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An excerpt from Michelle Butler Hallet's This Marlowe

Coins fell on his face. Dreaming of Tom’s kisses, he twitched. Let me sleep.

Kit lay on his back, on a straw tick and wooden pallet, upturned palms framing his head. Coarse brown hair, threaded with grey like his beard, straggled past his shoulders from beneath a snug woollen cap, and the blue circles under his eyes reached his cheekbones. He wore clothes for winter, the fabric fraying and holed: decrepit hose and slop breeches, and, beneath a leather jerkin, three layered shirts. Sturdy shoes, buckled and shearling-lined, kept his feet warm, these shoes a gift from his father, a master cobbler, some years before. A tangerine silk kerchief covered the wind-chapped skin of his throat, and a blanket outlined his compact body: not quite middling height, and slender, sinewy. This build deceived people. Kit could move with a startling vigour and grace, winning or escaping most fights.

Ric knew it. Short and stocky, he also wore tangerine silk round his neck. He glanced at the two constables he’d hired: one each on the side of the bed as he stood at the head. The hearth lay dark and cold; the tiny window admitted scant winter light; Ric dropped another coin.

A numbing little slap: no kiss.

Eyes still shut, Kit rolled over, bunching the blankets and revealing a dagger strapped to his right thigh. His muscles felt relaxed, even heavy, a delicious sensation after months of vigilance and overwork, and his thoughts slugged like cold honey.

Ric knelt near Kit’s head.

Kit rolled on his back again. Wait.

Flushing’s winter cold reached him. So did a sudden odour of onions and meat: the sweat of a man he knew.

A warm coin on each of his closed eyes —

Kit swatted the coins away and made to stand. His legs failed. He fell back on the pallet and tick, knocking the air out of himself. Three unfriendly faces blocked his view of the ceiling.

Fucked.

Almost throwing him, the two constables hauled Kit to his feet.

Ric smiled, held out his arms. —Thou dost look utterly simian: a little monkey chained in a library.

Kit inclined his head as though acknowledging a com­pliment. Then he told himself to keep still as Ric approached him. Instead, he lunged away from the constables. They pulled him back, hard.

Ric stooped a bit and pressed an ear to Kit’s chest. —Be not so pensive. Last night I said thy heart beat brave and true.

He looked up.

—Oh, ’tis pounding now.

Kit spat in his face.

Ric wiped his eye clean with the ends of his silk kerchief. —Save it, Marlowe. Thou’lt be thirsty.

Wrenching his neck, Kit addressed the larger constable in rapid French, expecting English would get him nowhere. —The wine. Last night. He tainted the wine.

The constable shrugged. He understood; he didn’t care.

Ric faced Kit and clapped a hand on his shoulder. Voice low, he spoke in English. —If thou’dst accepted mine offer, as thou didst accept last night my gifts of dried beef and wine, thou’dst have enjoyed a sweet and heavy sleep, and, later today, a hot supper. But no. No, ’tis never easy with thee. ’Tis like the one who would steal fire, suffering then his heart to be plucked out by crows each —

—Liver, Baines.

—What?

—The punishment of Prometheus, la: liver, not heart, and eagle, not crows. For Christ’s love, hast thou read nothing? Prometheus languished, aye, chained to a rock, and each dawn, an eagle tore out his liver. Scrap by scrap. Smoke rose from that blood-drizzled beak. Wounds burn, Baines. Stolen fire burns. As the stars etched their maps on the charred sky, the liver of Prometheus did swell. It grew back. Relentless dawn and the eagle’s truth: wings interrupted the light and so defined themselves as the light shone around them, indifferent. Recognition: with or without it, the agony plays anew. Now, thine agony, Baines, how shall it come? Oh . . . Aye, a starling. Small.

Squinting, Ric looked to the constables, then at Kit. He found no clarity. —I do humbly thank thee for the lesson, good master tutor —

—Good master poet.

—But I beg thee, say: how earned Prometheus his punishment?

Kit smirked. —The question is: how earned Prometheus his justice?

—Ah, le garçon.

Ric was pointing. Kit looked. So did the constables.

A boy of maybe eleven now stood in the doorway, darkness obscuring his face.

Still speaking French, Ric asked the boy if he recognized Kit.

—Oh, oui, monsieur.

The boy sounded eager to help.

Then he added that Kit had used him as a catamite the night before.

The two constables dragged Kit to a wall, the shorter one snarling in his ear. —I’ve got a son that age.

As Ric paid the boy, adding that he felt, thinking on the boy’s pain, such a stab of sorrow, Kit struggled and almost got loose. The boy ran off, footfall light and fast on the stairs, as a constable seized Kit’s hair and hauled back his head

—Leave off! I’ve never seen that boy before!

A coin smacked his cheek...

excerpt historical fiction This Marlowe

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