Chapter Twenty Two

The next morning

 

Right, then! Jugglers and acrobats to my left! Musicians, to my right! Careful, you there! Oooh!”

The King’s Chamberlain, Lord Poofte, was coordinating Lord Roget’s royal audition, and he barely missed having his nose knocked off by a juggler whose errant club had sailed too wide. Lord Poofte flicked his lace-edged handkerchief wildly about his face for a moment before testily resuming his consultation with the lengthy parchment in his arms.

It was easy to see that Lord Poofte was overwhelmed by the turnout: sweat dappled his brow and caused a small stain to mar the back of his gold and blue brocade doublet. His yellow stockings clung wetly to his skinny calves, and one side of his carefully curled moustache drooped piteously beneath his shiny nose and wide, panicked eyes.

One could not blame him for his reaction, for it seemed that all London had turned out for the audition. Musicians huddled in corners practicing their songs whilst stilt-walkers careered dangerously about the room, dodging the various airborne objects flying from jugglers’ hands. An angry youth was shouting at a befuddled-looking magician, opining that a disappearing penny whistle that could not be made to reappear was not a particularly amusing trick, and a man with no fewer than seven goats was putting them through their supposed “amazing feats” with only a modicum of success. Towards the back, Ariana and Rosemary stood close to each other, their arms curled protectively over their instruments and their noses wrinkled at the pungent smell of the goats.

“Now then. Now then!” Lord Poofte shouted as he mounted a small crate, and gradually the hubbub in the room subsided.

“As you know, Lord Roget, Master of the King’s Revels, is within the next room awaiting your, er, performances.” Poofte eyed the goats with distaste before continuing. “Because of the unexpectedly large turnout, each act will be given no more than three minutes -”

Three minutes?” Ariana hissed. “That is barely enough for one song! I guess we shall have to cut Blackbird.” Rosemary waved her hand to quiet her friend as the man continued, raising his voice over the hubbub of angry muttering.

“I shall repeat: thou art each entitled to three minutes, and no more! Now, then. I want musicians to my right, jugglers and acrobats to my left. Magicians, go with the acrobats. Mummers, in front, and, er…. you there, with the goats. Erm… aye, mayhap ‘tis best if you just stay where you are.” Poofte rapidly clapped his daintily-gloved hands. “Quickly, everyone! We have not got all day!”

Trying to avoid the crush of bodies, Rosemary and Ariana shuffled with their instruments to where the musicians were gathering. At first, the excitement in the room buoyed the women’s spirits. But after forty minutes of waiting for their turn, the heat began to make Rosemary feel faint, and they sought to maneuver themselves into a corner where she might lean her back against the wall. Ariana, with her flute and guitar strapped to her body, had just squeezed herself into a likely spot when she heard Rosemary suck her breath through her teeth in what sounded like fury. She turned around in time to see Rosemary push a bearded fellow with a lute out of her way, not even stopping to apologize or to catch her harp, which teetered as she hastily set it down. Ariana quickly set a hand on the harp to steady it and craned her neck, for her view was momentarily blocked by the lute player. But when the fellow righted himself and angrily thrust two upturned fingers at Rosemary’s back, Ariana saw what had caused Rosemary’s abrupt flight: Wicked Pete, holding Ariana’s stolen guitar to his chest and looking frantically about for a place to hide. Quickly, Ariana shoved Rosemary’s harp safely into the corner and started after her.

“How darest thou?” Rosemary hissed as she reached Pete, grabbing onto his sleeve to prevent him from escaping. “To leave us like that, with no word, and to take Ariana’s guitar with thee? How couldst thou?”

Rosemary’s lips were white with anger, and Pete involuntarily stepped back a pace at the sight of her livid face. Rosemary’s fingers dug into his jerkin as she hauled him to her again.

“Do not you move, do not you take one single step until thou hast answered me, thou conniving, dissembling -”

“Pete, thou scoundrel! What art thou doing here? And is that my guitar?” Ariana reached for the neck of her old guitar, still clutched to Pete’s chest. Pete grunted and turned his body to prevent her from taking the guitar, only to find himself pinned like a beetle to a board with the blazing fury in Rosemary’s green eyes.

“Thou vile… unhand her guitar this instant, or so help me Lord, I shall -”

“Right, then.” Lord Poofte appeared at Ariana’s shoulder, peering distractedly at his parchment. “Thou three, ‘Half Pint’, is it? Get ready, thou art performing next.”

“But -” Ariana began, her eyes widening in panic.

“As soon as that magician is finished, I shall send thee on.”

Rosemary looked from Pete to Lord Poofte, horrified as she realized the man’s error. “My lord, there is some mistake. We are not -”

But Poofte was pushing all three of them towards the door, shouting over his shoulder at one of the Mummer troupes to keep the noise down and paying no heed to her protestations.

“Er, m’lud, I am not with these- oomph!” Pete’s attempt was cut short as he tripped over a sword-swallower’s stray blade and only just missed crashing into one of the goats.

“Rosemary, do something!” Ariana hissed, and Rosemary stopped in her tracks to try once more.

“Prithee, Lord Poofte, wait a moment. This man is not with us, he is -”

“Now, look!” Lord Poofte stopped pushing long enough to wipe the sweat from his brow and thrust his quill in Rosemary’s startled face. “There be thirty other musicians here to audition, and at least three score more of various other sorts, so make up thy mind! Dost thou wish to audition or nay?”

“Aye, but -”

“Then ready thy selves, thou art on in three, two, one…”

And without another word, Lord Poofte shoved them through the curtained door and onto the stage.

A large man in a brilliant red robe and a red plumed hat sat with a young scribe at a small table in front of the stage. “Ah, musicians, excellent. Name?”

“Name?” Rosemary whispered as Ariana gulped.

“Aye, name. Name of the band. Of the three of you. Quickly, in haste!”

Of the three of us? Rosemary’s mind was whirling. ‘Half Pint’ was the name that she and Ariana played under, but something within her balked at including Pete in that moniker. Think, think!  Noticing an ale stain on Pete’s jerkin, she blurted out the first thing that came to her mind.

“Three Quarter Ale.”

The scribe’s quill scratched on the parchment as Lord Roget shifted his great bulk in the chair and Pete offered his silent opinion of the name with a furrowing of his brow.

“And what wilt thou be playing for us this day?”

Pete opened his mouth to reply, but Rosemary quickly forestalled him.

“If it pleaseth thee, my lord, we shall play… er… All Around My Hat.”

“Very well, at thy ready.” Lord Roget cleared his throat and reached under his thigh to un-stick a bit of his robe that had become caught on the chair.

Rosemary turned frantic eyes to Ariana and Pete, and saw her own fear mirrored on Pete’s face. Galvanized into action, Ariana swung her guitar around to the front and played the intro, taking advantage of Lord Roget’s momentary distraction to hiss angrily at Pete, “The chords are D, A, and G; chorus after every verse and twice at the end. Follow me and do not mess this up!”

Just in time for the downbeat of the first verse, Rosemary grabbed the tambourine hanging from a cord at her waist, pasted a smile upon her face, and sang in harmony with Ariana,

 

All around my hat

  I will wear the green willow, and

  All around my hat

  For a twelvemonth and a day.

  And if anyone should ask me the reason why I’m wearing it,

  It’s all for my true love, who’s far, far away!”

 

Somewhere during the second line, Pete emerged from his startled reverie and started watching Ariana’s fingers to decipher the chords she was forming, strumming hesitantly along. Nervously cutting a glance at Lord Roget, Rosemary saw that Roget was peering concernedly at Pete, who was playing badly and with very little conviction. Fortunately, Pete noticed it too, for in that instant he straightened up, faced the front, and began to play with forced confidence. He did botch one of the chords, but recovered quite rapidly, and after a moment, Roget’s eyes slid from him to Ariana, who was doing her bit to take the focus from Pete’s hesitant playing by tossing her braids about and cocking a shoulder playfully in Roget’s direction. Rosemary breathed a mental sigh of relief, and, in tandem with Ariana, sang the first verse with renewed vigor.

 

Fare thee well, cold winter, and fare thee well cold frost.

  Nothing have I gained, ah, but nothing much I’ve lost.

  I’ll sing and I’ll be merry when on occasion I do see

  He’s a false, deluding young man! Let him go! Farewell, he.

  A-and all around my hat…”

 

Once again, Rosemary snuck a peek at the auditor’s table, and was pleased to see the scribe absently patting the table in time to the music. It allowed her to relax just enough to become aware of the fact that – now that he had the chords in the right order - Pete’s guitar playing was really rounding out their sound quite nicely. He brought not just additional volume, but, as he had in the wagon, frequently tossed in small ornaments or alternate chord voicings which gave the accompaniment more depth.

Stop that! Rosemary silently chided herself as she rang out a flourish with the tambourine. He may play well, but he is still a thief and a scoundrel, and I shall NOT think well of him, I shall NOT!

Ariana had finished her solo verse, and Rosemary’s heart leapt when she saw Lord Roget smile and nudge the scribe to write something on his parchment. Mayhaps we shall escape from this debacle unscathed after all!

Feeling much more at ease, Rosemary smiled broadly at Roget and flashed her eyes at him, rejoicing in the small moue of pleasure that bent his mouth as he acknowledged the feminine attention. An’ the music doth not win him, the flirtation shall, she thought.

But, alas the day! Rosemary had dropped her guard too soon, for she had just opened her mouth to begin her solo verse when Pete took a giant lunge forward and launched into an elaborate guitar solo, bending his guitar strings and contorting his face grotesquely, as though he was in some sort of intestinal discomfort. Rosemary darted a horrified look at Ariana, who seemed as unnerved by the occurrence as she. Before she could even think how to rectify the situation, Pete had leapt off the stage and was playing the solo directly in Lord Roget’s face, not a foot away from him!

Rosemary squeezed her eyes closed, certain that at any minute Roget would send the scribe to fetch a guard, who might, if he was extremely forgiving, settle for merely tossing them unceremoniously into the street.

But Ariana had been unable to look away from the heart-stopping spectacle, and noted with some asperity that despite Roget’s initial reaction - leaning as far back as he could in his chair and throwing an arm protectively over his face - Roget had now lowered his arm and appeared to be… well, tolerating Pete’s proximity if not quite reveling in it. The scribe, on the other hand, who was at least twenty years Roget’s junior, seemed thoroughly ecstatic about Pete’s bold move, and nodded his head vigorously as Pete made his way back to the stage.

Rosemary still had her eyes squeezed shut, and only Ariana’s frantic “hissst!” brought her ‘round in time to begin her solo verse. Rosemary’s eyes popped open and she spared Pete a single venomous glare before once again pulling herself together and belting,

 

A quarter-pound of reason and a half a pound of sense;

 A small sprig of ‘time’ and as much of prudence;

You mix them all together, and you shall plainly see,

He’s a much deluded young man. Let him go! Farewell, he!”

 

Lord Roget seemed to have recovered from the unexpected assault, and after straightening his hat and adjusting his robe, appeared to be enjoying himself once more. Just for good measure, Rosemary winked at Roget on the last word of the verse and began a flirtatious side-stepping dance on the downbeat of the chorus, tossing her hair about and flashing her cat-like green eyes. It was rather livelier and a good deal more risqué than was expected of courtly musicians and Rosemary hoped it went not too far. Certainly a court jester might trip whilst he trilled, but it was not traditionally the thing for minstrels or respected court balladeers.

Well, needs must when the devil drives, she thought, and with such a cobbled-together performance lacking the polish upon which she and Ariana habitually insisted, she felt compelled to pull out the sole remaining trick in her arsenal. Pray it doth not count against us!

But Roget seemed pleased by the addition of a bit of wiggle, so Rosemary flashed her eyes again and smiled sweetly at him. Ariana, ever in tune with her friend, followed her band mate’s lead so quickly that Rosemary doubted Roget even noticed that it was unplanned. Gratefully, Rosemary grinned at Ariana as they danced together, and tried in vain to make eye contact with Pete, in the hopes that he might pick up on the cue. But Pete was so immersed in his own guitar playing (having grown comfortable with the chord changes two choruses ago) that he was oblivious to her silent plea, and instead was occupied with bending at the waist as he strummed lustily, shifting his weight to and fro in intense concentration.

 

“… and if anyone should ask me, the reason why I’m wearing it

  It’s all for my true love, who’s far, far away.”

 

Finally in desperation, Rosemary shouted, “One last time!” to indicate to her unwitting new partner that they would be repeating the chorus a second time as an ending. To her vast relief, Pete stopped wanking about and once again closely watched Ariana’s hands so as to match her chords in case the ending was different than the regular chorus. At the last line, he seemed to be able to read their silent musical communication well enough, and ended in perfect time with them as they sang,

 

“… who’s faaaaaaar, faaaaaaar awaaaaaaaaay! All around my hat!”

 

“Huzzah!” shouted the scribe, grinning idiotically at Pete as the three musicians bowed to conclude their song. “What playing!”

“Er, yes, lovely,” concluded Roget, scratching his neatly-trimmed black beard. “The singing was remarkably good. Lovely voices. And excellent, erm… dancing, yes, that was quite… energetic. Yes, yes, very well done indeed. Do hang about. We shall hear the rest, and then I shall send Lord Poofte in to let thee know my mind. Well done.”

And with that, Lord Roget gestured towards the door from whence they had entered, dismissing them with a wave as the goatherd urged his smelly charges towards the stage and attempted to corral them into some orderly formation.

Squeezing their way out around the goats, the three minstrels wormed their way back to where Rosemary’s harp still waited (thankfully unharmed), and stood in a small confused circle, not knowing what to say to one another. Pete cleared his throat and shuffled his feet, whilst Ariana looked pointedly at the wall furthest from Pete and set her jaw in mulish displeasure. Four, then five minutes passed in this manner, before Pete began noodling tunelessly on his guitar in what Rosemary thought was an unnecessarily irritating fashion. Clearly Ariana was of a like mind, for she finally growled, “Aaaarrrgggh!” at Pete and stamped her foot, glaring at him as though her very look might melt Pete’s skin right off his bones. Sulking, Pete stopped playing and swung his guitar behind his back.

This is horrid, Rosemary thought, her anxiety mounting with each passing moment. After two or three minutes more of uncomfortable shuffling, she drew a deep breath and ventured,

“Well, that was… not a complete disaster.”

No?” spat Ariana. “I thought it was awful.”

“Well, Lord Roget seemed to quite enjoy the dancing. And he did say that our voices were -”

“What wast thou thinking?” Ariana hissed at Pete, who glared at her from underneath his brows like a surly child. “Thou mighst have had us all arrested, leaping off the stage like that and shoving thy guitar in his face! Art thou daft?”

“’E liked it!” Pete countered. “And ‘is boy could barely contain ‘imself at th’ end there -”

“Just because the liveried whelp in there hath no taste means not that thou canst go about accosting people! First you steal a guitar, and then you practically assault a member of the Royal Court, jeopardizing not just our freedom but the entire audition! Thou hadst no right!”

Ariana leaned menacingly into Pete’s face, and Pete bent at the waist so that he might meet her eye to eye, until their noses nearly touched. Pete’s fists were clenched at his sides and his blue eyes seethed at the pint-sized gypsy, who for her own part was looking daggers right back at Pete. Fearing that blows were imminent and noticing that Lord Poofte seemed to have caught wind that something was amiss in their corner, Rosemary hurriedly put a hand on each of their shoulders and forcefully pushed them apart.

Now is not the time,” she whispered frantically as they resisted. “Prithee, Ariana! Pete, please! Ariana, Lord Poofte is coming this way! Prithee break off!”

“Be there something the matter, Half Pint?” Poofte’s voice cut through Ariana’s growling and Rosemary’s whispering, and Ariana backed off, smoothing a few stray hairs that had come loose of her braids. But Pete, his ire still up, whirled on Lord Poofte, demanding,

“Who art thou calling ‘half pint’, thou laced-up little -”

“Er, no, my gracious lord,” Rosemary slipped in front of Pete and savagely gripped his wrist behind her back to silence him. “Nay, nothing be the matter. My friend,” she gestured to Pete, “was, erm… merely concerned because Ariana here missed a chord in the last chorus, and -”

I missed a chord?” Ariana whispered angrily, but Rosemary plowed on,

“– and we are still, er, a bit wound up from the audition is all. Prithee do not concern thyself, my gracious lord.”

Lord Poofte pursed his lips, clearly skeptical. “And wherefore, wench, doth thy friend object to me calling thy band ‘Half Pint’? Is that not the name thou gavest me?”

“Ohhh, ha ha ha!” smiled Rosemary, injecting a discordantly cheerful tinkle into her laugh. “Poor Pete here is soooo sensitive to the name we had originally chosen, and, silly me! I did forget when I did first commend me unto thee, mine esteemed lord. If it be not too much trouble - and we do sincerely beg thy generous pardon - couldst thou kindly change our name on the list from ‘Half Pint’ to ‘Three Quarter Ale’? We should be ever so much obliged, would we not, Pete?” Rosemary offered Poofte a brittle smile whilst she dug her fingernails into Pete’s wrist, causing him to cry out.

“Ow! Er… aye. Whatever.”

Poofte sniffed haughtily, and waved his handkerchief vaguely in Pete’s direction.

“Well, if it means that much to thee… but do settle down, would you? There are only two more acts to get through, so try to keep thy wits about thee, hm?” Poofte smoothed his beard, turned upon his elegant heel, and swished importantly away.

“Change our name?” Ariana asked once Poofte was safely out of earshot and Pete has wrested his wrist from Rosemary’s grasp. “Wherefore should we change our name? ‘Tis not like he shall be with us much longer! As soon as he gives me back my guitar,” and again she glared at Pete, “we shall part, and good riddance!”

“Is this th’ thanks I get for saving thy life?” Pete countered. “Serves me righ’ for getting involved in th’ firs’ place!”

“You stole my guitar!”

“I took a dagger in th’ gut for thee!”

“Stop it presently! Both of thee!” Rosemary sighed, and put a restraining hand on Ariana’s shoulder. “Ariana, I have no intention of changing the band, but ‘Three Quarter Ale’ is the name we gave to the scribe inside – aye, all right, I gave to the scribe – so until we know whether or not our music is preferred, that is how we shall be known, else there will just be confusion.”

“And thou,” here she turned to Pete, “Pete, we do thank thee. We are indeed grateful for how thou didst save our lives. Though I did think thou mighst have done it merely out of the goodness of thy heart… but if Ariana’s guitar is the price we owe thee for thy bravery, then so be it.”

Pete had the good grace to look ashamed.

“’Tis not tha’,” he muttered, his face reddening as he looked at his boots. “I did no’ take it as ‘payment’. I just…”

“Thine attention, all! Attention everybody!” Lord Poofte had stood upon a box in the center of the room and was authoritatively clapping his gloved hands, whilst beside him the scribe made tick marks with his quill on a parchment. “We do have Lord Roget’s decision. Indeed, he did say that it was quite a difficult decision, there being – in his words – ‘in some few, abundance of talent, and in others, a great, ghastly dearth of it’.”

Rosemary snuck a peek at the goatherd, who was muttering to himself as he squirmed under the disdainful scrutiny of Lord Poofte’s cold eye.

“Therefore,” Poofte continued, “he hath chosen three acts that he doth wish to see again in four months’ time, on December the twenty-third, the night before the feast. At that time he shall choose the single act of those three which shall play before His Royal Majesty, King Henry VIII, for the Christmas Court.”

There was a collective groan from those assembled and a few loud protests, but Lord Poofte pulled himself up to his full height and shouted shrilly above the noise,

“If this doth not meet with thine approval, any who wish to leave now may freely do so! I see there are no takers? Very well then, if you do not mind, I shall continue!”

Poofte smoothed the plume on his hat and dabbed at his glistening forehead with his lace-edged handkerchief. Reaching down, he snatched the scroll out of the scribe’s hands, and made a great show of clearing his throat.

“Now then. The following acts are to see me at the close of this reading: the Zucchini Brothers, Gravesend Consort, and Three Quarter Ale. All others are hereby dismissed, with thanks.”

Rosemary gasped and hugged Ariana, hardly daring to believe their good fortune.

“Oh, Ariana, we are chosen! We are preferred!” Both girls squealed and clutched each other, jumping up and down, until Rosemary grabbed Ariana by the hand and pulled her.

“Come on, Lord Poofte desires our ear. Hurry!”

Pete watched the girls rush forward, and at a loss for what else to do, followed behind with his guitar.

“Ah, yes, there thou art,” said Lord Poofte as he eyed the three groups before him. “Three Quarter Ale, aye, and Gravesend Consort, excellent. Are we missing a Zucchini Brother? Oh, no, I do see him – hurry, good man. There we all are. Excellent.”

“Well,” Poofte cleared his throat again. “Congratulations to all of thee. Lord Roget was most pleased, and simply could not make up his mind. He hath therefore left me with instructions for each of thee, things that he doth wish to see improved upon in four months’ time, that he might then make his final decision. Now then, Zucchini Brothers.”

Two colorfully-dressed men, one with flaming red hair and the other, dark haired and carrying stilts, moved closer.

“Yes, good to see thee again. Thou art looking as well as thou didst when His Royal Highness did see thee at the Festival of Willy-Nilly-on-the-Wash. Lord Roget was once again especially pleased with thy juggling, and was most amused by the new stilts and the ladder tricks. The banter, too, aye, that was excellent. He doth wish to know if thou hast ever thought about using fire in the act, or mayhaps adding a few good bullwhip tricks? Nay? Well, then, I should think that if thou canst manage either one or both of those, that thou doth stand an excellent chance of being chosen. Gravesend Consort?”

Rosemary felt a heavy cloak brush her hip as four ominous-looking men, dressed entirely in black, pressed closer. Their leader was a small and exceedingly slender man whose balding pate, onyx eyes, and tiny, pointed chin put her in mind of a ferret. With an oily gentility, the man tucked his violin and bow into one hand and bowed low before Lord Poofte. Rosemary recognized one of the other men, a man with a broad, bearded face and dark hair slicked back off of his forehead as the one with the lute whom she had knocked into in her haste to get to Pete.

The man caught her staring, and the look in his icy blue eyes chilled her, causing her to step back a pace and lean closer in to Ariana. The two others, Rosemary noted, were younger than their companions, and by their look seemed to be brothers, for both had the same fair hair and prissy, upturned noses. The older one carried a kortholt and several other recorders of different lengths, and the youngest carried a tambourine and a long, slender shawm, the newly re-designed reed instrument that was all the rage. These two ignored her completely as Poofte addressed the leader of the group.

“Ah, yes, excellent. Edward Philibert, is it not? Thy reputation did precede thee, and thou didst not disappoint Lord Roget. As usual, thy music was perfect to a fault. Beautifully played.”

The diminutive leader inclined his head to accept the praise.

“Aye,” Poofte continued, “though Lord Roget did express some concern that it was a bit somber for a Christmas Court feast. Mayhaps thou canst add a few country dances into thy repertoire? And do consider adding a spot of color to thy raiment. One doth want a hint of color, hm? Some rose, mayhaps, or salmon? Aye, that ought to do.”

Philibert bowed low once more, but Ariana’s small intake of breath told Rosemary that she too had noticed the man’s thinly-veiled sneer.

“Now then, Three Quarter Ale. We have not heard of thee before - new to London, are you? Aye, well, Lord Roget was quite pleasantly surprised! An excellent sound, he said, and lively. Enchanting voices, he said, and erm… he did mention that although he himself was a spot concerned about the enthusiastic guitar playing, his scribe seemed to enjoy it, and assured him that the youths at court would find it the very thing. Really, quite well done for newcomers. Most surprising. Howe’er, Lord Roget was adamant that when you return for your second audition, that thou shouldst know the music more thoroughly. There did seem to be some confusion at the start. Moreover, though he mentioned that you two women were lovely, he did stress rather forcefully that the young man there did appear as though he might have had his shirt off a fishwife’s laundry line. Not at all the thing for an appearance at court. And thy hat doth appear to be stained with… er, I say! Is that blueberry?”

At this, Pete grimaced and swiped his wilted muffin hat off of his head, rubbing the stained bit against his trouser leg.

“Well, that can be remedied, I am certain,” Poofte continued. “Get thee cleaned up a bit, review the music, pull the act together, and I think thou three might yet have a chance.”

“Gramercy,” Rosemary curtsied, and felt Ariana nudge her with an elbow – her cue to alert Lord Poofte to the error in their being combined with Pete, and to ask if they might be permitted to re-audition as a duo. But before she could open her mouth, Lord Poofte addressed the assembled group once more.

“Now then, a few more words. Firstly, Lord Roget doth insist that each act show full compliance with these recommendations when presenting thine acts again in four months’ time. Furthermore, other than observing the notes just now given to thee, there shall be no changes made whatsoever to the acts. No stylistic alterations – save, mayhaps, for some color, eh, Edward? -  and no changes in the players, either in the numbers or in the actual persons involved. Excepting the recommended changes, each act is to appear exactly as thou didst this day on the eve of the twenty-third day of December; seven of the clock, in the great hall at Greenwich Palace, where the King shall the next eve hold the Christmas Court. Failure to arrive on time or any changes in participants – save a death, of which thou mayest notify me in writing – will result in thy disqualification. Be there any questions? Nay? Then congratulations to you all, and I shall see thee again in December.”

The two Zucchini Brothers offered the other performers polite parting smiles and, sketching small bows, headed off to collect their things. The youngest player of the Gravesend Consort –the one with the shawm and tambourine - gave the jugglers a brief nod of the head, but the others were already huddled and in conference, and they did not look happy.

At the news that any change in the players was unwelcome, Ariana had turned on her heel and stalked outside. As the group dispersed, Pete slipped away and engaged the dark-haired Zucchini Brother in a conversation about his stilts. Only Rosemary remained rooted to the spot, pondering how to proceed. She was about to turn away to find Ariana when Lord Poofte signaled with a small cough that he wished her attention.

“Aye, my lord?” Rosemary curtsied deeply.

“I heard a bit of thy music at the door – excellent work, really. You three have quite a sound. If thou canst accommodate Lord Roget’s wishes, this employment may not be out of thy reach. But, a word in thine ear?”

“Of course, my lord! How may I serve thee?”

“See to it that that fellow,” and here Poofte gestured with the back of his hand to Pete, “keeps a tighter reign on his temper. I should hate to disqualify two such lovely wenches because of a boor such as he. And for the Blessed Virgin’s sake, give him a shave.”

Lord Poofte smoothed his mustache and swished back into the audition chamber, leaving Rosemary alone to digest his words.

Pete was still talking to the Zucchini Brothers, and the Gravesend Consort’s members were still bent low in serious discussion. At length, Rosemary took a deep breath and headed outside.

Ariana was slumped on a rock, her arms curled around her guitar and her head bent into the crook of her arm. Gently, Rosemary put a hand on Ariana’s head, and the gypsy quickly sat up, swiping at her nose with her sleeve. Rosemary crouched low to look her friend in the face.

“We were so close,” whispered Ariana, blinking rapidly. “If only he had not come along to ruin everything!”

“Hm,” was Rosemary’s enigmatic reply.

“You think I am wrong?” Ariana challenged hotly.

Rosemary shrugged her shoulders. “I think the young scribe liked his playing.”

“What of that?”

“And I think that the, er, situation caused the two of us to be more lively and vivacious than we would have been otherwise.”

“Thou art saying that we gave a better performance because of him? Rosemary!”

Rosemary held up a restraining hand.

“I am saying only that we have no way of knowing why, out of scores of performers, we were chosen. We might have been in any event. But I must leave open the possibility – as much as it irks me to do so – that some of our success may be owed to Pete.”

Ariana snorted and turned her head away. Standing, Rosemary sighed unhappily and continued, “All I do know for certain is that Lord Poofte’s instructions were clear. If we are to come before Lord Roget in December, it must be as a trio. I know; I dislike the idea as much as thou, so you may put away that black look, sister mine! I did not ask for this any more than thou didst.”

Rosemary halted in her lecture as the door swung open and the two Zucchini Brothers exited with their belongings. Rosemary offered them a polite wave and waited until they were out of earshot before turning her attention back to Ariana.

“Well,” the gypsy brooded, “I for one shall simply cede the win to one of the other groups and keep a fond memory of the time when I did almost play for a king.” Ariana’s voice was taut with bitterness, and she wrinkled her brow at Rosemary’s expression. “Thou canst not truly be asking me to rehearse and play with -”

Ariana stopped as the door opened again and Pete emerged, his shoulders slumped. He looked at the two women and it was clear by his face that he realized he had interrupted a conversation which concerned but did not include him. Ariana had looked away as the door had opened, but Pete and Rosemary looked at each other for a moment before Pete turned and began to walk away.

Rosemary looked quickly at Ariana before trotting to catch up to Pete, crying,

“Hold, Pete, prithee. Pete, wait!”

Rosemary positioned herself in front of him, blocking his path. Pete looked exasperatedly at her.

“What for?”

“Could we… prithee, Pete, may not we simply talk for a moment? There has got to be a way to work this out.”

“I doubt it.”

Rolling her eyes, Rosemary grabbed Pete by the sleeve and pulled him towards Ariana. He put up a show of resistance, but not enough to actually deter her. Keeping a finger curled in his sleeve, Rosemary stood beside Ariana and looked back and forth between them.

“Now, attend,” she said in a low, serious voice. “Whatever may have passed betwixt us, we are all of us in the same boat! Like it or not, none can be certain that it was not her individual performance – or his – that brought us into favor. Moreover, it matters not, for thou didst both hear the decree: either perform again as we are, or forfeit this opportunity. So… Ariana,”

Rosemary knelt again beside her friend.

“Do not think that I believe thine anger to be unmerited.”

She cut a look at Pete.

“Thou art justified, in sooth, if thou asketh me. But answer honestly from thy heart: after all we have labored for, after days of going without to buy ribbons and trims, after all of our hard work, wilt thou truly cast away this opportunity for thy future because of thy past?”

My past?” Ariana whirled on her friend. “Ha! Thou art one to speak! Who did call him ‘bastard’ when we discovered his flight? Who did get up in the middle of the night to take a walk because thou wert so steaming angry that thou couldst not sleep? Aye, thou didst think that I knew not, but indeed, I knew! Thou wert as livid as e’er I have seen thee, and thou talkst of my past?”

Rosemary blushed, sighed again, and stood. Turning to face Pete, she said,

“My friend hath it aright. I was exceedingly angry with thee. I understand nothing of what thou didst, not the theft and mostly… not thy leaving without a word of parting. Ha. I say ‘I was’. As I am an honest maid, I must amend to say ‘I am’. I am still angry with thee. But… thou didst save our lives.”

Here she turned back to Ariana. “I saw him that day. Thou didst not, for thou wert not conscious when Pete entered the room. In spite of everything since, I saw a man who had little regard for his own safety and moved swiftly and without a second thought when he did see us in peril. I saw a man who, without thy healing, Ariana, would have surrendered his very life to aid two women he had barely met. For that, I feel we owe him more than thanks.”

She turned back to Pete, who was reddening, though from anger or from embarrassment, she could not tell. “The guitar was not mine; therefore forgiveness for its theft is not mine to give. But in spite of my anger, Pete, and mayhaps against my better judgment, I do forgive thee for leaving us as thou didst.”

Rosemary stood waiting for a response from Pete, but it was long in coming. The seconds stretched by before Pete exploded. Throwing his arms over his head, he shouted,

“I jus’ could no’ take another day of that tea!”

“Thou mighst have just said something, then!” Ariana yelled. “It cost us a bloody fortune, and I did it to help thee! If thou didst not wish to be saved, by all means we could have left thee alone and saved ourselves the trouble!”

“Od’s blood, woman! ‘Ow was I s’posed to do that when thou wert being so bleedin’ nice about it all?”

Ariana rose and pointed a finger at Wicked Pete’s chest, preparing to give him another mouthful when the door opened and the Gravesend Consort strode out. Seeing the three, their leader Edward Philibert sneered, and addressed Pete.

“’Tis a sorry day indeed when the Master of the Revels will let just any villain play. A street-corner musician, from the look of thy raiment. At least the wenches had the sense to dress themselves with care before appearing before Lord Roget. Tell me, with which of these chits didst thou lie to be admitted into the band?”

The fellow’s friends laughed as Rosemary gasped and put a hand to her mouth and Ariana’s eyes narrowed. Pete’s face scrunched into a dangerous scowl and he clenched a fist at his side.

“Nay, do not think to scrape thy knuckles on me,” Philibert laughed airily. “Even if, having little talent, thou hast no need of thy fingers, I am afeared that in defending myself I should injure mine, and that would truly be a pity.”

“The pity,” said Ariana coldly, maneuvering herself in front of Pete so that she stood face to face with the man, for he was but a few scant inches taller than she, “is that with four of thee and only three of us – two being maidens, at that – he ought to be lauded as a hero should he beat thee. But thou art such a small man,” - and here she allowed her eyes to drop below his waist that he might fully understand her meaning - “that alas, he should be called a bully for attacking someone half his size.”

The man raised his hand as if to strike her, and before Rosemary could move, Pete swung at the man’s head. Philibert did see the blow approach and leaned back just in time for Pete’s fist to go swooshing by him, but Pete was already preparing to deliver a second blow. The other three were dropping their instruments and all were readying themselves to enter the fray when the door swung open again, and Lord Roget, trailed by Lord Poofte and the scribe, walked in upon the scene.

“I say, is something the matter?”

All the musicians hastily disentangled and bowed low before their betters. Poofte was looking suspiciously at Pete, whom he had already pegged as the instigator of the fight. Rosemary cringed as she read the thoughts on Lord Poofte’s face, but before she could speak, the leader of the Gravesend Consort answered silkily,

“Indeed, my lord, you do know we ‘artistes’. Ever passionate about our work. It was merely a disagreement over styles. Prithee, trouble thyself not o’er this trifle.”

“Well, do rise, do rise,” Lord Roget waved at the bowing musicians. “Edward, art thou walking this way? I do have one or two recommendations for some fine country dances, if thou art not indisposed?’

“I am ever at thy service, mine honored lord,” Philibert oozed, and gestured for the others to quickly collect their instruments. As one, they straightened their clothes and fell in step beside the nobles, but not before Philibert sent a single venomous look back at the three minstrels; a look that promised retribution should they ever meet again.

Ariana scowled as the man turned away, and Pete thrust two fingers angrily into the air at the Consort’s retreating backs. Cursing low under his breath, Pete turned and was unnerved to see Rosemary looking pensively at him with a strange, small smile upon her face.

“I see no’ what there is t’ laugh at,” he growled.

“I just find it amusing, ‘tis all,” she said softly. “That for all we will stand here and rip each other apart, Ariana, thou didst not hesitate to defend Wicked Pete when he was so cruelly insulted. And Pete, wilt thou ever be saving us from the violence of strange men?”

“I was not defending him,” Ariana protested. “I was-”

“Oh, twaddle!” Rosemary interrupted. “Thou wert, whether thou wilt own it or no. Now may we prithee get back to the matter at hand? We have all worked hard to prepare for this opportunity. And we cannot seize it without each other. ‘Tis the reality of the situation, whether we like of it or no. So what is to be done? Shall we forfeit our turn and let those monsters,” she gestured to the road upon which the Gravesend Consort had left, “take what we may have in our power to make our own?”

“I would eat sand firs’,” spat Pete, and Rosemary nodded.

“Indeed. Then let us look at reason. We do not have to like each other. We needs only must learn to play together until after this Christmas, which is just a little over four months from now. Should we be chosen to play before the king, it could mean riches and prestige, and once we have fulfilled this contract we are free to separate as we please. Can we not work together for a few short months for the sake of this chance?”

Pete and Ariana eyed each other warily.

“Ariana,” Rosemary said, taking her friend’s hand in her own. “For the sake of what wondrous things may lie ahead, and in remembrance of the saving of thy life and maidenhood, canst thou forgive Pete for taking thy guitar, and pledge to work peaceably with him for the next few months?”

Ariana pursed her lips, but at length replied, “Aye, for saving my life, I do thank thee. And I… forgive thee for stealing my guitar. With no better choice at hand,” – and here she rolled her eyes at Rosemary – “I will work with thee.”

“Excellent!” cried Rosemary, a touch more heartily than ‘twas actually called for. “And Pete, canst thou forgive Ariana for… er, what did she do, exactly?”

“Shouted at me!” shouted Pete.

“Er, quite. Pete, for the sake of what may be attained, and for defending thee against that vile man, canst thou forgive Ariana for shouting and for making you drink her tea; and forgive me for calling thee a …well, anyhow…and at least attempt to work with the two of us for a few short months?”

Pete set his jaw. “Bloody hell.”

“Be that an aye or a nay?”

“Od’s gaping wounds! Fine! Aye! All right?”

“Wondrous well! Fine indeed! Well, with that settled, just let me nip into the hall and fetch my harp, and then we shall all see about a spot of lunch, shall we?”

Rosemary clapped each of them on the shoulder with an irritatingly excessive display of cheer, and nearly danced back into the hall, shutting the door behind her.

She walked to the center of the room, paused to make certain that neither Pete nor Ariana had followed her inside, and promptly burst into tears.