting an extraction, and the good English oak shattered into a hundred pieces. A large quantity of it stuck into the arm I used to shield myself.”

“How did you do it?” asked Sherlock, closing his eyes.

John knew what he was asking. “I had seen enough injuries to know the arm couldn't be saved, and that knowledge made what was to come another procedure, no different than those I had performed on a hundred men before. When we had taken account of all the casualties, I had my loblolly boy hold down the arm while I applied the saw. The brazier with the cauterizing irons was still upright, thank God, and that is the end of the story.”

Sherlock was silent, and John took his master's cold hand, stroking it with his thumb. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Knowing that something must happen does give one the strength to begin, but how did you see it through?”

John grimaced. “Once the task is undertaken, you can't stop. You just have to keep going and trust that the end will be better than the present.”

Sherlock let out a moan, and John wiped away the perspiration that was beading on Sherlock's brow.

“The close stool,” Sherlock whispered, wrapping his arms around his stomach. “It will not be long now.”

John made haste to the store-room, where he found the sturdy chair with a cut-out in the seat. A clean chamber pot sat within its opening, and he dragged the chair to Sherlock's chamber as quickly as he could, since it was too heavy to lift. He found his master wiping his mouth and a small pool of vomit on the floor next to the bed.

“I think that shall be sufficient to convince them that the spell came on suddenly,” said Sherlock, spitting into the chamber pot. “Put the close stool there,” he said, pointing to a small patch of floor near the writing desk, groaning. “I feel my insides rebel. Please, John, don't leave me.”

“Never,” said John, relieved that the sound of moving furniture had summoned one of the pages. “Send for the doctor,” he told the boy. “Master Sherlock is unwell.”

Sherlock chose this moment to break foul wind. “God in heaven!” he moaned, hitching up his bedgown and voiding his bowels into the close stool.

Though the smell was unholy, John did not release his master's hand, except to fetch the chamber pot to catch another spew of vomit.

Time slowed, and he had no conception of how much time passed between fits of violent puking and shitting. His focus was on his master. He was vaguely aware of servants entering and bringing water to help with the futile task of keeping Sherlock clean and offering whispered assurances that the doctor was on his way.

With every fit that came upon Sherlock, John noticed him growing weaker to the point that he called for ale and all but forced Sherlock to drink it.

It wasn't until the mid-day sun struck the book on the writing desk that John realized that nearly an hour had passed since Sherlock first began to be ill, and there was no sign of Doctor Moriarty. It was then that ice settled in John's stomach. What if Moriarty didn't come? The entire plan would be ruined, and John would likely be held responsible for his master's death. Sherlock's recovery from the herbs, would lay charges of negligence to rest, but the conspiracy that his master fervently believed existed would remain uncovered, Moriarty would still be free, and Sherlock would still be in mortal danger.

This black mood lasted through Sherlock vomiting up the ale he had just consumed.

“How now!” came a loathsome voice that John had never been happier to hear. “Have you forgotten to give Master Sherlock his medicine?”

John turned to find Moriarty in his plague doctor clothes once more, and he allowed himself to shudder obviously.

“I gave him two spoonfuls this morning,” said John, relying on the words Sherlock had given him.

Moriarty glanced into the chamber pot on Sherlock's lap and lifted one of his pale thighs to see the contents of the chamber pot below, and he nodded to himself.

“It is as I feared,” he said. “The illness has returned despite my best treatment.”

“What's to be done?” asked John, not having to feign the desperation in his voice.

Moriarty turned to the footman hovering in the doorway. “Fetch Lord Holmes,” he said.

“Oh God,” whispered John, clasping Sherlock's hand. He felt a feeble squeeze in return.

There was a buzz of conversation from the corridor, as the bad news travelled through the household staff. John fancied it passed down a line of servants leading all the way down to the kitchen, where Mrs. Hudson would receive the message and go running for Shakespeare, Hoddleston, and Wishart. At least, that was Sherlock's plan. It was nearly as infuriating to be unable to check on the plan's progress as it was not to be able to alleviate his master's suffering.

“There, there,” said Moriarty, pressing a gloved hand on John's shoulder. “You have done everything you could. You may leave me with him now.”

“I promised him I would stay,” said John.

“He clearly drew this promise from you when he was ill,” said Moriarty. “I relieve you of it. Go, fetch Lord Holmes.”

“Anders has gone for him already,” said John. “I should very much like to stay, if not only to say goodbye.”

Though John could not see Moriarty's face through the hideous beaked mask, he could tell that the man was trying to think of a reason to get rid of him. “I fear that the miasma which passeth from the body upon the moment of death should cling to you,” said Moriarty.

“Then I shall open the window,” said John, doing so and relieving some of the noisome atmosphere of the sick room.

“Very well,” said Moriarty. “Though you do no good here.”

“If my master is dying, then I shall not make matters worse,” said John.

“Surely you overstate the matter,” said a cold voice from the doorway.

“Though his words be rough, they are true,” said Moriarty, bowing to Lord and Lady Holmes. “I would not that it were so.”

“What has happened?” asked the earl, his mouth tight.

“Master Sherlock has failed to respond to my most potent treatment,” said Moriarty. “There is nothing to be done.”

“May God grant him peace,” said Lady Holmes, raising a handkerchief to her face.

John felt Sherlock's grip tighten around his hand. “I live yet!” he shouted in a rough, hissing voice.

“Try to rest, brother,” said Lord Holmes, stepping into the sick room and taking Sherlock's other hand. “Doctor Moriarty's medicine may yet return you to health.”

“I feel my life drain from me,” said Sherlock, coughing feebly. “Do not pray for the restoration of my body,” he said to his brother. “Pray instead for my soul.”

John was surprised to see tears in Lord Holmes's eyes, and he turned away from his brother so that he might not see.

There was a commotion out in the hallway, and John could hear raised voices, though he could not tell what was being said.

“Are you there, John?” whispered Sherlock, who lay limply against the back of the close stool. “I am going. I fear I may already be gone.”

“I am here,” said John.

“Unhand me!” said a familiar voice, and Friar Lawrence stepped into the room. “Will you deny a dying man his last rites?”

Lord Holmes frowned. “How do you know my brother?”

“I have heard his confessions weekly,” said Friar Lawrence. “It is with a heavy heart that I come to perform this final office.”

“Leave us,” snapped Lord Holmes to the numerous servants who were gathered in the corridor. He closed the door. He seized Sherlock's arm and drew it around his neck. John followed his lead, and the two of them moved Sherlock from the close stool to the bed.

Sherlock's skin was grey, and his breathing was rapid and shallow.

John's eyes never left Sherlock's face as the friar spoke comforting absolutions, and he saw his master grimace as the friar delivered his final communion between his bloodless lips.

“In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” whispered the friar.

Sherlock's grip tightened around John's, and his eyes widened. He met John's gaze as his body seized up, and then fell back on the bed.

“Hold him down,” said Moriarty, and though Sherlock was all skin and bones, it took John, Lord Holmes, the doctor, and the friar to restrain him until his body stopped twitching and fell slack upon the bed, his eyes fixed on the ceiling.

Sudden stillness echoed through the chamber.

“It is finished,” said Friar Lawrence softly, reaching over to close Sherlock's vacant eyes.
The household servants stood on either side of the corridor as John passed through them, seeking the servants’ stair. The thought that he had to find Mrs. Hudson was foremost in his mind, but he had quite forgot what he was supposed to tell her. Fortunately, the admirable lady knew her role, and as soon as John staggered into the kitchen, she pressed a measure of her strongest ale into his hand and ascended the stair to wash and wrap the body.

John felt numbness descend, which allowed him badly needed focus on his next task. Once he had finished the ale, he went looking for Lestrade, who wasn't in the courtyard or the stables. This wasn't according to Sherlock's plan, but John supposed it wasn't so terribly important.

He mounted the stairs once more and found Moriarty and Lord and Lady Holmes in Sherlock's sick room speaking with Mrs. Hudson, whose arms were filled with sweet-smelling herbs and branches.

“My lord Holmes,” said John, bowing. “A word in your ear.”

Mrs. Hudson gave a little cough, and John realised that he'd made an error. He wasn't to leave Moriarty and Lady Holmes alone. Where on God's green earth was Shakespeare?

Unfortunately, Lord Holmes nodded gravely. “I would hear of my brother's final hours, and I suspect such things are unfit for a lady's ears.”

“Oh, Doctor Moriarty!” cried Mrs. Hudson, holding her hands aloft. “How am I to prevent carrying Master Sherlock's affliction to the wide world? Can you tell me which of these good herbs may stave off this awful sickness? And is there a way that I should wash him to protect the house from it?”

Moriarty appeared nettled to be detained thus, and Lady Holmes even more so, but he began to invent an explanation to calm the old woman's nerves.

John blessed the lady a thousand times in his thoughts and followed Lord Holmes down the corridor. At first, John feared that he would choose the study for their interview, but after a moment's pause, he thought better of it and continued to his chambers.

John held his breath as he passed the outer and inner doors, not knowing what he would find. To his surprise, the room was dark, despite it being mid-day, and he could make out the figures of two men lying on the earl's bed.

“What in blazes?” shouted Lord Holmes, pulling back the curtain at the window to reveal Lestrade lying atop Shakespeare.

Lestrade sprang off Shakespeare as if he were made of fire. “My lord!” he exclaimed. “I took him for you!”

“So I see,” said Lord Holmes, trembling with anger.

“No!” said Lestrade. “I came here seeking you and found the room darkened, containing a man the size of your lordship with the same beard. I made to give you, uh, succour in your time of need.”

Lord Holmes drew his sword and pointed it at Shakespeare. “What excuse can you give, villain?”

Shakespeare gulped. “Would you believe I came looking for Master Sherlock and took a wrong turn?”

“Norbury!” shouted John.

The earl froze mid-step and turned to face John. “What did you say?” he asked, face paling.

“Norbury. And if that word means to you what Sherlock felt it did, then you and Lestrade will join me in your study, for what shall be said there concerns you both.”

Lord Holmes's eyes narrowed at John's easy use of Sherlock's Christian name, and John cursed himself for a sentimental fool. After what felt like an eternity, Lord Holmes nodded. “I shall come,” he said. “But Lestrade shall stay with this naughty fellow to have what revenge he would for the trick visited on him.”

Shakespeare raised his hands. “It was no trick!” he said. “I came here in error and made to find the exit when this man entered and began to kiss me as I have never been kissed by man or woman! Hercules himself would have been arrested in his tasks had he been thus accosted!”

“Save your lies, you rogue,” said Lestrade, whose ears had turned red. “I shall have the truth from thee though it take all night.”

“Have I thy promise?” asked Shakespeare saucily.

As the earl closed his chamber door behind him, John caught sight of the two actors, hiding under the bed. He hoped fervently that Shakespeare would be able to talk Lestrade into letting the players perform their necessary roles.

The earl made to close the door to his study behind him, but John held it open.

“There isn't time to explain fully,” said John, “but we must conceal ourselves. There is villainy afoot, and I would your lordship hear it with your own ears. If you ever loved your brother, please hide with me now.”

Lord Holmes's face was perfectly still. “For love of my brother, I will go with thee,” he said softly, pulling back the corner of the tapestry to reveal an alcove just wide enough to hold two men. Lord Holmes drew his sword once more and gestured for John to enter first. Lestrade should have been the second man in the alcove, for John had no weapon, but he tucked himself into the far corner of the alcove so as to make room for the earl and his rapier.

The alcove was plunged into darkness as the earl lowered the tapestry, but when John's eyes adjusted, he found several small moth-holes through which he could see the study door and the hallway beyond.

John smiled as he heard Mrs. Hudson bleating over the general hubbub in the corridor. He spied Moriarty and Lady Holmes walk past the study door in the direction of Lord Holmes's chambers, but they returned a moment later in great haste and shut the study door behind them.

John could see Lord Holmes frown in the light from the moth hole.

“Might Lord Holmes discover us here?” asked Moriarty.

“No,” said Lady Holmes, scornfully. “I have just heard my husband and his hobby horse in his chambers. He will be engaged for some time.”

John felt the earl stiffen next to him at the casual insult from his wife, but he remained silent.

“We take what comfort we can in such times,” said Moriarty, his tone impertinent, and he removed his mask and gloves.

“So much the better,” she said, “for my husband leaves me in peace.”

“He is a fool, then,” said Moriarty, raising his hand to Lady Holmes's face.

She slapped it away. “You dare touch me after this?”

“You did not let me touch you before,” said Moriarty, removing his heavy black gown, “and now that the job is done, I thought to receive your gratitude.”

She let out a harsh laugh. “You are too bold, dear doctor, and you prize your service too high.”

“Has not the impediment to your husband's political ambitions been permanently removed?” asked Moriarty.

The earl released a huff of incredulity.

“That remains to be seen,” said Lady Holmes, sweeping over to her husband's desk and collapsing in the chair. “If I were never to look upon such a sight again, it should be too soon.”

“You were a pillar of Christian strength and mercy,” said Moriarty.

“I should not have had to look at it,” said Lady Holmes. “It was vile and my gorge rises to think on it.”

“Heaven forefend your ladyship should look on the consequences of her wishes,” said Moriarty. “Had you but warned me you were coming to town, I should not have given that fool of a ship's doctor the medicine,” said Moriarty. “All simple seamen believe that if one dose is salutary, two doses are doubly so. And I would not have needed to give it to him at all had your own attempt to remove the impediment not been so inept that even that simpleton saw it coming.”

“Loyal men who are also persuadable are difficult to find,” said Lady Holmes archly. “Even in Rutland, where they have greater freedom and less work than on most estates.”

“What a shame that loyalty and persuasion do not result in competence,” said Moriarty.

“I shouldn't have needed to send a man at all had I any confidence in your ability to bring about our shared aim,” said Lady Holmes. “But my husband wrote me that my brother made a miraculous recovery from his fever.”

“You were always too hasty,” said Moriarty. “That was but a feint. For what confidence would Lord Holmes continue to have in my skill if Master Sherlock died of his first serious illness under my care?”

Lady Holmes sighed. “But it's true, the deed is done, and you have my thanks. What payment will thou ask?”

“Nothing that you would not freely give,” said Moriarty. “I should most like to remain as your family physician. Dear little Mary would miss me so if it were otherwise. And now and then I may ask you to deliver the odd word in your husband's ear on trivial matters that are of import to me, assuming he should remain in the Queen's favour.”

“Now that my husband need no longer play nursemaid to his brother, his star shall be in its ascendancy,” said Lady Holmes, her eyes bright.

The earl made a choked sound, and Moriarty's head snapped toward the tapestry. “How now!” he said, drawing a short sword from the folds of his gown. “Do I detect a rat?”

Lord Holmes reached upward and pulled the tapestry from its mount on the wall, and it fell to the floor with a thump. “The only vermin in this room I see before me,” said Lord Holmes, his face incandescent with rage.

Lady Holmes's hand flew to her mouth. “Husband!” she said. “You misunderstand me!”

“I would that I did,” said Lord Holmes. “I would that your blush be modesty and not shame for the part you have played in my brother's death, but it cannot be so.” He turned to Moriarty and raised his rapier. “I shall have your life for my brother's death, villain.”

Moriarty made a flippant gesture with his sword. “If you try, you shall lose your favourite toy, for if I die today, he dies upon my lawyer's pleasure.”

“Lord Holmes,” said John in the earl's ear. “I know of what he speaks. Lestrade made an imprudent investment, and this spider hath caught him in his web.”

“I can pay whatever monies he owe,” said Lord Holmes pointing his weapon at Moriarty's face.

“The deed demands his flesh in payment,” said John.

“Then the deed is forfeit,” rang a voice from the doorway. John turned to find Shakespeare clad in what had to be Lord Holmes's clothes, for he was bedecked with gold embroidery, fur, chains, and the largest, laciest ruff John had ever seen.

Moriarty scowled at him. “Who are you meant to be?”

“I am Master Barnard, Lord Holmes's lawyer,” said Shakespeare, and I have seen the agreement of which you speak. My client's friend is to repay you with his flesh to be cut off from whatever part it please the debt-holder, is this not so?”

Moriarty's eyes narrowed. “It is. And my lawyer assures me that there is no impediment to collecting it.”

“No impediment on paper,” said Shakespeare, “but in practice, I do not see how you can collect it without taking more than you are allowed.”

“The deed does not specify an amout,” said Moriarty. “I can take as much flesh as it please me.”

“The deed says that you must cut the flesh, but with flesh cometh blood, and thou art not entitled to that unless the debtor enlists your professional service. Something I daresay he will be loath to do.”

“Thank you, Master Barnard,” said Lord Holmes. “I shall double your retainer.”

Shakespeare gave him a wry smile. “Your lordship is too kind.”

Moriarty made an infuriated sound and sprang at Lord Holmes, who parried his thrust, though both men were knocked to the ground with the force of Moriarty's attack. John, who had no weapon, seized the candelabra near Lord Holmes's desk, but he found himself fighting Lady Holmes for it, and he dropped it in surprise. Shakespeare, who was also unarmed, leapt into the hallway, and Lestrade, Hoddleston, and Wishart joined the fray.

“Beware his weapon!” shouted Shakespeare, “for the man hath poison in his very being.”

Lord Holmes had managed to kick Moriarty's sword out of his hands, but Moriarty seized Wishart's wrist and twisted, which made the man cry out and drop the dagger he brandished. Lady Holmes brought the iron candelabra down on Lestrade's head as Moriarty made a desperate leap at Shakespeare, and to John's horror, Moriarty sank the knife neatly between Shakespeare's ribs as he shoved him out of the way and ran out into the corridor.

Shakespeare's eyes went wide and his hands flew to his side as his legs gave way and he fell to the ground.

“Tend to him!” John shouted at the actors, whose faces were ashen with horror, and he took off after Moriarty down the servant's stair. John could hear Moriarty's heavy boots on the landing below, and suddenly there was a woman's scream, followed by a dull thump.

John rounded the stair and found Sally standing at the foot of the stairs with an iron in her hand and Moriarty lying at her feet, motionless.

“God in heaven,” she whispered. “I've killed the doctor.” She looked at John. “I was bringing the iron to Mrs. Hudson and he ran into me. I thought he meant me mischief, so I hit him, but now he's dead and I'm going to be hanged for it!”

John looked at her horrified face and he couldn't help himself. He began to laugh.

At this, Shakespeare and Lestrade came tearing down the stairs.

They took one look at Sally and Moriarty, and they too began to whoop with laughter.

Sally put her hands on her hips. “What are you wags laughing at? And what are you doing in Lord Holmes's clothes, you thieving beast?”

“Peace, Sally,” said John, frowning at Shakespeare. “I thought the villain stabbed you.”

“That he did,” said Shakespeare, grinning, “with the very dagger that hath slain a great many tragic characters on our fair stage. Bless Master Wishart for arming himself thus.”

“Come,” said Lestrade, nudging Moriarty with his foot. “Let us take him to Lord Holmes. He shall hear of your part in this, Sally,” he said, smiling. “And for my part, I'm in your debt.”

“Speak no more of debts, Lestrade,” said Shakespeare, hoisting Moriarty over his shoulder. “We shall find some other way to repay the lady. A sonnet in her praise, perhaps? My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun,” he said in his player's voice. “Coral is far more red than her lips' red. If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow- ow!”

“There'll be more of that if I hear you speak of my breasts again, you fork-tongued knave,” said Sally, brandishing the iron.
When Moriarty had been dispatched to prison with great haste and numerous Holmes men-at-arms, Lady Holmes banished to the solarium, and Shakespeare returned to his own clothes, Lord Holmes gathered the company together in his study to interrogate each man.

He began with Hoddleston and Wishart, who knew only their roles in the adventure and no more, and then moved on to Shakespeare, who gave witty, if incomplete replies to his lordship's questions, and he made no reference to the poison Sherlock had taken in an attempt to survive Moriarty's attempt on his life. He also gave a spirited account of the conversation between Lestrade and Moriarty that he and John had overheard, which led to the discovery of the infamous deed.

Lord Holmes sat back in his chair. “But how did you manage to think of such a way out of the bond?”

Shakespeare smiled. “Your lordship ought not depend on my argument, for though it have sense, I do not know the law. But seeing the doctor treat Master Sherlock yesterday put me in a sanguine frame of mind. And I did deliver the verdict very well, did I not? And my death was wonderfully lifelike. Even Doctor Watson believed me to be grievously injured.”

“Indeed,” came a voice from the doorway. “I daresay your death was the second most convincing this house has seen today.”

John turned to see Sherlock, wrapped in a linen shroud, standing in the doorway looking pale, but determined. John's knees buckled, and his eyes filled with tears of relief.

Lord Holmes let out a cry and ran to his brother, embracing him as tears rolled freely down his face.

“How is this possible?” he asked, shaking Sherlock gently, as though convincing himself that his brother was not a ghost.

“Forgive us the tragedy we have had to perform for your benefit,” said Sherlock. “But I knew of no other way to expose the conspiracy and save the lives of all involved if Moriarty and his accomplice did not believe me dead by his poison. With the help of the good friar who ministered my last rites, I was able to mimic the symptoms, and these good, loyal men have played their parts admirably.”

Lord Holmes clapped his hands to summon Anders. “I shall have the whole story later. For now, you must rest and eat and drink, if you have stomach. Friends, I would have you join us at supper. Anders, see that—“ he stopped and sighed as Anders blanched at the sight of Sherlock and fainted.

“It seems that I must insist on your presence, Sherlock. Otherwise, we shall have a rash of fainting footmen. And please resist the temptation to terrify the servants by appearing at supper in your burial shroud. Good day. I shall see you all at supper.”

Lord Holmes bade Lestrade drag Anders out in to the corridor and followed them. John took the opportunity to position himself next to Sherlock, not daring to touch him, but merely to see with his own eyes that his master was truly alive and well.

Sherlock made room for John next to him as he smiled at Wishart, Hoddleston, and Shakespeare. “Thank you all for the parts you have played today. And it is with great pleasure that I tell you that you shall have a series of three plays to start on the lives of English monarchs, the first to be delivered in a month's time.”

“I am glad to hear it,” said Hoddleston. “William has told us that he shall be the author.”

“I shouldn't mind if a horse were writing the plays, provided there were excellent roles for us,” said Wishart.

“There are to be so many male roles that even the boys shall have to play farmers and rebels,” said Shakespeare. “And though both of you must also play Queen Margaret and the Duchess Gloucester, neither lady shall be lacking in spirit. I might even write a fourth play set before the first two if one of you should desire to play Joan of Arc.”

“You have not yet finished one play yet, and you speak of a sequence of four,” said Sherlock, leaning upon his brother's desk. “You are either fated to be a playwright or a king who dies from a magnificent show of hubris.”

“My time in your lordship's presence has been most educational,” said Shakespeare, bowing ironically.

“Let it not be too educational,” said Sherlock. “Neither I nor my brother would appreciate being portrayed onstage, no matter how skilled the actors playing us.”

“The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Sherlock, the Melancholy Gentleman,” said Shakespeare. “I should have to make you a prince in order to interest the public in your interminable observations and eventual death. And perhaps add a ghost. The groundlings love a ghost.”

A page appeared, beckoning them to come to the hall for an early supper, and Sherlock bade the actors precede them.

Sherlock let his shroud fall and wrapped his arms around John.

John finally let the tears that had been brimming in his eyes fall as the joy he felt in his master's embrace filled him to overflowing.

“Here now,” said Sherlock, brushing a tear from John's cheek. “Are you sad?”

“No,” said John, his voice rough.


“Not that,” said John.

“You are neither sad, nor sick, but neither merry, nor well.”

“None of those words are accurate,” said John. “Although perhaps all together.”

“Perhaps silence is the most eloquent expression?” asked Sherlock, lowering his lips to John's.

John tightened his arm around Sherlock and deepened the kiss.

They stood there in Lord Holmes's study, conversing in timeless language until they heard a throat being cleared.

Sherlock and John parted breathlessly and found Shakespeare leaning against the doorway, tutting. “The course of true love never did run smooth,” he said, “for I must interrupt this pretty scene with rude words from Lord Holmes strenuously requesting your presence at supper.”

“Very well,” said Sherlock. “At my brother's command, I shall follow.”

“Sherlock,” said John. “You might have noticed that you're not wearing anything apart from some sprigs of Mrs. Hudson's rosemary.”

“My brother ordered me not to appear at supper in the burial shroud,” said Sherlock airily. “I strive to follow his commands to the letter. Besides, I have never been cleaner in all my life. T'would be a shame for Mrs. Hudson's excellent work to go to waste.”

He strode off down the corridor as naked as the day he entered earth and descended the main stairway.

“Don't worry,” said John quietly. “It won't.”

“Come, good doctor,” said Shakespeare, gesturing towards the servant's stair. “Shall we watch the great player make his entrance from the gallery?”

John clapped him on the shoulder. “I wouldn't miss it for all the world.”

London, March, 1589

Six months later, John and Sherlock sat in their usual room at The Theatre while the company below took their bows. Even Sherlock, whose habit was to look bored until the theatre patrons began to leave, clapped his hands together several times, though John knew he would claim it was because of the cold, damp air.

“You must admit it: the play was better than you thought it would be,” said John, unwrapping the blanket from his master's legs.

“I was myself disappointed that the Duchess of Gloucester did not exclaim 'God's bollocks!' upon being caught at witchcraft,” said Sherlock, stretching and rising from his throne.

“You're only saying that because 'God's bollocks' has become your favoured response when someone accuses you of being a wizard,” said John.

Sherlock shrugged. “Perhaps Shakespeare has some talent for memorable phrases after all.”

As Sherlock drew his cloak around him, John marvelled at the difference the months had made in his master. He was still thin, but his skin had taken on a healthier hue, and his hair had grown out so much that it had begun to curl about his collar. John knew he should cut it, but the abundance, after such privation, pleased him.

But the largest difference between the invalid he had met in the solarium of Holmes house and the man he was proud to call his lord and master was the confidence of his place in the world, and it made John's heart swell with pride every time his brilliant, clever master solved a thorny problem or shed light on a mystery. Sherlock's tongue, however, remained as tart as ever.

“Now,” said Sherlock, “we have before us two irksome options: endure the boisterous company of actors whilst supping at the inn tonight, or returning to the tedium of Baker Street, where no interesting problems arrive after nightfall.”

“Mrs. Hudson expects us to sup in town,” said John, who knew how restless Sherlock would grow in their new suburban lodgings without some problem to engage him. “And Shakespeare wishes to tell us of a comedy he wishes to write.”

“Heaven preserve us from men happy in their work as they are in their marriages,” grumbled Sherlock. “If I have to listen to one more sonnet written about his wife, I shall embed his quill in a tender part of his anatomy.”

“I'm afraid we are engaged,” said John, smiling. “Unless you can see some mystery unfolding before us that wants solving.”

Sherlock glanced out over the packed theatre, where the applause was still going strong. “This theatre holds no mystery for me,” he complained. “Merely a blackmailer, a handful of cut-purses, a thief spending his ill-gotten gains on cushions and sweetmeats, and an adulterous nobleman in flagrante delicto with his orange-seller mistress in the tiring room below. There is nothing here worthy of my talents.”

“What about those two apronmen?” said John, pointing at a pair of labourers in the pit who were shoving one another and appeared to be about to come to blows.

“Disagreement over a doxy's affections,” said Sherlock dismissively. “See, there she stands, looking amused by the fracas. There's her apple-squire looking for a way to gain twice her usual price from them.”

John was about to bring Sherlock's attention to the singular appearance of a man with bright red hair when a cry of “Help! Thief!” rang out from the gallery, where a nobleman sat, his fingers clenched in his jerkin, across which a jewelled collar had previously hung. The nobleman's man-at-arms was slumped against the wall of the room, having been struck insentient by the assailant.

John felt a thrill go through him as Sherlock seized his hand.

“Come, John,” said Sherlock, his eyes alight. “The game's afoot!”

The End