Read an Excerpt
Blood and Pearls, or
How It Began
The last day of Shrovetide, a damp February in the year 1585, great Elizabeth's twenty-seventh year upon the throne. A small rain falling. A tender rain, veiling London's scars.
The streets and lanes round St. Paul's throbbed with stiltwalkers and fire-swallowers and pancake sellers and herb women and ratcatchers, all frantic to snatch the last bit of pleasure and meat pie they'd get until Lent was over. A delirium of smells—roast goose, Shrove buns, early flowers brought in from the country, cinnamon and cloves in the spice merchants' barrels. Chimney smoke. Sour piss in the gutters. Sounds, too—damp silk banners flapping from diamond-paned casements, chickens gaggling, dogs barking, a bookseller beating a thief. Street cries, high and low, overlapping each other in a sharp staccato. "Pails! Any pails to mend?" "Buy new broom, buy new broom, sweep and clean!" "Today's broadsides, master! Penny each, latest Irish atrocities!" And music, of course. There was always music—fragile, rowdy, bawdy, tender. Lute players and flute players and little boys with tin whistles. Whores young and old. Beggars. Dwarves. Gypsies. Giants. Players in fusty wigs and cast-off velvets. Mummers in animal masks and bells on their shoes. In the middle of everything, a gang of apprentices pelting a huge wicker Jack o' Lent with squidgy handfuls of mud.
I scanned the revellers and the market stalls, but aside from a long-faced Puritan or two, nobody looked like an assassin. Nobody ever does. A gingerbread seller dropped his tray with a curse and a clatter and I spun round,dagger drawn.
Gabriel's hand touched my arm. "Robbie? What?"
"Nothing." The Angel of Panic passing over my house.
"Bluddy holy war. 'Kill the heretic queen and earn a thousand extra years in bluddy heaven.' The pope's turned them all loose on us now."
In half a dozen cities of France, Catholic seminarians were trained in the latest Italian poisons and the best way to lay an undetectable trail of gunpowder into a queen's bedchamber. Not counting the wax dolls with pins in them and the horoscopes with her birth hour smeared in blood, there had been, by my count, twenty-three serious attempts on Elizabeth's life since her excommunication. Our master, Lord Secretary Burghley, had sent us out that day to prevent a twenty-fourth.
I filched a sugarplum from a sweet stall and popped it into my mouth. Felt the smothering tightness begin to ebb away from my throat. I wonder, does poison soothe before it kills? Does it taste sweet on the tongue?
"Our lady queen's past fifty," I told Gabriel. "An heir's out of the question, so the marriage game won't keep France and Spain at bay any longer. They want Mary of Scots on the throne and England back in their Catholic pockets. The rules have changed, that's all. It's a fear game now. A death game."
"So it's still about money."
"Idiot. Everything's about money. Including sex and religion."
We were fighting unofficial wars in half a dozen places and loyalties at court changed every time there was a royal patent or a monopoly to grab for. Of every three English, one was either an informer or a spy for whoever would pay most. For those in need of money, you spied to help them snatch it. For those with the chinks in their pockets, you spied on the snatchers. For Burghley and the queen, you spied on everyone at once. Spiders, some called us. Intelligencers. Robert Mowbray is not my real name, as Gabriel North was not his, but they served us well enough.
"Christ, I hate games," he said softly, and his grey eyes flickered and went out.
We threaded our way deeper into the throng. The rain had stopped, and people climbed walls and scrambled onto slippery rooftops hoping to see better. A ragged man held out his hand to me for alms and tried to speak, but when his mouth opened, I could see that his tongue had been cut out. For a split second, I stared helplessly into the furious cave of his soul.
"Think he's dangerous?" I said, as he went off clutching half a penny.
"They took his tongue, old heart," Gabriel said quietly. "Not his balls."
We walked on. Music and laughter came from the doorway of a barber's shop. A maid emptied a chamber pot out a second-floor window and barely missed a pear-shaped old parson.
"Hide an arsenal under that parson's gown, actually."
"Never. Old John Tydway. Rector of St. Onesimus these thirty years."
"The lute player, then? Don't like the look of him. Piggy eyes."
"Fool. He's one of ours."
A snot-nosed little boy stood tiptoe on the roof of a cookshop and shielded his eyes with his hand. Suddenly he began to flap his arms and crow like a rooster. "I can see her!" he shouted. "The queen! Long live the queen!"
The whole crowd was set in motion, swirling and turning like a flock of hysterical starlings, settling, then swirling off in another direction. "Rose!" cried a woman's shrill, frightened voice. "Where are you, child? Oh, Rosie!"
A fair-haired little girl of four or five clutching a bedraggled bunch of primroses came tearing past us. Wide blue eyes that turned green in the light. A bounce of coarse homespun petticoats and a determined stamp of clumsy, eager little shoes. She owned the morning utterly, as only children can.
But she was poor and small and of little account to the grown-ups. Pushed aside by a hard-eyed woman with a servant in tow, she stumbled against a bookstall and wobbled for an instant, trying to right herself. Then down she went in a puddle of muck, her flowers scattered everywhere.
In the blink of an eye, the primroses were brown mush, trodden by a dozen pairs of feet. The child turned her stubborn little face up and fixed Gabriel with a disapproving stare. What kind of grown-up was he, just standing there while the sky fell on her? Her chin began to tremble. One sob, then another. Then all the tears of the drowned. She sat there on the filthy cobbles, head bent, small body rocking back and forth.
"Ah now, my pet," Gabriel said, folding his long frame into a crouch above her, his cheek almost touching her fine hair. "Come on. Rosie? That your name, then?" He wiped her wet eyes with his sleeve. "Want a ride, my love? Come on, come on, come here."
Coom on. Coom on, coom 'ere. With me he spoke perfectly good London English, but with children, with most women, he often slipped into the country speech he'd grown up with—Yorkshire, Lancashire. I'd known him sixteen years and I had no idea where his home was, or even where he slept at night. He had no wife, but there were twin daughters somewhere called Judith and Sarah. He carried miniatures of them painted on the backs of playing cards.
"We can't stay standing here," I told him sharply. "The child can find her own way home." Friends we might be, but in the petty hierarchy of spies I was Gabriel's proctor; I gave him his orders and took his reports.
He shot me a withering look. "You're a heartless bugger, Rob. No wonder you're a dead loss with that French girl of yours. We can't just leave the poor mite to herself."
I couldn't budge him when he knew he was right—and he was, of course. In such crowds, stray children were often stolen and sold into service, or worse.
So Gabriel swooped down and picked Rosie up, lifted her high in the air where her mother might catch sight of her, swung her round, then lifted her up again and again, till she was squealing with delight. In a moment, a frightened young woman in a rain-soaked white cap came pushing through the press of people towards us. "There you are, you naughty baggage," she cried, taking her daughter in her arms. "Nay, it's all right, my lamb. It's all right."
A pale creature, the mother was, little more than a girl herself, with a look of permanent weariness round her careful mouth, a nasty black eye, and a bruise on her neck. A wife, a dog, and a walnut tree, so the old saying went. The more you beat them, the better they'll be.
"Them flowers was for the queen," she said uncertainly. There were bound to be gossips in the crowd, people who knew her. If she stayed talking too long, there'd be more bruises before morning.
For a moment she studied her daughter's rescuer, deciding how much deference he deserved—a tall, slender fellow of middle age, more unshaven than bearded, his sandy hair frizzled by the river damp and spangled with mist. A face that might have been made with a chisel—broad forehead, high cheekbones like the folded wings of a bird, nose a perfect narrow plane. Bootlaces undone, secondhand velvet breeches too big and balding at the seams, brown doublet flapping, shirt frills unfastened. Within the ratty costume of fabric and flesh, he waited out his private apocalypse.
The young mother settled for a nod of her head. "God bye you then."
"Don't go yet." He tickled Rosie under the chin and tossed a coin to a flower seller. "Mustn't have the blessed old queen disappointed, hey, pet?"
Let me tell you. There are fragments of living that slip beyond time and lodge themselves permanently in the present, that bring you suddenly out of hiding and drench you with a precious mortality. What comes next is such a moment.
Gabriel hands the little girl a nosegay of pansies. Heartsease, people call them. A simple act, deceptively casual. But then he does a thing I could never do. If I tried, it would become a clumsy ploy in a game of seduction, the sort of thing Annette's disapproving French Protestant eyes would condemn in an instant and for which her sleek body would punish me all night long.
In him, it is without motive. It is real. He lets his hand stray towards Rosie's girl-mother, his long fingers poised upon the air a quarter inch from her blackened, swollen eye, his broad palm so near he must feel the painful quaver of her lashes. He is learning her as he does every woman—farmer's wife, whore, lady's maid, duchess, little girl. When we use him in the dark work, it is for this secret communion with women, for the ways he can maneuver them to further our needs. Whilst I maneuver him.
But whatever I let my masters believe, this is beyond me, beyond my spider's control. It is how his blood thinks.
Watching him, a part of me is crippled with envy and love.
And then the moment shatters and another begins, and another and another. The wild bells start to ring. Trumpets sound and the Queen's Guard appears with Captain Ralegh, dark and tall and splendid in his silver-chased armor and crimson sash, riding ahead of them. Four Yeomen run beside Elizabeth's great white horse and four ladies ride horseback behind her, all dressed in velvet gowns of sea-green and peach-color and lion-tawny.
The queen herself wears dove-grey velvet, the sleeves pinked with claret-colored satin and the skirt and bodice and stomacher sewn with hundreds of pearls. The lace partlet and the pale pink ruff are studded with smaller pearls, and the silver caul that catches her flame-colored wig under her riding hat is pricked with pearls. They are a magical armor. Behind it, she will never grow old.
She pulls up the horse, untangles her skirts from the sidesaddle, and slides down to the ground. Ralegh dismounts and sweeps her a gorgeous bow, and the queen laughs her famous wild laugh, courting the crowd. "Oh, he's a pretty fellow, don't you think? Pray God this rain does not rust him!"
"Long live Her Majesty!" cries a pieman, and a great cheer rises and rises, flowing like a joyous and dangerous tide. Elizabeth waves, laughs, waves again, making a face at the stiltwalker. Another cheer.
The hysteria is reaching its height. Her body sways in an invisible current, and Gabriel's eyes do not leave her face. Her elegant head turns slightly, the fine bones almost visible through the alum-and-eggshell cosmetic.
Then the light thickens. Time stops and the universe stumbles. Beneath the gaudy surface of the crowd, some new darkness gathers. People moving aside, people grumbling. Figures inching towards her. Shadows. Ghosts of shadows.
The hot-apple-pieman approaches, holding out some of his wares. "Come, sir," Elizabeth beckons him. "Queening—it is hungry work, you know."
He moves forward. My throat tightens and my eyes scan the square. No sign of the tongueless man. A cutpurse is hard at work now, and a young girl is foisting pockets. A one-eyed mountebank has been selling potions, a hundred tiny bottles swinging from cords on his jerkin, his shirt sleeves, his breeches. Inside his ragged cloak something else clatters. A dull, thick, implacable sound.
Elizabeth's eyes are like whips, flicking the crowd. She sees the potion-seller. Disregards him. When she sees Gabriel she looks away and then looks back again, intensely aware of him. A slender human scratch on the grey morning, older than the flexed curve of his body. Older than his unaccountable smile.
The dull sound comes again. The queen glances at the mountebank and her gloved hand lifts, one long, thin finger pointing him out. That one, there. The shape of death. The sound of it. Rattle of steel. Boots on the cobbles. There.
And then out of nowhere, children's high voices are singing. Long may she reign, in majesty glorious, ever victorious, God save the queen. They walk in procession, herded by the tubby, beaming old parson. Little boys with jenny wrens in gilt cages, and Shrove buns, and poems on scrolls tied with ribbons. Little girls. Little girls with bunches of flowers. And Rosie, her blue-green eyes shining. Rosie, with her bunch of heartsease.
Gabriel's head jerks round and his body pivots to face the potion-seller. Something gleams in the pewter light and then everything happens at once, a blink, a shard of time, quick, quick. Woven under the noise of the crowd, the fragile chiming of glass bottles as the mountebank throws back his cloak and raises a pistol, a petronel, to take aim at the painted oval of Elizabeth's face.
"Miserere mei, Deus!" he cries, crossing himself. God have mercy on me.
Gabriel lunges, long body sprawling, knocking down people like ninepins. Knocking down children. Rosie is somewhere in the midst of them, I can hear her wailing. The sound of a hundred tiny bottles all smashing together as the two men struggle. Then a flat thump, not much louder than the fistfuls of mud that hit the Jack o' Lent. The gun has been fired, the muffled sound of damp powder. But at so near a distance even a bungled shot can kill.
Someone's blood spatters Elizabeth and she crumples, only her stiffened farthingale and her five layers of skirts keep her out of the gutter. "Get her up, you fools, get her up!" Ralegh shouts, as though she is a bit of fallen plaster or a broken cup.
"God's death!" she screams at him. "God's deeeeeeaaaaaaath! The children!"
For an instant, Gabriel's fist poises itself like a hammer in the air, and then I lose sight of him completely. The mummer with the lion mask dives for the assassin's weapon, kicks it under the bookstall. The old parson snatches a little girl out of the way, then another and another. One boy's arm is broken, he is howling. Another has a bloody nose. Rosie's grey gown is smeared with blood, but she is not hurt, she still clutches her pansies. Her mother screams and screams and screams.
And what do I do? Why, nothing. I see the apple tart smashed on the ground at Elizabeth's feet. The grit of broken glass. The pieman staring down at his bloody arms where the pistol ball has passed through both of them. His blood on the flank of the white horse. The queen's pearls splashed with blood.
But I keep my distance. I am a watcher, it has always been my part in the dark work of spying. I observe. I remember. I hear confessions, but I do not extract them. I attend upon history's cock-ups. I wait and do nothing, even when waiting is the worst crime of all.