A Squeaky Clean Renaissance Chapter Five: Aspera ad Astra
Incipit Liber QuintusThe chronicles of Puritania do record that after a period of great turmoil, a mysteriousPrince, one Cecil, of the House of Goodytwoshoes, had arrived and begun to set all to right.And behold, he must have been the rightful Prince, as he had clearly taken advice of ThePrince. A prudent man must always follow in the footsteps of great men and imitate those who have been outstanding. ~~MachiavelliAnd soon, as Puritania grew in knowledge and in culture, and waxed great in virtue,tidiness, and table manners, all forgot that King Cecil had not always been king, and thatthere may have been those who by birthright might have been King of Puritania. But KingCecil did not forget.Yet he had become King by right of conquest, wit, and Lady Fortune, which surelyconstitutes a better claim, for a country is ruled by what is in the brain and not by what is inthe blood. King Cecil could point to a descent from a line of Roman Emperors, he said, andhe was likewise driven by dreams of Empire.
“I would annex the planets, if I could.”And yet it seemed possible that his efforts would come to an early end. The assassinNicola Michaletto had admitted to King Cecil that she had been hired to kill him,and while he had promptly countered this threat by hiring her himself, she had alsoinformed him that he was a dying man; that he was being slowly poisoned by aperson or persons unknown. His grandson Maximilian had warned him ofpotential dangers before he had gone back in time:
“You will be killed, you know.”“I do not think so.”
It would be a terrible irony if Maximilian proved to be correct. King Cecil hadtaken precautions: he no longer ate or drank anything that had passed throughany hands but his own. He was still far from well, however, and until the poisonwas properly analyzed, there was no hope of concocting a cure or of identifyingthe poisoner.
For both, he relied on Signora Michaletto, for just as a thief is best to catchthieves, an assassin is best to track assassins.
“Messire, as I have told you, la cantarella is a time poison. We do not know howlethal the dose nor how soon it will strike.”“I have consulted my volumes and I shall set about the analysis immediately.”
“Excellent. There is one other matter in which We require your service. Somepeasants gathering firewood have reported that We seem to have a Sleeping Prince InThe Briar Wood problem.”“A sleeping prince?”
“One. Several. Does it really matter how many? Mysterious princes sleeping in thewood without a permit are a nuisance.”
Unferth, the court jester, refused to taste-test the cantarella, so Nicola was leftto more studious means.
Pausing only to feed Ermintrude the Pit Beast, the Kingdom’s pride and joy andchief tourist attraction--
--she began to break down the poison until she could replicate it perfectly.
“Mmmm. It IS cantarella, with a peculiar Yacothian undertone. Diamine, but it isclever. I have no need of it at present, but what a pity to let it be forgotten! I willkeep it, purely for theoretical purposes, as King Cecil does not employ poison. Iam almost entirely sure who must have made it, but I must prove it beyonddoubt.”“But now I must ask the cooperation of one who by his very profession is entirelyopposed to mine.”
Unferth had fallen victim to Master Robert the Physician, yet another student ofthe human body.“You were talking to Signora Nicola? Perhaps some poison got in by mistake.Here, let me make you vomit.”“What IS it with you people?”
It took Nicola some time and effort to persuade Master Robert tobelieve her.
“You had better be very, very sure before you lay suspicion in that direction.His Majesty will not be pleased. You will need solid evidence.”“Believe me, I have thought of this. It is my profession, not yours, andnone of your concern.”
“I have brought a sample of the cantarella. You will need it to concoct anantidote and a cure: I have other business.”
Master Robert and his assistant Democritus set about a laborious process ofdistillation, concoction, calcination, and transmutation, until the physicianpronounced himself satisfied.
“There is an antidote—better, a cure--for cantarella! And one that does notrequire leeches! I know His Majesty will be pleased.”
“May I see His Majesty?”“Orl right.”“That’s it? No passwords? No search? No questions about my identity? Securityhere is disturbingly lax.”“But I knows you, Master Robert, it’s hard to forget a man who’s had his armup your—”“All right, all right, just tell him I’m here.”
“Is his Majesty at dinner?” asked Master Robert, and then realized it was a tactlessquestion.Avery, the King’s chief servant, sniffed.“If you can call it that. He eats nothing but gruel boiled by himself, if you please,not a spot of spice nor sugar in it.”Robert was torn between the gratification of a physician whose advice had beenfollowed and the horror of a good cook.
“Must you examine Us in public?”“If you mean in front of a witness, Your Majesty, I’m sure you can see thewisdom of that yourself. I’m willing to bet my life on my ability to save yours,so please allow me to do it.”
It was clear immediately that Master Robert’s antidote had restored the balance ofthe humors, whatever that was, and King Cecil thanked him.“May We also suggest that it is difficult to put Our entire confidence in aphysician who has black flies swarming about his head?”
Master Robert and Signora Nicola then each went about their separatebusinesses.“Commander Redcrosse, if you can’t figure out what is ailing you or how tofix it, I can’t help you. Physic will do you no good.”
“Sister Una, what would you do about a sleeping prince?”“Tuck him up with some milk and a cuddly Dire Chinchilla.”
“No, no—one who is already asleep. How does one wake him? Is it right to do?”“With Peace and Love? If you wake him too early, he might be cross, but if he hasoverslept, it would be a kindness, and it would not matter that he was a little cross withyou.”“No! Is it wiser to poke him with something sharp while he is asleep, or should onepoke him with something sharp later?”“Oh, no, Sister. Do not poke him, or he truly will be cross. Perhaps a bit of coldwater?”
Instead, Signora Nicola spoke to Temperance, the barmaid at the ValiantTitmouse. “Per L’Osservatore, I knew it was a mistake to ask Sister Una anything that mightmake sense. You watch people drink all day, you must know many things. Thebest way—what would it be?”____By the Watcher.
“I say, wear a stupid hat. That’s the best way—put on a very stupid hat and try to kiss him,and if he doesn’t say anything about your hat he’s a keeper.”So Nicola took the barmaid’s advice, not knowing any other way, and still unsureof what to do next.
And so Prince Rupert the Charming strode out of the wood where he had slept forlo these many years, and behold, Nicola was still very suspicious but also quiteimpressed.“Where are my people? Where is my castle? Lead me to my throne room,” hedemanded, sparkling at her.
“What a very silly hat. I do not like your party hat.”“I do not care, Master Robert. I wish you to examine Prince Rupert the Charming.He has been asleep for many hundreds of years.”
Master Robert did so.“Well, he seems perfectly healthy.”“Good.”
“And if he wants to stay that way, he shouldn’t go boasting to King Cecil about howhe’s the rightful heir to the throne.”
But lo, Prince Rupert the Charming had the survival instincts of a lemming.“I’m the rightful heir to the throne, you know.”“Are you really? How interesting. We shall begin to pack immediately. Perhapswe can have a little game before We go. Shall we say double or nothing?”
“Dear, dear, Prince Rupert. It seems Lady Fortune prefers wit and ambitionover blood. You may continue to live in Puritania, if you like, on Our terms.”“And if you come by another kingdom, do please bear in mind that you nowowe Us that as well.”
Prince Rupert the Charming was furious at Nicola. “You woke me, and for what? That I mightreturn to a kingdom with no honor, ruled by a bandit?”Nicola was equally furious.“You cannot go to sleep for hundreds of years and expect to findeverything where you left it! His Majesty has taken a piddling, worthless duchy and turned it toa thriving empire, a place men of talent like himself flock to make their fortunes. And youwould rule it! A boy with a pretty face!”“Commoner! Thief! Hired killer!”“Yes, I am quite proud of what I have achieved: what have you done but sleep?”
“Your Majesty, I would ask your permission to marry.”The King was surprised—and not very pleased.
“Indeed. We were unaware that Jacoban priests were permitted to marry,” hesaid, a slight chill creeping into his voice. “Who is it you would marry?”
“Knight-Commander Redcrosse, your Majesty.”“We see.”
Duessa was wise enough not to say anything such as “but Sire, we are very much inlove.” She knew the King well enough to know that he would not be impressed.“It is a wise match, Sire. Religious and military strength combined. You do see thatit is good strategy, don’t you?”
The King nodded. “Yes, We suppose it is,” he said. “Very well. You have Our consent.”Duessa did not rise immediately. “Thank you, your Majesty, you are gracious indeed.My marriage to Commander Redcrosse will make Puritania a great theocracy.”The King frowned. “A theocracy where the Church overrules the Monarch? We do notknow that We would be in favor of that.”“No, no, your Majesty. A kingdom where the Church and the State are one unitedforce. My marriage to the commander of your armies would make this possible.”
“Although not as powerful,” she continued, “as another match which would havebeen much more acceptable to me in every way. One in which the Church and theState would form a true and passionate union.”The King narrowed his eyes. “We do not care to hear the words ‘passion’ and‘Church’ in such close juxtaposition. If this is all your business, then We ask yourblessing and your pardon, for We have much to do, and assure the Proxy of Ourunwavering faith.”
The Yacothian High Priestess came upon Duessa as she was gazing avidly as themap of the entire known world.
“Arch-Shepherdess, the Proxy has heard no report from you in many months.He reminds you that you owe him your full allegiance in matters spiritual: thatthe Chair of Jacobus must be as important to you as is the Throne ofPuritania. You have shown him no respect. He is most displeased.”
Duessa turned away, her lip curling.“The Proxy? I no longer answer to the Proxy.”
Signora Nicola had been listening carefully. She was positive that here was her poisoner,but she still needed hard evidence that the King would accept.The best way to do this was to stay as close to Duessa as she could, and that would meanseeming to approve of her plan and even pretending to assist her. This too held a risk, asanyone offering to help murder a King must know too much, and therefore would be thefirst to be killed. Nicola would have done that herself. So she must get in Duessa’sconfidence another way.
“Arch-Shepherdess, I wish to congratulate you on your upcoming marriage.”Duessa looked suspicious. “Who told you?”Nicola shrugged. “The marriage of two such important persons? All the Kingdom knowsof it—and rejoices,” she added. “I merely wish to put my services at your disposal inanything you wish.”Duessa nodded. “Perhaps you may. My wish is only for the good of the Kingdom, and formy marriage, of course. But I do not like to ask for help from anyone unless I can rely onthat person absolutely.”
“Rely on you absolutely.” Thinking it over, Nicola thought she knew what it meant.She went to find Redcrosse, who had been asking Bubbles if Ermintrude had beengiving off more venom lately, and if so, if he might he have some for use in theArmory.
“Commander, I congratulate you on your upcoming marriage.”“Thank you.”“And on your loyalty and devotion to duty! I am surprised that you interest yourselfin Pit Beast venom. I had thought that only Bubbles and I cared for such things.”“I thought it might be helpful, if we were ever to go to war again.”“I have not heard King Cecil speak of a war.”
“That’s my profession, isn’t it? I’m always training Christopher and the others.War is our profession, though not always an easy one. Poor Christopher knowsthis. He would rather have lost his own leg than Friotheswede.”Nicola waited for him to say more.“I admit,” Redcrosse said slowly, “that I do not like the idea of envenomedblades. It does not seem honorable, but I used a fire sword once. Sometimes it isnecessary.”
Nicola looked surprised. “A fire sword! I do not remember hearing of such a thing.”“It was before you arrived in Puritania,” said Redcrosse. “His Majesty said we mustinvolve ourselves in the election of a new Proxy. I hoped it would not come to an openfight. It did. I was glad to have Duessa’s fire sword then. The venom on the blades washer idea, too. She cares only for the safety of the Kingdom, and for my safety.”
Nicola was silent again. Redcrosse answered her unspoken question.“She loves me,” he said. “I never knew my parents. Love is not so commonthat I can easily let it go.”“You are very loyal,” acknowledged Nicola. “The King himself says so, and hedoes not give a compliment lightly.”“I try to be,” Redcrosse said simply, repeating, “She loves me, and she knowsthat she may rely on me absolutely.”
As Nicola had said, barmaids learn nearly everything, sooner or later, and she hadgiven the lady assassin a tip about something more important than a hat. She went toask a crucial question of one of the King’s Guards.“Harald, the Arch-Shepherdess has told me that you have been a great help to her.”Harald’s face was expressionless, but Nicola was good at reading an expressionless face.“There’s no need to be careful around me, Harald. I’ve sworn to help her in all sheasks. She swears she can trust you with her honor.”“She does,” Harald said, then bit his tongue, but the damage had been done.
“I mean,” he said hastily, “she’s only asked me to make sure certain shipments fromYacothia get through, and to keep myself prepared for a day when she may ask for mystrength and loyalty.“I have promised her to stay close to King Cecil,” Nicola said.“Well, that’s good,” Harald said naively, “because I’ve sworn loyalty to King Cecil myself.”“And to Knight Commander Redcrosse,” Nicola pointed out.Harald winced. “She explained about that. She said that it was a political marriage andthat everyone knew that, including the King. I know it’s true and that it won’t matter.She can rely on me absolutely.”
Nicola returned to the Cathedral to speak to Duessa.“There are so many who are very loyal to you.”“There are,” Duessa agreed.“I, however, can be bought. King Cecil himself bought my allegiance. That is something foryou to think on. I tell you this in confidence.”Nicola began to tell of her own experiences, all the more convincing because she did nothave to make anything up. She spoke of disguises, of sudden daggers, and about the variouskinds of poison she had used. She saw a glint in Duessa’s eye as she spoke about slowpoisons, those that can be reversed when the poisoner found it convenient.
Meanwhile, Subdeacon Ambrose had a frantic consultation withAcolyte Jerome.“We can’t let her do this, Jerome.”“How can we stop her? And aren’t we supposed to be loyal toher?”
Ambrose thought about that for a moment. “Well . . . I don’tthink she’s loyal to the Proxy anymore, and she’s definitely notloyal to the King, so maybe it’s our duty.”“I’m afraid of her.”“So am I, “ Ambrose admitted.
The Cathedral was one of the largest indoor spaces in theKingdom, and as such, it was usually full of people: some of thempraying, many of them starting romances, singing, doing business,or simply socializing.
Ambrose’s heart broke for his friend. Was it partly his fault because he hadn’tsaid anything? But then, Una had never said anything either, so perhaps he waswrong. And wasn’t he supposed to be loyal to the Jacobans, not to the Peterans?Was it really any of his business?
And then he turned and saw the expression on Una’s face.
“Ambrose?” she said, in a voice that shook with pain and confusion.
“Oh, my sister,” he said quietly. “I am so sorry.”
This made it harder to watch when he found himself in the marketplacelater with Redcrosse, Duessa—and Harald.
Incredibly, Redcrosse did not seem to know or understand what was going on.
Ambrose pulled Redcrosse aside, hissing under his breath, “Are you blind? What in thename of the Watcher made you marry a woman who doesn’t love you and turn your backon one who does? You are the stupidest man in Puritania.”Redcrosse lifted his hand. “Thank your stars you are a man of the cloth, or I would notallow you to live after disparaging my lady’s honor.”“You idiot!” said Ambrose, “she has no honor! And now you are stuck with her for life.You can’t even go to the Jacoban priest for a divorce, because she IS the Jacoban priest.You’re doomed—unless you haven’t already consummated the marriage.”Redcrosse’s face was like stone.“I give up on you,” muttered Ambrose.
When he returned to the Cathedral, Redcrosse was surprised to see King Cecil there.“We regret that we are not able to visit the Cathedral as often as We would wish. Werather admire the architecture and We still wish to know how it is that the Arch-Shepherdess arranges for choir music at all times of the day and night.”
“We did feel, however, that it would be mannerly to call and congratulate you onyour marriage, to present you with a gift, and to inquire if all was well.”
Redcrosse could not begin to tell the King all the ways in which it wasn’t well,and he would not have even if he could. He simply thanked him.
Duessa then hurried over.“I am afraid that your Majesty is not well enough to be here.”The King thought quickly. “Not at all.”“Then your health has improved?”It would not do to admit to any form of weakness, and it would be unwise to letanyone know that he had suspected poison, nor that the poison had ceased to work.“We were not aware,” said the King firmly, “that We were ever ill.”
Ambrose watched events unfold.“I am sure you are making light of it, your Majesty,” Duessa said. “Are youpositive I can do nothing for you? I am certain that you would improve if I wereto pray for you and send for the wine the Proxy sent me,”
“No,” the King repeated. “We have given up wine and many other foods as a spiritualdiscipline. We are sure you must comprehend. All is well.”“And yet your Majesty has no heir,” she said sympathetically. “I hope that is not—”“--a topic for discussion,” the King cut in sharply. “We are, We repeat for the thirdtime, in excellent health.”
Duessa pulled the King towards her. “How can you know? I must tell you, Sire,”she went on quickly, “that I have grieved to see your illness, and your Majestycannot know of my hopes—that I married in despair—”The King froze. Misreading this as interest, Duessa proceed to whisper preciselywhat she had hoped.
He pulled back and said in icy tones, “We shall never repeat what you have said toUs. We had assumed—naively, it seems—that your religious professions were morethan a façade. We should never have thought that you would presume at all, letalone in a Cathedral, shortly after your marriage, with your husband a few pacesaway.”
“Redcrosse isn’t my husband,” she said. “The marriage wasn’t consummated,and I am still free to marry, your Majesty. It can all be set right.”
The King drew in a sharp breath through his nostrils. “Madam,” he said, “there is no possible way inwhich this can be set right.”“Oh, but there is,” she explained. “It is no lie that I would have preferred to marry your Majesty—andyou cannot blame me for so wishing,” she cut in quickly. “Thoughts are free, and there is no lawagainst marriage. I am happy to see that your Majesty passes the most stringent of moral tests. It isalmost worth your poor opinion of me. As your priest, I am humbled by your virtue.”The King agreed. After all, a Jacoban priest could not be guilty of such infamy. Reassured, Duessaturned back to her duties in the Cathedral.
When she was busy and could not see, the King quietly spoke to the subdeacon.“We can scarcely believe that your religious superior is so bad, Ambrose.”“She’s worse,” Ambrose said candidly. “Much, much worse. In fact, by comparison,I think this isn’t all that terrible. She actually likes to hurt people.”“You ought to have informed Us.”
Ambrose stammered. “Ought I? Am I a Jacoban first and a Puritanian second? Iwasn’t born here. I came here from Yacothia with the Arch-Shepherdess. I didn’t evenknow until a few days ago that she had broken with the Proxy as well. So who am Isupposed to be faithful to first, your Majesty? Yourself, or the Church?—and if it’s theChurch, is it the Proxy’s Church or Duessa’s? It’s been hard to know.”
This was a hard question to answer, and the King knew he wouldhave to give it some serious thought.
King Cecil quickly confirmed that Duessa had broken with the Proxy,exactly as Ambrose had said. She had no loyalty to the Church, anddespite her inferences, he knew she had no loyalty to himself. Once hehad understood the full extent of her ambition, the rest was notdifficult to deduce.
With that, Nicola came and knelt before the King.“Messire, shall I tell you the name of the person who has been conspiring to takeyour life and seize the kingdom, or are you already wise enough to know?”“No,” King Cecil said slowly. “It is clear to Us, and We ought to have understoodit long ago.”
“Why did you know,” King Cecil thought, “while I did not?”“Your Majesty is cunning and subtle,” said Nicola, “but you do not think like a killer, and Ido.”The King thought that by now, he ought to be able to think like a killer, but the only killer hehad known before had not been subtle at all. Perhaps he was still a stranger to the Middle Agesafter all, or perhaps it was simply that “neither Man nor Angel can discern hypocrisy, the onlyevil that walks invisible, except to God alone.” Still, his own subtlety had failed him. If therehad been any other reason, it did not occur to him or to Signora Nicola. Milton, Paradise Lost, 3: 681-84
“Ah, Redcrosse, who scarcely deserve the title of Knight, you are come to tell Usthat you now know your part in the plot against Our Person.”
“That you have at last learned of the depth of Duessa’s infamy. That her planwas to suborn Us, and rule through Us. That she employed indecent wiles, andthen attempted through the slow use of poison to weaken Us until We agreed.That her plan, if she could not achieve this, was to allow the poison to kill Us andto set you up as a puppet in Our place.”
“That she counted on your loyalty, your great physical strength, and let it said,your utter stupidity to carry out this plan. That you would never suspect. Thatshe did not expect that you would be told, and that you would be dulyhorrified.
“No, my liege. I am come to tell you that I deserve to die. I have been blind andhave endangered your life and that of the whole realm by my foolishness.”“Please. Let me be stripped of my knighthood. Let my crimes be read in the publicsquare, that all may know of my shame. Let me be put to death as you think most fit,and at the very last, I shall confess my guilt and praise your justice.”
“Leave it to Us to mete out justice. That is Ours alone.”
“In the future, We think you would be wise to think of marriagefor purposes other than self-gratification.”
The question remained: how to confront the Jacoban priestess when she stillretained influence and power?
Fortunately, an opportunity presented itself when the Gastroburghianambassador came to the King, lamenting that owing to a loss of venue, theirannual feast was ruined.
This seemed a trivial matter, until the ambassador explained that food wasGastrobury’s only export—and that the Gastroburghian government hadauthorized him to offer its country as a part of the Puritanian empire.
King Cecil then commanded a great feast to be held in Gastrobury’s honor,inviting the kings of all of Puritania’s tributaries, and also the leadingcitizens of Puritania, including the Jacoban Arch-Shepherdess.
Quietly, the King drew a measure of wine—of the vintage the Shepherdess hadbeen sending him as a gift.
“Lady Shepherdess, We must consult with you on a matter of justice and mercy.What punishment would you mete out to a traitor and a murderer?”
“Death. Immediate death, and by the most extreme means possible.”“We thought you would judge as much.”
“And no doubt you will not mind that your soup was tempered with the wineyou have been pressing on Us for months.”The Shepherdess reeled back in horror.
“Your Majesty—if you will excuse me—I must retire to meditate—”“To meditate on where you have left the antidote? You have confessed in front of amass of witnesses, delivered your own verdict, and proclaimed your own penalty.”
“And We deliver your sentence, which is Death.”“You need not concern yourself, madam, about the harmless wine We placed inyour soup. You are condemned to public justice, and not to lingering privateagony.”
“A mercy you would not have granted to Us.” If it proves necessary to execute someone, this is to be done only when there is proper justification and manifest reasons for it. ~~Machiavelli
Early the next morning, the erring Arch-Shepherdess was led to the Pit ofJudgment, there to be executed in front of an enthusiastic crowd, who had almostgiven up on seeing a real execution.
“Step lively now. Ermintrude’ll be gettin’ hungry, it bein’ egg-layin’ season an’ all.”
The ravenous Ermintrude seized the Jacoban priestess--
“I have survived the Beast’s judgment and yours, Your Majesty. I believe I amfree to go—and trust that I shall fulminate against your intolerable crueltyfrom every pulpit in the Empire.”
“Master Bubbles. Your tenure as Executioner began long before the current reign, Webelieve. Is the Arch-Shepherdess then free to go? Do you recollect such a custom?”
“Can’t say I do, yer Majesty. Back in the old King’s time, used to be me job torun out the plank and stamp on they fingers. Good times, they was—not thatthese are bad times, o’ course.”
“Then in justice, there is no reprieve for you, madam. To the Pit with you.”“You shall be cursed, by the Watcher!”“By the Watcher? We think not. We are greatly favored by the Watcher,and she disapproves of your toxicological shenanigans.”That is true.
“You heard ‘is Majesty. Into the Pit you get, missus.”
Ermintrude wound her massive coils around the condemned woman--
We have not had to throw anyone to the Pit Beast in quite a long time. At leastthat is unlikely to happen again.
“We almost wonder if it might be worth it to be Proxy ourselves and thus cut out the middleman.Something like a monopoly. It would certainly represent a successful functioning of themarketplace of the market.”
“Ah, well. An interesting historical note, no doubt.”
At the Valiant Titmouse, Tarleton Somerset and the lovely Fiona wereperforming his new play, Astrogoth the Terrifying and the Fair Maid of Puritania,in which the barbaric conqueror was himself conquered by love and repeatedsteely knees to the groin.
They finished the performance to tumultuous applause.
“That was magnificent! Absolutely magnificent! Tomorrow, we’ll have todiscuss what you’ll play next. Maybe it’s time for a comedy. I can write you asa bold young woman who runs off to the woods and disguises herself as a---”“I’m sorry, Tarleton, but that was my last performance.”“ . . .what?”
“It was my last performance. I’m never acting again. Don’t ask me to explain. Ijust don’t want to anymore.”Stunned, Tarleton staggered off to see if he had some ale that was any good.
Temperance pulled Fiona aside.“You don’t want to anymore? That can’t be true. You love acting.”“I do. I just don’t like being an actress.“Oh. I see.”“I’m tired of the women sniffing at me and the men coming around with money and the sermons abouthow wicked I am.”“And who made those sermons? Duessa, that’s who, and she came to no good end. Sister Una never says anysuch thing. You can’t mind what people say. It’s a noble craft, girl. Hold your head high.”But Fiona was not convinced.
For his part, Tarleton could scarcely grasp what was happening. So many of his playshad been written specifically around Fiona. He had grown used to her. The audienceexpected to see her. What would they do when his plays went back to being whatthey had been before, performed only by him and maybe a boy in an unconvincingwig and a padded bosom? They would throw fruit, that’s what they would do. Thenthey would stop coming at all.As was his wont, Tarleton panicked completely.
This is why he did not realize at first that King Cecil had made an unexpectedappearance at the Titmouse, and why he responded so distractedly.“Yes, Your Majesty? I’m a bit busy at the moment, because Culture has taken asudden downturn in Puritania and there is no more theatre, so you won’t be gettingyour Renaissance after all. If you don’t mind, I will be stabbing myself in the heartwith some rustic gardening tool.”
“Come, come. Are you not a bard? We had hoped for more ingenuity on your part.We have every intention of bringing in the Renaissance on schedule: We will nothave it delayed on your account.”“Ah, well, no doubt you shall think of something.”Later that evening, Tarleton did think of something.
Tarleton considered his next step carefully. On one hand, his Majesty wasundoubtedly irritated about the treachery of the Jacoban priestess and seemedto be in a Pitting mood. On the other hand, he had declared his completecommitment to Culture when he came to the throne. . .
His timing could not have been worse, as his Majesty was taking arisk on eating his first non-gruel meal in months.
“Your Majesty, theatre is forever dead in Puritania if drastic action is nottaken.”“We see. Precisely what sort of drastic action did you have in mind?”Tarleton told him.
“Because if Your Majesty condescended to appear in a play, there couldn’tbe anything wrong with theatre, could there? Actors wouldn’t be beggarsand thieves. Actresses wouldn’t be –”
“Do not finish that phrase.”“I hate it myself, your Majesty. But if you don’t make theatre respectable, norespectable woman will have anything to do with it. Without actresses, theatreis dead.”
“Ladies and gentlemen all, we present for your entertainment andedification Annex the Stars., or The Rival Claimants.”
PROLOGUEDear understanders all, our scene’s begotIn Greece or Persia—but it matters not;It matters only that you know it’s clearThat such a broil could never happen here.Two princes on this lowly stage you see,The noble Palomon and Arcite,Who claim the kingly title for their ownAnd bitterly do battle for the throne.
ACT I:Palamon:My cousin, you do know we both contendWhich of us has the true claim to the crown.Let’s skip the lengthy speech on royal linesAnd say the lineage favors on my side.What do you say to this? Will you not yield,Or will you plunge the land in civil war?
ACT IIPalamon: ‘Tis wisely spoken. You have the greater right.But which of us can make the kingdom great?Which one of us by virtuous exampleCan lead the people into cleanly mannersAnd bring our customs into foreign lands?Which one of us, by peace or means of warsCan gain the world? Which can annex the stars?
ACT III:Palamon: Thou speak’st with wisdom and with modesty,The greater right again! It makes me mad.If thou by blood and virtue, mild looksAnd patience still insist upon the crown,I claim the title through our mother Church!I am the true and Holy Faith’s Defender,And thou naught but a vile and low pretender!The audience all bought some more beer. Now it was getting good.
Palamon: Judge all you now the truth of what I say.Have you not seen this wretch, this vile thing(I honor him not with the name of “man”)Abuse the honor of the holy Church?There was some wild applause, and some of the crowd yelled things like “Nah. She werea right cotquean!” “Hurray, Ermintrude!” though one man said sadly, “now THAT werea show.”
ACT IV:Palamon: Wilt thou with patience now bear the charge?Have you no defense but the right of wit,Of virtue, fortune, and the people’s love?Of honor through the Empire and the world?And wilt not answer me in angry kind?If words cannot provoke thee, wilt thou thenNot raise thy hand to slapping of thy face?Now there was a gut-churning silence. Had the player gone too far? Would they have another executionto look forward to?
ACT V:Palamon:Your right o’erwhelms me. I am vile, bad,A lowly and an impudent pretender,Who challenges the true and rightful King.I kiss your noble hand and beg your grace,And though you are too good to order itI will now go myself and seek the Pit.
One man in the tavern shouted, “The Pit! Hurrah!”“Shut up, Almeric. It’s only a play.”King Cecil had his teeth tightly clenched. “Lady Fortune and my own wit—”Tarleton keeled over and died, then bounced up, brushing off the dust.
EPILOGUE“One king’s a beggar, one remains a king,The theatre’s a mad and giddy thing,One thing is clear: if our noble King doth deignTo honor players for a single dayBy being one of us, is not our playAnd players all made noble by his grace?Can you disdain us to his royal face?In honoring us, you all do honor him.If we have pleased you by our thespian artsWe ask of you your hands now and your hearts.”
“Psst, Your Majesty. At this point, it’s traditional for us shamelessly to grovel for applause.”“Thank you. Thank you. You’ve been a beautiful crowd.”Time would tell if his ploy had worked, but Tarleton fervently hoped this would honoractors for a time and persuade Fiona to try the stage again, if only once or twice. He wascertain that once she was back, the theatre would claim her as its own. She wouldn’t beable to leave it any more than he could.
After the performance was over and the tavern had nearly cleared, King Cecil askedTarleton, with a question that was not really a question at all, “You do capitalize on acertain physical resemblance, do you not?”“I . . .er. . .”“Are you a relation of some kind? A Goodytwoshoes?”“No! No, your Majesty! That’s impossible! You came from some mysterious landbeyond the sea. My father was a cobbler from Anyder. It’s pure coincidence.”
And even if I were, Tarleton thought, I would never want to say so. I am no prince; Icannot lead armies; I am afraid of the dark and of my own shadow. I have no courage atall, except on the stage. That is a big enough empire for me.He also knew there would be no point in telling King Cecil this. He would neverunderstand a man who did not secretly want to rule the world.
Leave the business of ruling the world to those who like it and are good at it.Ultimately, Puritania was unquestionably Cecil’s. It had reached the apex ofknowledge and culture; it was, as Tarleton had suggested in Annex the Stars, tidyand mannerly beyond belief; and virtually every kingdom on the map had joinedthe Puritanian Empire.
Even Prince Rupert the Charming was beginning to understand that theKingdom was Cecil’s.“The Kingdom works. He raises an eyebrow and somehow it happens! Ican’t get the same results no matter how much I sparkle.”
“You do not still think he is a bandit ruling over a kingdom with nohonor? You do not call me thief and hired killer?”
Prince Rupert admitted sadly, “No. I still think he is a usurping thief andthat the kingdom has no honor. I know you are a hired killer and that youhave no shame about it. But I also know that my time is over, if it everexisted. This is no world for a fairy-tale prince. Nicola, I don’t even knowwhat is going on half the time. If I go on like this, I’m going to get myselfkilled. You have to help me.”
Nicola thought about it. “Hmm,” she said. “Perhaps I shall. I havenever had a pet. Only when I am not about my business, capiche?”
“No, the Peteran Church is not the State religion by default! We personallyremain a Jacoban, and We will not be dictated to by ecclesiasticalfunctionaries! Is this Sister Una’s responsibility?”
“No, your Majesty, she wouldn’t do something like that. I am Bonaventure. I’mactually her superior, although we Peterans don’t really have those. I just wanted toknow.”“We see. Then know that it is Our intention to continue to allow both Churches tocompete in the marketplace of the market. Should there be any further seditiousattempts by either Church, We shall be forced to take Steps.”
Signora Nicola explained to Brother Bonaventure that Messire really did meanthis, and that by “Steps,” he was indicating an interest in combining theChurches and becoming their Head. He understood that it had been donebefore.
She thought it wiser not to add that the King usually dismissedthis idea when it occurred to him, as it did from time to time.
“We believe we have more power without it. We are, on the whole, ratherpleased with Puritania’s achievements. There is little left to do, other thanbuilding up trade routes and taking Our culture to the few spots to which it hasnot gone. There are so few opportunities for personal renown.”“Messire, your reign is almost legendary.”“Ah, that ‘almost.’ ““I cannot see what you could do, other than slaying a dragon.”
Wherein ye shall read of most marvelous things:Of horrors unutterable;Of literary endeavor;Of a marriage, and of a long-awaited child;Of a mighty battle with a Dragon;--and many another such wonderful events, if ye will but please to read.
Quests completed:Legend of the Talking FrogWeddingGastrofest or BustConstellation ConfrontationDangerous Minds
Renaissance Fun Facts! Wouldn’t it be nice if we had the antidote for cantarella? Unfortunately, since we don’t know what cantarella was, we can’t possibly know the antidote. However, if it was arsenic or arsenic-based, you’ll be happy to know that modern physicians can be a great help to you, which is nice, because arsenic can be found in a lot of things, including fruit juice.! Duessa was lucky. Being thrown to a Pit Beast is positively merciful compared to what really would have happened to someone accused of treason and plotting the death of the monarch.! What Tarleton says about actresses is true. Once women began to perform on stage, they quickly became essential for box-office success.! Tarleton is much too optimistic about royalty performing in plays being a help. It didn’t always work, but it did pay to have friends in high places.! Plays about usurpers often did not go down very well, but plays involving regicide (the murder of a king) were much worse.! “Cotquean” is really vulgar, but since no one uses it anymore, I thought it couldn’t do any harm.! Just try to find a Shakespearean comedy that doesn’t end with shameless groveling for applause.
CreditsOpening pictureFlammarion engraving: artist unknown.“Briar Wood,” The Legend of Briar Rose, Edward Burne-Jones.Technical effects (bishi-sparkles), Dr. Supreme NerdAspera ad astra literally means “reach for the stars.” “I would annex the planets if I could” is anactual quote from Cecil Rhodes. Passages quoted from Go Dog Go, P.D. Eastman; Paradise Lost,John Milton; The Prince, Machiavelli. Palamon and Arcite appear in both Geoffrey Chaucer’s “TheKnight’s Tale” in the Canterbury Tales and William Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen. There’salso a slight reference to All’s Well That Ends Well, one of my favorites. Names mostly fromEdmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene; Unferth the Fool is named after the villain in Beowulf.Inspiration lifted from nearly every Medieval and Renaissance text that isn’t nailed down.Printer’s mark, Sacrobosco.