The pulley-wheel creaked, rattled, and finally let out a lengthy squeal as the two twelve-year-olds payed out the rope in fitful jerks. “Dig your heels in!” hissed Mosca Mye. “I thought riding made you strong. Are all the horses in this town as weak-shanked as you?”
The stable boy went red, more with shame than effort, and hauled back on the rope. Eponymous Clent caught his secretary’s eye and pressed his finger to his lips. He pulled back the burlap curtain that draped the stable doors and peered out into the innyard, where a wooden stage creaked under the weight of four players, all staring up in amazement at the miracle of stagecraft by which a plump woman seemed to levitate, wreathed in clouds of white wool that almost hid the hay-hoist.
Caliber Borage, the leading player of the small troupe, was attired in a smock and a straw hat to represent Goodman Stopstaddle, He Who Averts the Rains from the Haymaking. The hat had been a point of some contention between himself and Lucella Marbles, the wardrobe mistress. Neither had come out the victor; it was neither wide enough to be a realistic accoutrement for a field laborer on a hot day, nor narrow enough to leave Borage’s face entirely unencumbered.
“White though these clouds may be,” he declaimed to the standing crowd, “yet they portend / showers and shade to come ere this day’s end!” He still had not quite decided on which accent to use.
The Chorus, comprising Goodladies Twittet, Loominhearse, and Evenax, representing the Dawn, Evening, and Night, clustered behind him and caroled “Showers! Showers! And Shade,” in three-part harmony. (Clent had originally written a quartet, with Goodman Boniface to represent Day, but had been forced to write him out by Borage’s inability to choose between the principal male role and the handsomest.)
Mirabelle Marbles, Lucella’s sister and the company’s leading lady, let out a small hiccup as the the rope caught her under the armpits again. She was resplendent in a dress that looked, in the daylight, really not anything at all like cloth-of-silver, but was, at least, almost convincingly white. Now that Clent had seen the flying effect in action--and heard Mosca’s considerable complaints about its accomplishment--Clent was beginning to think a single quick descent to stage level would have done just as well to introduce the Sprinkler of Summer Rains. The audience did not appear even to have noticed how her rises and falls mirrored her success in the debate with Goodman Stopstaddle. In fact, the rabble of locals--and the few refugees from Toll who had come this far--seemed distinctly confused by the entire production.
And for all that playmaking was a low occupation for a poet, he really had tried his best. He mouthed the words along with the players, again appreciating their cadences:
STOPSTADDLE: Look you, Goodlady Marlibine, upon
My windrows basking in the noonday sun.
Another noontide must the hay abide,
For though it may be cut, ‘tis not yet dried.
MARLIBINE: Nay, but the orchard’s sere; the kitchen yard
Cracks in the summer heat, the earth baked hard.
Her breath hung about her face in white clouds. Perhaps he could add a line to make that seem deliberate, instead of ironic?
Hark to their cries! My supplicants, attend,
And tell this goodman what the rain must mend.
Colt Spurges, apprentice player, elbowed Clent aside to make his entrance as Goodman Whillibrink, Remover of the Slug from the Cabbage. Behind him, Lucella tied on her wreath of white chintz flowers in imitation of apple blossom for her brief appearance as Sister Marziple, Filler of the Cider-Press.
The audience shuffled in confusion at the entrances. This was the first time the players had wintered in Little Stringes, and most of the Little Stringites had never seen a play before. A carter in the front rank elbowed his fellow. “Think they’ll bring out that big gander? I’ll put a cord of wood on King Prael if he come out.”
Most of Clent’s attention, however, was focused on one particular spectator. Seated on a bench in the second-story gallery that led to the guest rooms, buffered against the cold by thick rugs and against the crowd by two stout gossips, their patroness showed no confusion at all about the afternoon’s endeavor--nor, yet, any sign of amusement or artistic transportation.
Clent had not sought out his winter’s occupation as a playmaker. It had waylaid him upon the road out of Toll, in the form of a Stationer journeyman named Cantilever Quake who had ridden out with some dispatch to meet the exodus and depose Clent on its causes. He hinted at some employment, and Clent presented the scraps of information to Mosca as a certain thing, but privately he was more nervous; he brought the child to his second meeting with Quake as a talisman, in hopes the greenish pallor that still hung about her from Toll would induce a sense of generosity.
Quake paid Mosca little heed. “The guildhall in Waymakem has received a request,” he said, “for a playmaker-in-residence.”
“I’m principally a poet,” Clent demurred. “An odist. A refiner of ethereal emanations, not a mere scribbler of low mimery.”
“You are a Stationer agent,” Quake parried, “and you have refined the ether into, at last count, forty-one charges of fraud.”
“It was thirty-nine!” Mosca corrected.
“It was thirty-nine a fortnight ago; news has caught up with you.” Quake did not offer any information on the newest charges and Clent resolutely did not ask. Quake broke the silence first. “A client in Little Stringes proposes to lodge a company of players at the inn there over the winter, and she requires a guild-licensed poet to produce plays to order--one per fortnight, ideally, for the whole of the winter. You and your secretary would be lodged in the inn and have no need to venture outside the town until spring.”
“By which point, dare I to hope, my various minor transgressions against truth might be forgotten?”
“Contingent on the client’s satisfaction, yes.”
“Of course, of course. Tell me of this mysterious patron--no, patroness,” Clent said, remembering the pronoun--“of the lower arts. Some provincial lady? No. No, the picture forms itself now in my mind--a young bride, married not quite a year to some great landholder, longing already for the amusements of her city girlhood. Do I hit the mark?”
“She’s the spinster sister of the local squire. And acting magistrate, while he’s at Parliament. Timothy Hustifer.”
“I don’t think the ethereal is emanating in your direction today, Mr. Clent,” his secretary offered.
Clent sighed. “Very well. What is the sister’s name?”
Quake’s blank face finally showed signs of cracking. “I told you. Timothy.”
Clent’s knowledge of agricultural matters was largely restricted to metaphorical devices, but he had read several illustrated botanicals, and after a moment’s gaping cudgeled his brain into remembering a drawing of timothy-grass. “Stopstaddle?” he ventured.
Quake smirked. “Her brother’s named Ted. They’re twins.”
Mosca nodded sagely. “There was a Windrovia born under Stopstaddle, back in Chough. She always said she was just glad it wasn’t Alfalfa.”
Mistress Timothy turned out to be somewhere between forty and sixty, with blue eyes and pale skin and mousy hair all converging inexorably on the color of steel. “The inn used to have beast fights.” She poured raspberry leaf tea. There was honey instead of sugar; Little Stringes was even poorer in imported niceties than Toll. “A terrible pastime.”
“Oh, indubitably, Your Honor,” Clent agreed. “Such a terrible cruelty. You are clearly far too kind-hearted to suffer such ill-treatment of Nature’s children.” He eyed Saracen, methodically chewing on his muzzle straps, and hoped it would not be necessary to establish his bona fides as an animal lover by petting the creature.
To his relief, Mistress Timothy huffed. “Never mind the beasts; my concern was what it did to the men. Encouraged gambling and an excess of monarchism, and I don’t know which vice is worse.” She poured for herself and tipped the tea immediately into the saucer to cool.
Mosca, whose radical tendencies had only been increased by her stay in Toll, pricked up her ears so visibly that Clent felt it best to tread rather hard on her foot. “Indeed. And so you propose to give the locals plays instead?”
“That rather depends on you, Mr. Clent. This Borage fellow and his troop came to town in November, and I’ve paid to lodge them until spring, but most of what they know is histories, and most of those are no more than beast-fights between men in costume. And the comedy they know--well, it rather…”
“Conduces to a different set of vices?”
Mosca sipped her not-tea with an attitude probably intended to be worldly. “You mean it’s got raunchy bits.”
“And very little else, if Master Borage’s troupe is typical of a provincial company,” Clent said.
“So I should like you, Mr. Clent,” the lady continued, “to produce some plays about the Beloved. Good wholesome stories.”
“I think I understand the charge. Homely tales, imparting moral lessons.”
“And if that’s beyond you, a lack of immoral lessons will suffice.”
Watching his audience watch the performance, Clent remembered why he had never taken pupils. The crowd was diligently missing every moral lesson he had so laboriously caused to be enacted. They’d even started rummaging in their pockets--Clent pulled the curtains tighter, bracing for the incoming deluge of ordure, but instead saw hands waving iron nails, ribbons, sprigs of wintergreen--all the small currency of a people nearly innocent of the corrupting influence of cash.
“Bring out the beasts!” the carter shouted, and the crowd took it up as a chant. “Bring! Out! The Beasts! Bring! Out! The Beasts!”
Colt Spurges adjusted his cabbage-leaf crown and put on a comical accent. “There be no beasts here, good fellows!” He mimed searching under cabbage leaves, unsuccessfully. “Or at least there be no slugs, on my honor.”
Borage strode downstage and skipped ahead to his next speech, cutting off the Chorus’s attempt to harmonize on Spurge’s ad lib.
STOPSTADDLE: Then be not gone forever--but a day,
A night, a morning tarry. Let the hay
Be tedded, raked, and stacked up safely first--
And then, dear Lady, come and quench our thirst.
“Oh!” A brewer near the tavern door smote her forehead, and Clent had a momentary hope that he had actually imparted a lesson. “I get it! He’s for the Twin Queens--like squire and his sister--and she’s for the Prince Above the Waters!” She elbowed through the crowd, rooting in her apron pocket, and slammed a fistful of iron onto the planks. “Ten nails on Prince Pratergracht!”
“My good woman,” Borage bellowed, abandoning the rustic accent, “we are artists, not prize fighters!”
“Twenty,” the brewer said, “and split the takings.”
“Offer all you like, we’re not--urrgh!” He was cut off midsentence by Mirabelle Marbles’ foot in his chest. On her backswing, he managed to grab her by the ankle, and the carter’s friend yelled “Twelve on the Queens!” Stakes piled up on the edge of the stage.
Clent turned to Mosca and the stableboy. “Bring her up, quick!” They hauled on the rope as heavily as they could, but Mirabelle was a stout woman, and kicking and swinging fiercely. Clent lent his own weight to the rope but could still barely budge it--and then another kick tore down the curtain, and he could see Borage hanging on Mirabelle’s ankle, his own feet barely on the ground, twisting and biting while she kicked at his ears. In the distance, Mistress Timothy had her head in her hands.
Heaving desperately at the rope, Clent took a step backwards and stepped on what, from the sound and the sudden explosion of white, was a very confused goose. The rope escaped his hand; the goose, its tether loosed or eaten through or forgotten, waddled out onto the stage. From his vantage point on the stable floor, Clent saw a tangle of players plummet, land in a heap, and be heroically summited by Saracen, the upset winner on behalf of King Prael.
The carter who had wagered on Prael split the takings with Mosca, as Saracen’s agent. The innkeeper, a thin and twitchy woman named Drowzibet Flood, had promptly commandeered Mosca’s surprise wealth as surety against any further goose-related damages. “It’s a deposit,” Clent had said. “Mistress Flood wrote me a receipt; it will all be returned to you--in coin, no less--when we leave, less any deductions for anything else your feathered fiend destroys.”
“That’s just a legalified way of saying she ain’t giving it back.” Mosca pointed with her chin to the chimney-place, where Saracen was prying up the glazed tiles.
“As both the money and the monster are yours, Mosca, that is also entirely your problem. Our shared problem, however--and one that will lead not merely to impoverishment but eviction--is that we now have one week to produce a play with nothing whatsoever that these king-hungry rustics can take for an endorsement of any claimant, aspirant, or pretender to the throne.”
“A week? You couldn’t argue her up to a fortnight?”
“Mosca, it is no disparagement to my powers of persuasion to say I have never argued so well in my life. Mistress Timothy was unmoved. That woman has a will of adamant.” He opened his penknife and tested the blade. “Mosca, I require a quill.”
Mosca approached Saracen fearlessly, chucked his chin, and somehow managed to finesse a wing feather without being eaten. “Why’re the people in this town so fired up about their kings, anyway,” she said, plunking herself down across the table. “‘S not like a little town like this would ever see a king, even if they had one.”
“I think you’ve answered your own question,” Clent said. “Horses do not place bets on the steeplechase, and men do not wager nails and ribbons on events they have true stake in.
“I’ll pose you another question,” he continued, cutting a square nib. “Why is Mistress Timothy, alone in this Beloved-forsaken place, so staunchly anti-monarchist?”
“Is that the kind of question you really want me to answer, or the kind you say when you’re talking to yourself?”
“The word you are looking for--” Mosca’s eyes turned on him, greedily--”is rhetorical. And the question is only partially so. Who benefits, Mosca, from the fervid clamor of the rabble for a king?”
Mosca had somewhere procured another pipe, likely with a nail or two reappropriated from Mistress Flood. She took it out and chewed pensively on its stem. “Not the kings. I doubt half of them even know they’re still thought of anywhere in the Realm, let alone in a pismire-nest like this one.”
“Such a cosmopolitan this child has become, in the, what, four months since I plucked her out of Chough?” He dipped his pen and began drawing up a Dramatis Personae.
Mosca narrowed her eyes pointedly--no doubt she meant to remind him that she had plucked Clent from the pillory, but the gesture also displayed her dark eyebrows, grown in completely since the flight from Chough’s color-leaching waters. Much could change in four months.
“Any gate,” Mosca went on. “I don’t think it helps the Guilds much either. They’re outside all that.”
“Largely true. The Guilds relied on a political lacuna to rise to their current prominence--but a change in the nominal executive of the Realm would not topple them now.”
“So I don’t see that anyone benefits. ‘Cept Parliament.”
“Precisely. The fixation on monarchies-to-be obscures the actions of the Parliament-that-is very nicely. But what I do not understand is why Mistress Timothy is so eager to dispel that cloud.”
“Her brother sits in Parliament. And it don’t seem like he’s here much.”
Clent tapped his pen thoughtfully against the lip of the ink-bottle. “You think she wants his constituents to proffer him his share of glory?”
“Or blame,” Mosca said. “Whatever he’s doing in Parliament, they’re not getting much out of it here.”
“A thorny question,” Clent said. “Especially if we cannot find a more non-monarchical, not to say anti-monarchical, matter for the new play.” He slid the clean sheet of foolscap across the table.
“The Parliament of the Beloved,” Mosca read, “Being a Comedic Idyll upon Religious and Moral Themes, and Most Particularly their Application in the Political Sphere.” She tilted her head and considered the page. “I think you could fit more title in, if you wrote small.”
The rector of the village’s little chapel owned a bound calendar of Beloved: a book with a page for every day of the year, each divided to show the tutelary guardians of the hours. It was an older edition, from early in the Birdcatchers’ reign, and missing some names, but still there were several thousand in all--for every Boniface or Yacobray who held sway over a whole day or night, there were half a dozen Hebdomacys, Underwhiles, Minivers, and Pitchitts who ruled a single hour. Clent had Mosca cut strips of paper and interleave them into all the page gutters, and then, with unwonted method, spent the first day methodically marking the slips with Xes next to names unsuitable for the play.
Out went every Beloved with a connection to water, fields, mountains, or any other geographic signifier for a royal’s home in exile. Out, too, went any Beloved who might call to mind the loaves and water jugs that stood in for such features in mealtime toasts, from the great saints who presided over sowing, reaping, binding, threshing, winnowing, milling, sifting, and baking to Goodlady Oughtercase, Who Seals the Crack in the Crockery. Out went every name associated with any heraldic beast--or reasonable facsimile thereof--or, in fact, any beasts, at all. Out went the protectors of everything twinned, from eyes to oxen to stockings. Out, too, went not only Stopstaddle but the namesakes of all the leading Little Stringites, even those few who had never expressed a preference in monarchs. Mosca’s papers filled up with red Xes--no Birdcatcher had ever cut such a swath through the pantheon.
After a sleepless night decimating the ranks of the Beloved, Clent read out his much-shortened calendar to Mosca, who took it down, not without challenging some names he had let pass. “Couldn’t Goodlady Zanache be taken to mean King Hazard?”
“Anything, Mosca, may be taken to represent anything else. I have made my livelihood as a poet exploiting this universal attribute of language, and never thought I would find such cause to rail against it.” He rubbed his temples under the lappets of his wig, where his head was beginning to throb. “And were I a praying man, I would be begging the Goodlady’s favor as the patroness of all enterprises founded on spurious credit and factitious motive.”
“That’s just it, though--she’s called the Knight of the Glorious Bluff.”
“...which, to a sufficiently partisan mind, could evoke Hazard’s debated victory at Golden Scarp. Yes, strike out Zanache.”
The final dramatis personae was a strange gallimaufry of Beloved, great and small, well-loved and nearly forgotten. Clent made a virtue of necessity and shaped the matter of the play around that notion--all voices, the loudest and the stillest, joining in one argument. The company’s size, unfortunately, limited ‘all voices’ to no more than eleven at once, and that only if no one needed sewing into their tunic and Mistress Lucella could take the stage.
Rather more unfortunately, the company’s fortunes made the other premise of the show a hard sell. “When you say ‘Keep to the book,’” Borage said at the first rehearsal, “you mean, in general terms.”
“I mean in general, specific, literal, metaphorical, and every other interpretation that might occur to you between now and the final bows, Mr. Borage. There are to be no alterations, no ad libitum additions, no last-minute revisions, and no improvisation.”
“Caliber,” murmured Mistress Mirabelle, “I don’t understand what he’s saying.”
“I think he wants us to just...play the words,” Colt Spurges explained. “I’m not really sure how that works, though.”
“Mr. Clent, I don’t think you’ve thought this through. I know you’re not accustomed to writing for the stage, but--we are players. Not reciters. Musicians,” he declaimed, “are not hired to play only the notes on the page--no, they exercise their art in their choice of ornament, the delicate ostinato, the fantasia upon the ground theme--”
“Mr. Borage,” Clent interrupted, “I don’t give a damn how you exercise your art, and I am increasingly cavalier about the exercise of mine own. I do care, most intensely, about our collective residence in this reasonably weathertight lodging and would like to retain it until at least March. Which means pleasing our patroness, which means playing the show she has contracted to see.”
Spurges bit his lip in consideration. “Is this about the fighting?”
“Very good, Master Spurges. This is about the fighting. There is to be none.”
“Right, but the thing is, Mr. Clent, the audience wanted to see a fight.”
“And they will go away disappointed.”
“Ah. Mr. Clent.” Mistress Mirabelle turned a smile on him that was meant to read as bland and polite to the back of the gallery. Up close, it was slightly overwhelming. “I think I see where you’ve made your mistake. The audience offered money to see a fight.”
“The delightful truth of a marketplace, my good lady, is that the presence of a buyer does not require one to sell. You may hold fast to your property--by which I mean, the integrity of your art--and retain it against all offers.”
“Mr. Clent, how high a value do you expect me to place on the integrity of my performance as Goodlady Chiffit, Dispeller of Rust?”
Mosca looked up from the one manuscript draft, which she was turning into the foulest fair copy Clent had ever been privileged to see. “What if you could be Goodlady Lilyflay instead?”
“Mosca, I cannot rewrite the play with Lilyflay--”
“Sure you can; there’s no Xes next to her at all. Mistress Mirabelle, I’ll put you down as Lilyflay, and Mr. Clent can just change all the lines about iron to be about purity or summat instead.” She scribbled a blotty line through Chiffit’s name and blocked in LILYFLAY in wavering letters.
“Mosca, this is not--oh, damn it all.” Mirabelle was sitting up very straight, practicing expressions of innocence, while Lucella experimented with arrangements of her curls. Clent sighed. “I suppose it should be a simple enough substitution. Now. Are there any other questions?”
Spurges’ hand shot up. “Can I be Goodman Boniface?”
Bringing all the cast on board required such extensive revision that Clent was writing and rewriting, by daylight and candlelight, for the entire week. When Caliber Borage knocked at his door at dawn, the day of the performance, Clent threw himself over his scattered pages protectively. “No, Mr. Borage, there will be no more revisions! If you’re not satisfied with Goodman Asheneye--”
“Peace, Poet. I’m here for your secretary. She can both read and write, is that so?”
Mosca looked up from her copying. “Wouldn’t be much use as a secretary if I couldn’t.”
“Your employer is still scribbling away. That’s not going to give us enough time to learn the play before we play it. You’ll have a copy, and you’ll need to cue us.” He opened the small window and gestured for Mosca to stick her head out. “You see the trapdoor down there, in the middle of the stage? We’ll prop it just ajar, and you can crouch--actually, you’re small enough to stand--just under it with the manuscript, and say lines to players who look at you. Don’t declaim, but don’t whisper, either--it carries. Just buzz them--like a bluebottle, eh?”
“Yep, that’s me,” Mosca said, in what she may have imagined to be a bland and agreeable tone. “And you’re named after Goodlady Dionina, aren’t you?”
“That’s right,” said the player. “The Steadier of the Shooter’s Hand.”
“So, is play-acting a step up from poaching, for you? Or a step down?”
The first act was haltingly played--the ink was still wet on the pages, and Mosca quickly went hoarse cueing almost every line--but there were no outbreaks of partisanship in the audience. The second and third acts--after a short song and dance by Spurges, which gave everyone else time to con the new pages--actually went rather well. But by act four, the audience was becoming restless.
As was Clent himself, on realizing whence his sleep-starved wits had dredged up some of the last, midnight revisions. Why, in Lucella’s impassioned soliloquy as Goodlady Cramflick, She Who Keeps the Garden Vegetables Fresh, whole lines about the unsuitability of every candidate for kingship had been taken nearly verbatim from the radical broadsheets of Mandelion. He had even rhymed ‘ermine’ with ‘vermin’ and ‘self-determine’! He stuck his nose almost completely out of the curtain and peered around the innyard, already counting steps to the nearest exit--but the audience was quiet. Mistress Timothy, in the gallery, looked thoughtful. As for the groundlings--the brewer who had incited the riot at the last performance turned to her gossip and said, “Is this just...about the Beloved?”
“Can’t be. Can it?”
“I keep feeling there’s something else in it.” She chewed her lip as Cramflick trod a paper crown under her foot. “But there’s nothing else up there. Just...Beloved.”
Spurges answered as Goodman Caudlecowl, Who Keeps the Fire Hot Under the Pudding:
Then let us each and all be kings! And none,
For if each wear it, then what means a crown?
To each of us enough of wisdom’s lent
To lend again, and make a Parliament.
There was a pause, in which Mosca could be heard rasping “Not Lilyflay.”
Not Lilyflay! or Goodman Boniface
Alone, but each Beloved in his place
To speak unto his fellows, and to hear,
And through their discourses a course to steer.
The brewer’s gossip’s eyes narrowed as she listened, and then flew wide. “I have it!” Clent froze, one hand on his purse, the other on his pocket knife. “Caudlecowl is the squire! Because Squire Ted has a face like a boiled pudding!”
“Which means...Caudlecowl is the Twin Queens? That don’t seem quite right.”
One of the Toll refugees, a well-dressed merchant, laughed in her face. “Don’t you know anything about politics? If Caudlecowl is Ted Hustifer, then Cramflick must be the member for Parsnips Magna.”
There was a rustle through the crowd, of a hundred villagers turning out the pockets of their brains for whatever political knowledge they might risk a wager on. It was not enough to turn out many actual pockets; a few nails clinked, no more. Clent held his breath and dared to hope that the play would end without violence.
And then Mistress Timothy, eyes alight, stood up in the gallery and shouted, “Nine silk ribbons on Cramflick to beat Caudlecowl!”
Lucella eyed Spurges and hefted her turnip-headed scepter. The trapdoor shut with a thunk as Mosca abandoned her station and appeared almost instantaneously under the stage at Clent’s side. “Wait it out,” she croaked, “or grab Saracen now? I know where Mistress Flood put the deposit money.”
Spurges’ shoe flew through the rent in the curtain. “Our first task, Mosca, is to burn the script. Do you have it?”
She produced a bundle of pages from an apron pocket. “‘Cept for the pages I ate. I figured when I saw some of this you wouldn’t want it out there with your name on it. ‘S why my voice is like this.”
There was a roar from the other side of the curtain, over which Mistress Timothy could be heard backing the winner at double or nothing. “My dear, foresighted, provident child, you may yet make an excellent secretary.”