Women Spies and Genderbent Playwrights – Excerpt Edition

This is the third post in an ongoing blog series talking about aspects of the novel I’m writing (women spies and genderbent playwrights!), set in London in 1600. A novel I’m crowdfunding to buy time to write. You can find the first blog post about the novel here. And the second here.

When last we checked in on the novel, I spent some time acquainting everyone with the book’s origin and protagonists. There was, also, talk of the next blog re the novel concerning itself with spycraft and the twilight of Elizabeth I’s reign. And while that blog post is coming (July was a busy month with some surprises I’m still attending) I’m going to put up an excerpted chapter from the novel instead.

I’d not originally planned to do excerpting, but my S.O. brought up the possibility of doing so, and I rather like the idea at this point. Especially as it lets me give everyone a better sense of the project itself, in addition to all the talking around it I’ve been doing in support of the crowdfunding.

For those not up on what exactly the novel’s doing (if you’re just wandering across the project, say), the links at the top of this post will give you more background. And a fairly basic distillation of the project can be had with this logline: A Midsummer Night’s Dream meets RED.

(Hence some fun had using Helen Mirren’s performance as Prospera in Julie Taymor’s adaptation of The Tempest as the header of this post, given Mirren’s crossover with both RED and Shakespearian work.)

I will note two things before we get to the actual excerpt. First, I rarely title a project until it’s done, which is why I keep referring to the book as “the novel” or as the “Anne and Kit book” in these posts. This noted in case you were wondering. I’m not intentionally leaving you in suspense as to the title; when there is a title, I’ll share it. Second, the following excerpt is a first draft — with a little polish on it or I’d not be putting it up — but consequently still quite rough.

In that light and knowledge, I invite you to sit back, relax, and allow me to introduce you to Anne and Kit:

______________________________________________________________


Newington — London, Middlesex, Surrey. Early Summer, 1600.


“I just don’t understand how you can not want to bask in the adoration of your work. To take it as your due and … revel,” says Kit. Her close-cropped curls a softer cap to the mud-slicked black of her man’s raiment. The alehouse filled wall to wall with bodies, its wood drowned in the reek of beer and sweat and muck.

“You revel enough for the both of us,” says Anne, sloshing the ale in her mug. Her own raiment far simpler, softer in its muted greens and dun whites; she drawing far fewer eyes, aided by the shadow in which the two of them sit at the back of the room.

“Well that’s true.” Kit leers at a passing dark-skinned serving girl with long, flowing hair, who blushes and hurries on. “And the rewards have always been delectable.” Kit’s eyebrows laugh for her as she drinks from her own mug.

“Must you flirt with all of them?”

“Honour bound,” nods Kit. “But tell me true:”–she leans in–“regardless, good man that he is, how can you still stand to live in Will’s shadow? What comfort’s to be found in never being known for your playcraft?”

“I much prefer being able to venture safe these streets without my name nor face known than take to stage and bow. To be hemmed entire by that crowd, let alone the ones in the streets…. I have not your love for it.”

Kit waves the thought away. “All in past. And now you’ve a talent for eliding notice almost as good as mine.”

Anne rolls her eyes. “Your swagger notwithstanding.”

“Incumbent. How else do you think I move so free through the ranks of these delightful gentlewomen. Even in this attire.”

“I’ve seen you free enough in other garb these past years, Kit. Are you not afraid of being recognized like this?”

Kit shakes her head. “A full seven years since any saw me thus. And they recall my work, Anne, not me — foul a thing as that is to me to own. But still: the women are willing, in this raiment and other. And that is a saving grace more welcome than most.”

“It wasn’t the women I was thinking of.”

A drunken party staggers past, laughing and cheering, giving only the slightest glance to either woman; intent on their own conversation.

These?” laughs Kit. “I’ve no interest in them and they none in me.” Kit lowers her voice. “But in earnest, you’re well and truly missed, Anne. Could do with you under Cecil’s guiding hand. A competent enough man, but no Walsingham. And the Queen suffers for it.”

“You vouchsafe this opinion of your spymaster freely?” returns Anne, equal quiet, more mirth in it than awe.

“And will deny it vehemently should ever such be spake in my name.”

Anne sits quiet, staring into her ale. “I had no love of that life either, Kit. Intrigue, deprivation of even the most basic necessities in the field, appalling pay, exhaustive testing of wit and mettle…”

“So still missing it then?”

“Horribly.” Anne takes a belt from her mug and coughs at the backwash. “But I have Will and the children to think of.”

“A strange life, the having of children. How you can bear to have them, let alone lose—” They both quiet. “Lord, I’m sorry, Anne. I didn’t—”

“It’s all right. I’m made of sterner stuff.” Anne inhales deep and sweeps aside a lock of her hair. “As you may recall.”

“Vividly. Still…” starts Kit, and trails off, reconnoitring the room with a glance. Anne waiting on Kit to come back to the moment. “I do miss their knowing that a greatness walks among them.”

“At least your modesty is constant,” says Anne, grateful for Kit’s change of subject as she sips at her ale. Kit studiedly oblivious, still watching the raucous crowd, every muscle straining to be engaged.

“I miss them seeing me, Anne. Now they do me greater honour than ere I lived, but none of it in the flesh.”

“Take you no tribute in flesh, then?” smiles Anne. Kit can’t manage more than a momentary slitting of her eyes at Anne before her grin returns. “Be honest with yourself, Kit, they only venerate your work because they think you dead.”

Kit sniffs and leans back. Posture straight as the blade at her side. “Yes, well, their fool luck they’re wrong.”

“Don’t take it so hard. Playwrights are never entirely respectable enough for fierce veneration until we’re in the ground.”

“Oh another gem for the ages, that,” counters Kit, waving her hand airily. “Almost as good as ‘All the world’s a stage.’ You know once that’s performed it’s going to be the line they remember you for. Even had you not had it plastered across the entrance of that monstrosity of a theatre you convinced Will to build.”

“I certainly hope not. I’d much rather they thought of me for something like ‘Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand…’” Anne begins dramatically, halting at Kit’s smirk. “…You know how it finishes.”

“Oh would but that it did. And enamoured as you are of your Titus, therein you’ve given them a far better epitaph: ‘Methinks I do digress too much.’”

“You ass.”

“And you love me for it,” smiles Kit.

“Always,” says Anne, colliding her mug with Kit’s. Their laughter rising to meet the ruckus that fills the alehouse.

#

Anne and Kit stagger drunkenly out the door of The Hawk’s Feathers and down along a plank toward the muddy, cobble-pitted street, the waft of London’s sun-warmed reek strong in their nostrils. Wooden towers several storeys high around them pen in the smell of horseshit and vomit mingling with the scent of ale and wet wood from recent rains. The open sewer in the middle of the street to which all the waters run possessed of its own heady bouquet.

Kit drags Anne out of the way of falling effluence from chamberpots emptied out windows overhead, and Anne returns the favour by waving off beggars in the gutters and hawkers arrayed along walls and between doors. The two women wading their way through the thick river of the crowds.

“What I don’t understand,” slurs Anne, shouldering past several passersby in their way, “is how you can choose to live in London. Mud and shit everywhere.”

“It helps not to wade through it with kirtle and gown’s hem,” answers Kit, shoving a protesting man aside. “Be glad you’re not sporting a farthingale as well under all that ruck.”

“And I don’t suppose your reversion to men’s clothes has anything to do with why you called me here. Or,” adds Anne more quietly, and far less inebriated than she appeared a moment past, “that we’re being followed.”

Kit grins at Anne, and slips the barest glance at the two women slipping through the crowd in near-perfect unison a street’s length behind them. “I was wondering when you’d notice. They were on the other side of the alehouse. They’ve been my shadows for days now. Since a day or two after I sent for you.”

“Any particular reason you didn’t mention this before?”

“You’d have just been upset.”

“Do you at least know why?”

“Doubtless an infiltrator among Lord Cecil’s network.”

Anne doesn’t break stride. The tension in her shoulders the only sign anything’s wrong. “What have you brought me into, Kit?”

“I’ll tell you once we’ve dealt with these two. We just need a suitable venue for the coming show.”

“The alley at the end of the street? A surfeit of shadow. High, thin, but enough room to manoeuvre.”

“I prefer them slightly more muscular myself. But you always did know the bulk of my preferences, Anne.”

“It’s a miracle I’ve still not killed you,” mutters Anne.

“And lose my continued tutelage toward your craft?” Kit grins and pretends to stumble, loosening her sword in its sheath as they cross the lip of the narrow jumble between two buildings hewn from rough wood and girded with stone. The alley little more than a crossway, span barely broad enough to fit two abreast.

“Near a score plays produced, Kit, and the toast of London.”

“Yes, well, I managed that with six.”

“Not all of them yet as famous for you though, are they?”

“As though everything you’ve ever laid quill to dripped gold. Two Gentlemen of Verona still doing well for you, is it?” Kit kicks a gaggle of beggars huddled in the muck to spur them elsewhere. She lets slip a glimmer of her blade as they protest and the beggars leave in a hurry, rousting their fellows at the other end of the alley as they go. “And I’ve time. Once we’ve seen the lot of my works in publication, they’ll all of them have their due,” she adds. By the time the two women who’ve been following them round the corner and halt, not having expected their quarry to have stopped so soon, the crossway is clear save for Anne and Kit.

Kit bends over and makes as if retching, using the opportunity to signal Anne to stand clear. Anne takes a step back as the two women redouble their advance, noting the plain nature of their dresses, and the indiscriminate nature of their features — studiedly so.

As their pursuers come within a body’s length, Kit wheels in one drunkenly fluid motion, sword in hand, and hooks it beneath the chin of the taller of the two women. Her blade just tickling the woman’s throat. Neither Kit nor Anne surprised to find blades already naked in the hands of the two women now confronting them. “And who might you be? I assume The Zealot’s sent you in her stead,” Kit slurs at the woman dancing on the edge of her blade’s tip. Anne’s eyes go wide at the name on Kit’s lips.

The agent snared by Kit lowers her weapon to rest, and signals slowly for her companion, the shorter of the two, to do likewise. She complies, but glowers at Kit, then at Anne, her body tensed to spring.

Anne moves another foot back to give Kit room to work, watching the contest more intently now.

“If you know hers, then my name’s of no consequence to you, lady Marlowe,” says the agent in a soft, Scottish burr.

“Oh, we’ve moved past introductions then? Good. I’m in no mood to prolong this evening’s play.” With a single flick of her wrist, Kit slits the agent’s throat and leaps for the other.

The littler agent raises her sword in time to parry, screaming at Kit in rage as her fellow’s body collapses into the mud. She fends off Kit’s first flurry of blows, and manages to rally. But she’s outmatched, and Kit breaks her guard and thrusts through her heart — the agent’s cry cut short as Kit twists her blade and pulls it out.

Anne sighs as she goes to stand over the first dead woman.

“Is that disapproval I hear?” calls Kit over her shoulder, cleaning her sword’s blade with a dirty linen before sheathing it. “And here I thought that went rather well.”

“You might have given me time to question them,” says Anne, bending down to rifle through the kirtle of the first agent. “I would have liked to know why they didn’t keep a better distance, or more ably avoid discovery, or how they knew about you in the first place and by name no less. And I’d have welcomed the opportunity to pressure them into giving up the name of The Zealot’s agent among Cecil’s men if they knew it – and thank you, incidentally, for not warning me that The Zealot was involved in whatever you’ve caught me up in. Nor indeed informing me she still lived.”

“They came at us blades bared, Anne. They’d not have been convinced to betray their Lady. And I can’t help what they know or not. Save by silencing them.”

“Yes, that’s going to work splendidly. Assuming you find the whole of her network and ‘silence’ the lot of them.” Anne frowns. “Nothing. No papers of any kind. She knew she wouldn’t live through an encounter if caught. Though—” Anne halts a moment, drawing down the bodice of the woman’s dress as she catches sight of something peeking up above the agent’s collar. She bends in closer and draws down the fabric further, squinting.

“Be glad we’re alone,” mutters Kit, “given the vaguely unsavoury air of your actions.”

Anne ignores her. “She bears a full tattoo of a woman in miniature, body broken but her face arrested in bliss. From the position of her hands and the lay of the body, a depiction of a saint maybe? Though not an iconography I recognize.”

“That bodes not ill at all,” grumbles Kit, slurring the words. The slowing of her speech enough to prompt a concerned glance from Anne before she goes to the other body, examining first her chest, then digging about the rest of her person.

“The same?” asks Kit.

“Aye, her too. The same mark tattooed above her heart, and naught else on her person. The lack of proof will not go well with us.”

“What proof do we need? They admitted to being in service of The Zealot.” Kit staggers, and reaches out to the wall for support. Blinking rapidly to clear her head.

“I was thinking more of their pursuit and interest in us aiding your proof of The Zealot’s presence in London; or at least that of her agents. But now, what of when someone finds their bodies?” says Anne, crossing her arms.

“By then we’ll be long gone. And who’s to speak to us having been in this place?” Kit gestures wide with the arm not supporting her against the wall: “A better-suited site we couldn’t have found with malice aforethought.” Kit coughs and clears her throat. Then doubles over and retches into the alley.

Anne looks away in disgust. “And here I thought you were faking inebriation.”

“As ever”–swaggers Kit, pushing herself off the wall–“I am nothing if not a high functioning drunkard.” She bows from the neck, mock-formal rigid, then stiffens truly and topples full-bodied into the mud of the alley. Muffled snores bubble up from the alley’s soft bed.

Anne rests a hand across her eyes and sighs in resignation. Then bends down to gather up Kit’s sullied form. Kit starting awake at Anne’s touch.

“What? What did I miss?” asks Kit. Wiping ripe muck from her face with her sleeve.

“High functioning sot, indeed,” mutters Anne. Kit exhales in her face. “Oh god.” She angles Kit’s face to the side before hoisting her up by the shoulders. “Where to, Kit? Where are you living this time?”

“Not home,” groans Kit. “Bolthole’s better.”

Where, Kit? Is it at least in Newington?”

“Walk and talk,” nods Kit. Doing her best to stay upright as her legs slide out from under her.

“When I think of all the times I saved your life…. I don’t know why I bothered given how hard you work to throw it away.”

Anne doesn’t see the third figure — hovering at the edge of the alley, concealed in shadow, brushing unruly thick locks of black hair out of her face. Nor does she see her follow them at a better distance than her compatriots managed.

#

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Do you love women spies, genderbent playwrights, and alt/secret history novels? Then you should totally consider clicking here to go help with the crowdfunding to support writing this book. And/or feel free to spread the word. I’m easy.

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