Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
JUST SOUTH OF the river Thames is a theater called the Rose.
The name is misleading, for a persistent fog of London’s foulest stenches perfumes the stage. Should a man find himself there alone, he’s like to be relieved of his purse at best or have a knife slipped betwixt his ribs at worst. ’Tis a question of when, and not if, a carelessly lit pipe poofs the building into a pile of ashes. Then the good people of London would cheer to see it dashed from the earth because the Rose Theatre is beyond a doubt one of the most disreputable places in all of Queen Elizabeth’s England.
But I love the piss-sodden place because it pays me to do the thing I do best: pretending to be someone I’m not.
The Rose is where I am, on an April afternoon, a crowd thickening before the stage like milk before it spoils. Today we are performing The Tragedy of Dido, Queen of Carthage. We’ve reached the part where Queen Dido laments the loss of her lover, and it’s supposed to be very tragic. Usually I can muster up a few tears from the crowd for this bit. But today the tears shall not come—no, instead the audience is laughing at me.
“I’ll frame me wings of wax like Icarus, / And o’er his ships will soar unto the Sun, / That they may melt and I fall in his arms…” My voice cracks, and titters ring out in the first rows of the audience. A drop of sweat—heavy with the white lead paint plastered on my brow—rolls into my eye and stings something fierce.
“Aye, she’s got the stones for the part all right!” someone crows.
The laughter swells like an ugly pimple. A sprinkle of roasted hazelnuts bounces off my skirts. I swallow and tug down the bodice of the dress, revealing a tuft of the itchy hay that serves as my tits. A woman in the front row points and whispers to her friend, both laughing.
I turn away from them. Good God, keep it together, man! One wrong step on the rain-slick boards and I’ll be on my arse and truly give the crowd something to roar about. As a boy actor, I play all the women’s parts in the plays. While the audience doesn’t really believe that I am a woman, I must do my best to keep up the charade. Otherwise the crowd turns mean, and Henslowe, the theater manager, threatens to dock my pay.
I stumble through the next lines, my voice cracking on every other word. Zounds, was this dress always so sweltering? I try to furtively wipe away the sweat, but even this elicits another hail of hazelnuts and laughter. The crowd eagerly presses forward in the balconies overhead, faces rapt. Even the rooks nesting upon the thatched roof have stopped screaming, allowing the wide gray sky overhead to swallow my shaking voice. I spot the other players of the Admiral’s Men hidden in the theater’s wings, here to witness my embarrassing failure—including my delicious Thomas, his perfect face pale as a corpse. Fantastic.
This tragic play has become a comedy, and ’tis all my fault.
After a long, hideous lifetime we reach the play’s finale, where I’m supposed to cast myself into a pyre, and then I can stay offstage where no one can laugh at me.
The torch-bearing boys surround me. I sweep across the stage, one hand over my brow, my face drawn into a mask of utter despair. “Live false Aeneas, truest Dido dies…”
I move to throw myself through a secret panel in the stage’s center, except, right at the last second, my boots slip on hazelnuts. I cant sideways and crash into one of the torch-wielding boys. He yelps and falls with me, dropping his torch.
Right on the train of my dress.
The crowd’s laughter turns to shocked gasps and screams as the fabric bursts into flames. I tear off my wig and beat the blaze as a great wave of ale and mud and God knows what else surges over me from the crowd. The fire sputters out, and the screaming fades to a puzzled murmuring.
I scrub the slop from my face and stare. The ragged tail of my gown smokes whilst the scent of roasted hazelnuts fills the air like a Twelfth Night celebration. Several awestruck faces stare back at me from the front rows as if they can’t decide if they’ve witnessed the very greatest or the most terrible play of their lives. One pale girl, so small it’s got to be her first time at the Rose, breaks into a delighted gap-toothed smile and starts clapping. One by one, the rest of the crowd joins in until the entire theater is filled with thunderous applause and whistling.
I gather up what’s left of both my skirts and my dignity and take a single curtsy before Henslowe, the theater manager, seizes me beneath both armpits and drags me offstage.
“Bloody hell, Will, you nearly murdered us all!”
I wriggle free from his grip and hold up a finger. “I did no such thing!”
Henslowe paces, his white face red. The swan plume on his hat tickles the sagging ceiling overhead. The front of the Rose Theatre may be all soaring balconies and wide-open skies, but backstage is dim and cramped as a dungeon. “You certainly know how to go out with a great fuss!”
“Wait and see how I’ll top it tomorrow,” I say with a wink.
Henslowe doffs his fancy hat and runs a hand through his thinning hair. “We all heard you, lad. You’ve been an unwomanly height for a while, but between that and the man’s voice… well, you’re not fooling anyone now.”
I tug the stays on my bodice. Out tumble my tits to lie in a great heap upon Henslowe’s polished boots. “Oh, you don’t think so?”
He cocks an eyebrow at me.
I raise mine right back at him, wishing I could raise only one eyebrow, instead of both, for it would doubtlessly be far more powerful than me standing here shirtless with my brows near in my hair, unable and unwilling to process that my tenure as a boy actor in the Lord Admiral’s Men is over. I’ll never again play the virtuous lady or the swooning maid when the villain is led to justice. I’ll only be myself, Will Hughes, another jobless, penniless, and soon to be homeless boy roving about the streets of London digging for crusts in the gutters.
Henslowe tugs at my singed skirts and lets out a small scream. “And how am I supposed to find another costume?”
I punch the wall and whirl to face him. “D’you think I asked for this to happen?” My voice cracks again. “There’s a way to fix this!”
Henslowe blinks like he’s never heard a more ridiculous statement in his entire life, his red-blond mustache quivering. “How, Will? How?”
“If I may, my lord,” an oily voice simpers.
We turn toward the door.
Some… boy stands there. His doublet is at least two sizes too big, and he’s barely scrubbed the dirt from his face. He seems about twelve. Naturally someone’s bloody here for my job already, like a scavenger waiting on living flesh to become carrion. Everyone wants to work at the Rose Theatre. ’Tis far from the worst way to earn your keep in London, and sometimes Henslowe lets us eat the hazelnuts from the stage floor.
Henslowe eyes the boy up and down. “Well. What’ve you got, then?”
The lad strikes a pose. “Wretched Zenocrate! that liv’st to see / Damascus’ walls dy’d with Egyptians’ blood, / Thy father’s subjects and thy countrymen; / The streets strow’d with dissever’d joints of men, / And wounded bodies gasping yet for life…”
’Tis Zenocrate’s speech from Tamburlaine the Great. Except he’s gone and mucked it up with all these flailing arm gestures and eyes rolling so hard he’s surely got an excellent view of his brains. Utter rubbish. Even still, he’s a pretty thing. Exactly the sort of lad the Rose crowds would go wild for.
“Have you ever acted before?” Henslowe asks when the boy finishes.
“Yes, sir. I’ve been in The Brief and Tedious Comedy of Gammer Gurton’s Needle at the Curtain Theatre.”
I snort. The Curtain Theatre is run by a bunch of fops and mummers. Young fresh-faced lords right out of Cambridge writing the most horrible swill you could imagine. Such as the aforementioned The Brief and Tedious Comedy of Gammer Gurton’s Needle.
My friend Kit Marlowe says the Cambridge boys—third and fourth and fifth sons of lords, who’ve not a chance of inheriting even a vegetable patch from their fathers—can’t write plays because they’re too stuffed up their arseholes to see the world as God intended. I think he’s right. All the Cambridge boys are trying to be the next Marlowe anyway. He’s the reason the Rose is the most lucrative theater in all of London. Rumor has it even Queen Elizabeth herself enjoys Marlowe’s plays. But whenever I ask Kit about it, he smiles and changes the subject.
Henslowe sighs. “Well, lad, you’re not good, but you’re not bad, either. We’ll try you tomorrow and see what you’ve got.”
The boy breaks out in a face-splitting grin revealing a small black spot on one of his front teeth. He’s not going to stay pretty for long, this one.
I face the stage manager with an indignant harrumph and hook a thumb against my chest. My skirts puddle to the dirt floor, leaving me standing in naught but my ragged smallclothes. “What about me? You can’t give my role away like that!”
“Will,” says Henslowe, keeping his eyes firmly upon the timbered ceiling and ignoring my person. “It’s not over yet. You can start playing men’s parts.”
“Oh, so who am I to be tomorrow? All the parts in Dido are already taken!”
“You know I can’t force a player from his part halfway through. I’ve made promises, and they’ve all got bills to pay.”
“Yes, just as I have bills to pay!” I stab a finger into my chest. “Henslowe, you’ve really left me high and dry with this turn.”
Henslowe throws up his hands and storms off. “Come back in a fortnight, Will! That’s all I can promise right now.”
I get dressed fast, every movement stiff and jerky. One by one the other players come in and return their costumes and scrub the face-paint from their skin. Thomas, still costumed in Aeneas’s armor, catches my hand with his. “Are you all right?”
There’s a pink burn on my calf from the fire, but I know that’s not what he means. “I’m fine.”
His eyes remain huge with concern. “Would you… would you like to come back with me?”
And even though Thomas and his lips and his hands are my second, third, and fourth favorite things in all of London after the Rose Theatre itself, I’m shaking my head. “Not tonight, but sometime soon, yeah?”
I clap his shoulder and head out into the streets, trying and failing to outpace the panic nipping at my heels because this morning I woke up with a full belly and a roof over my head and a job, and somehow, in the span of a single bloody afternoon, I’m on the verge of having nothing at all.