Chapter Nineteen

 

 Pete wiped the last of the custard from his cheek and belched roundly. Brushing the crumbs from his chest, he leaned his back against the sun-warmed wood of the barn behind which he had hidden to enjoy his repast in peace, and took a swig of water from the wineskin.

For three weeks now he had been walking steadily north, looking for work with half a heart and less luck. At least he looked a wee sight better – sort of. He had traded his new shirt to a blacksmith for a small knife which, after he had sharpened it on a stone for a while, had proved sufficient to afford him a rough shave. Of course, the loss of that shirt meant that he had needed to nick another from a washing line. Alas, the well-used farmer’s tunic he now wore made true the adage that beggars could not be choosers.

 At least the food he nicked was a good sight better. He refilled his wineskin from farmers’ wells in the dark of night, and though he would have preferred ale, the water was at least cold and clean. The pie he had just eaten, like many of the others in the past few weeks, had been carefully spirited away from a windowsill where it had been set to cool and rushed a quarter-mile down the path wrapped in Pete’s voluminous muffin hat to avoid detection. Admittedly, t’was not the cleanest way to transport food, and Pete’s hat bore several new stains for its role in the crime. But Pete had no desire to be anywhere in the vicinity when the goodwife who had unwittingly provided his lunch discovered the theft.

 Additionally, Pete felt unhappy about the stealing, if the truth were known. He was not a religious man, so it was not fear of G-d that nagged at him, nor was it his concern for those from whom he took. If they ‘ad enough bloody coin to bake a pie in th’ first place, they could bloody well make another one, or so he assumed. Nay; in the rare moments when he allowed himself to dwell on his feelings, he supposed it would be closer to the mark to call it wounded pride.

Pete would readily admit that he might not be the sharpest lance at the joust, but he had brains enough, and a strong enough arm to do a man’s work. Oh, he had enjoyed his days of lazing about, in faith. But something in him now suggested that he ought to be commanding enough coin to have pies of his own ten times over, instead of sneaking them off a fishwife’s sill.

Aye, yet the long and the short of it be tha’ I simply cannot find the motivation to go and seek employment as some stable hand or hoe-for-hire.

Nearly meeting death had a way of making a man’s priorities clear, and this much was plain: Pete had wasted too much of his life already drifting aimlessly and finding the odd job where he could. He was destined for… well, he was not certain what, but something better than that!

 Pete looked at the guitar he had propped against his ankle when he had stretched out to enjoy his custard pie. All he really felt motivated to do, if truth be told, was to compose and play. He knew from Uncle Tycho – who was himself a rather accomplished musician when he was not burying his brass nose in his newest astrological chart – that he had a better-than-average ear. Tycho had also praised his compositions, and had taught him enough poetry to know good lyrics from bad. He had a fair voice, and had always suspected that it could be better if he applied himself to using it more consistently. More than anything else, he was simply rusty from lack of practice. But if he really put his mind to it….

 Well, then, why no’? Why should I not try me ‘and at balladeering? Od’s wounds, the girls ha’ done it!

He felt a momentary twinge as Ariana’s face scowled at him in his mind’s eye, but he quickly pushed the thought away.

Right. I am barely a day’s walk from Reading, and from there ‘tis no more than two days, three at most, to London. If a minstrel canno’ find work in London, then ‘e might as well chuck ‘is instrument in th’ fire.

 Pete grabbed the guitar and hoisted himself to his feet. After relieving himself against a fencepost near the barn, he hiked up his trousers, slung the wineskin across his back, and plodded merrily back to the path. His stomach was full, the sun was actually shining, and he was on his way to take London by storm.

 

 

“Dost thou like it?”

Ariana twirled in order to better display her new skirts and bodice for Rosemary. Six yards of burgundy cotton lawn from Rosemary’s dower trunks had gone to make a new overskirt for Ariana and a chemise with bold, pointed sleeves for Rosemary. Another bolt of cobalt, with a few yards left over, had made for Rosemary a pretty overskirt that saucily emphasized her opulently rounded hips and hind quarters. Ariana had additionally bought two yards of dark blue brocade from the tailor, which he had fashioned into a bodice that showed her slender waist to fine advantage. All of these were still missing trim or other adornments, but it felt so good to be in something fresh and new that Ariana twirled again, just for the joy of it.

“Lovely,” exclaimed Rosemary, laughing and pressing her sleeve to her cheek just to feel the softness of the cotton lawn and laughingly smoothing her skirts as they were lifted by a sudden breeze. Her father had left her a generous inheritance in these fabrics; none were less than the highest quality.

“It feels so glorious to be in something new that I feel I ought to write a song or some such thing! Mayhap thou couldst accompany me on thy new guitar!” Rosemary’s green eyes twinkled and her cheeks flushed prettily as Ariana stopped twirling to gaze reproachfully at her.

“Nay, never look at me like that, Ariana!” she continued. “It is not the same as the coins! That was to buy thy freedom, and t’was a spur-of-the-moment decision. This was something I thought about for days.”

“But that was to be a wedding dress,” Ariana protested, but Rosemary spoke over her.

“I traded the Sarcenet silk for a guitar because it will benefit both of us! If – and I shall not hold my breath, grant thee mercy –if I have need of cloth for a wedding dress, then when that time comes, I shall buy some… but it doth me no good sitting in a trunk waiting. I may need a gown later, but we need a guitar now! And think, with a guitar, we can earn money enough for gowns aplenty! Nay, I shall not hear another word. Thou didst spend thy last coin on catmint and coca leaves for…”

Rosemary’s throat constricted on the name, and she quickly swallowed.

“…for that man. And wherefore? Because he needed it. Well, thou didst need a guitar! Else what is money for if not to get the things we need?”

Ariana puffed out her cheeks at Rosemary, too happy with everything to stay annoyed. And in sooth, Rosemary had a point. She needed a guitar if they were to earn a living. Rosemary took two fingertips and pressed lightly on each of Ariana’s cheeks, making Ariana expel the air in a whoosh, removing her fingers only when Ariana’s lips curved in a grin. Thus forgiven, Rosemary dug into the pouch at Ariana’s side and counted the coins within.

“Let us dine – I am famished!” Rosemary re-wrapped the twine about the button on Ariana’s pouch to fasten it, and pulled the younger woman by the hand towards the square. Several times they had passed a baker’s with delicious-looking pasties and meat pies displayed in a window, but had not had time to stop. Rosemary had earlier announced that on such a morning as this, when the air was crisp and they wore beautiful new clothes, that a fresh meat pie like the ones Sarah used to make would be fitting. But as the women turned out of the alley and into the square, their attention was diverted by a youth in royal livery nailing a scroll to the pillar in the center of the square. Already a crowd had gathered, and those who could read were translating for those who could not.

“Come on,” Rosemary said excitedly, and ran with Ariana’s hand in hers until they reached the cluster of bodies gathered about the post.

“Ugh, I do despise being so short!” Ariana muttered as the two women craned their necks and bounced upon tiptoe to see in between the shoulders of those in front of them. At last, the liveried youth collected the five or six rolled scrolls at his feet – no doubt duplicates of the one he had just mounted upon the post – and stepped down from his perch. A path was made to let him exit, during which time Ariana and Rosemary squeezed themselves up front before the wave of bodies could close ranks again.

Quickly, Rosemary scanned the document with an official-looking seal at the bottom, and upon completing it, squealed and clutched Ariana’s hand. Ariana, improved in her reading but still significantly slower than Rosemary, waved her hand to silence her friend until she had caught up. After she too had finished, she turned to Rosemary, who was bouncing impatiently on her toes, and said,

“Doth this mean what I think?”

“Aye! A call to entertainers of all sorts to play before Lord Roget, Master of Revels for the King! Those chosen as worthy by Lord Roget will perform for his Royal Highness at Greenwich during the next Christmas Court! Oh, Ariana!” Rosemary’s face was alive in a way that Ariana had not seen since before John and Sarah had kissed them god-speed.

“We shall want trim now, for certain,” Rosemary continued, grabbing at the point of her sleeve and examining it. “Mayhaps we can do a bit of embroidery on thy skirt and bodice, and I shall add a bit of ribbon to these sleeves… oh, I wonder if the tailor might not be able to make me a new bodice, too - ”

“Rosemary!” Ariana interrupted, pulling her friend aside. Rosemary balked, but Ariana pulled harder and managed to get them both back into an alley where they might talk in private.

What?” Rosemary asked exasperatedly. She knew that look on Ariana’s face: the one that let fear o’ershadow her ambition.

“Rosemary, we cannot play for Lord Roget! We have not practiced in weeks! What would we sing? And -” she stressed the ‘and’ loudly to forestall Rosemary’s impatient interruption, “- and e’en if we could get something good enough rehearsed in time, dost thou honestly think they shall let us play before the royal court? Us: a Jewess and…” Ariana gestured helplessly at her hematite moon and unbound hair, imploring Rosemary with her round blue eyes.

“Well, take the blessed moon off thy forehead when we audition, then,” Rosemary objected. “In sooth, thou lookest like no gypsy I have e’er seen, save for thy jewelry!” Rosemary paused as a thought occurred. “Thou art permitted to remove it for a little while, art thou not?”

Ariana nodded, shrugging, and Rosemary carried on as before.

“Then who shall know the difference? We shall braid thy hair and thou shalt wear a garland so it looks more English, and as for me – well, who besides thou doth know I am a Jew? As far as they are concerned, I am Rosemary - a perfectly respectable English name - and if my coloring is less than fair, they may speculate that I have some French or Greek in me but I defy them to prove it.

“Come on, Ariana,” Rosemary pleaded, taking her friend’s hands in her own and squeezing hard. “We have three weeks in which to prepare! In that time, we can sew such lovely ribbons on our skirts as will befit women of the middling class – which I am, and who shall step forward to say thou art not? – and we will take no rest until we have perfected such a song as will charm any man, woman, or child as shall be fortunate enough to hear us!”

Her voice dropped to a whisper. “’Tis the chance of a lifetime, Ariana. And I should venture so far as to say that we are good enough to win that chance! Mayhaps we have only gotten the response we have from weathered seamen and country folk, but have not they ears? They know good music when they do hear it. We are ‘good music’, my friend. And if Roget says nay, are we any worse for the wear?”

Rosemary’s voice had risen again to full volume, and some of her passion had clearly found its way to Ariana, for the gypsy squeezed her friend’s hands back. “Prithee, Ariana. We lose nothing for trying. What say you?”

“Oh, all right, all right, we shall do it! Thou hast it aright – what have we to lose?” Ariana squealed in her newfound excitement, and the two girls hugged and hopped up and down, oblivious to the “Tsk!” of an old woman who had nearly been knocked over as she attempted to pass in the narrow alleyway.

“Shall we discuss it over a mid-day meal?” asked Ariana, looking back towards the bakery.

“Aye, but it shall not be pasties, I am afraid. We need to save our coin for ribbons and trim – but art thou not glad that thou hast a guitar now?” Rosemary grinned, and Ariana slapped her lightly on the arm.

“Aye, aye, aye! I am glad. Now let us back to the inn to rehearse! Three weeks is ample time, I suppose, but ‘twill be gone ‘ere we know it!” Again Ariana took Rosemary by the hand, and with light feet, they ran through the streets of London back to their cozy, rented room, there to review their repertoire and find a song worthy of the King.