Release Date: May 2012
God’s wound, but it was another fight.
And Anna was sure she could guess what the cause was, too. Or rather, who the cause was.
She put down the costume she was mending, and peered over the railing of the upper gallery to the stage below. Morning rehearsal had not yet begun for Lord Eversham’s Men, and only a few of the players sat there, desultorily running lines as Old Nell swept up the old rushes. It seemed an ordinary start to a day at the White Heron Theater—perhaps she had imagined the shout.
Nay, for there it was again, moving closer from the lane outside. A man’s hoarse shout, a woman’s scream. A disdainful laugh.
The men onstage heard it, too, breaking off mid-scene to turn curiously toward the bolted doors.
“It seems Master Alden has returned,” Anna called down to them, her voice calm and steady. Unlike the rest of her. Her hands trembled to grab onto Robert Alden and shake him hard! And then to drag him close and kiss him.
“Fool,” she whispered, not knowing if she meant him—or herself.
“Shall we go bring him in?” Will Collins, one of the players, said.
“I suppose we must,” Anna answered. “He owes us a new play, and we’ll never have it if his arms are broken.”
She spun around and hurried toward the stairs, lifting her gray woolen skirts as she dashed down the narrow, winding wooden steps. Past the lower galleries, empty and echoing so early in the day, and into the yard. The quarrel was louder there, as if the brawlers played to the groundlings.
But Anna knew too well that if any blood was shed, it would not be from a burst pig’s bladder and a retractable stage knife.
Will was already unlocking the doors, the players drawing their real blades. Even Old Nell leaned on her broom, looking on with keen interest.
As if theater life was not already unpredictable enough, Anna thought wryly. Rob Alden could always be relied upon to liven things up.
And that was why she was such a fool. She finally had her life calm and orderly, after the end of a most ill-advised marriage. She helped her father, Edward Hawthorn, with his businesses, especially the White Heron, and she loved the challenged of it all. The fact that she was good at the work, and was needed. She had no use for the perils of romance now.
But when she looked at Rob Alden, she felt like a silly girl again. A blushing, giggling clot-pole of a girl, just like all the legions of ladies who only came to the White Heron to watch him onstage. To toss flowers at him and swoon. To lift their skirts for him in one of the boxes when they thought no one was looking.
He was a handsome, tempting devil indeed, one with the magical gift of poetry in addition to his dark eyes and tight bum. Anna refused to be tempted, though. Refused to be another of his easy conquests. Her task was only to lure plays from him, those wondrous tales that drew vast crowds and great profits. A play by Robert Alden was always a great success, and ran for days and days.
But there would be none of those beautiful words if he killed himself in a brawl, which Anna feared very much he might.
As soon as the doors swung open, she dashed through them, clutching the fearsome weapon of her sewing scissors. The actors were right behind her.
Southwark was fairly quiet in the morning hours. A district that made a living in dubious pleasures like bear pits, brothels, and taverns, all the things the other side of the river banished, could never easily rouse itself after a night’s revelry. The thick, pearl-gray mist off the river hung over the shuttered buildings and muddy, mucky lanes.
But a few shutters were thrown open, sleepy faces peering down to see what the trouble was. Trouble always attracted much attention in Southwark, no matter what the hour.
Anna first saw the woman, a buxom female clad in bright yellow, dingy silk, her matching yellow hair straggling over her shoulders. She was crying, the tears carving streaks in her face paint.
Anna’s gaze darted to the man who stood in front of her, waving a sword about wildly. A great, portly bear of a man, with a reddened face and thick black beard. He looked quite unhappy, ready to explode even, and she felt a cold touch of disquiet in her belly. The man was obviously drunk, backed up by three equally angry minions, and that made him most unpredictable.
Not like the theater at all, when the script made it clear how everything would end. Had Rob gone too far this time?
She spun around to face him, who seemed most unconcerned by the whole scene. Probably he, too, was ale-shot, but he gave no indications of it. His dark brown eyes, despite being a bit red-rimmed, shone like the night sky, his grin merry and mocking, as if imminent disembowelment was greatly amusing.
Unlike his opponent, Rob was lean and lithe, with an actor’s grace. His unlaced white shirt revealed a smooth, muscled expanse of bare chest—and a thick smear of blood. He held a rapier in one hand, lightly twirling the hilt on his palm as the grayish sunlight flashed on its blade, and on the thick gold rings adorning his fingers.
Anna knew that he was a skilled fighter. She had seen such too many times, both onstage and in the street. The man’s mocking tongue and hot temper were irresistible attractions to brawlers. But somehow this time felt different. There was a tense charge to the air, a feeling of time standing still before crashing down on them.
“Mistress Barrett!” Rob said, giving her an elaborate bow. “I see you have come to witness our revels.”
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