Today’s submission is the opening chapter from Jim Hawkey’s book Live Bait, and because it was a larger submission, I’ve decided to dedicate this week to it! This story takes us back to 1379, when Richard II and John of Gaunt were on the scene.
A word from Jim,
” Years ago I read Anya Seton’s “Katherine” which is an outstanding example of the kind of historical novel which makes the reader feel complete at home in the world in which it is set – in this case 14th-century England seen through the eyes of John of Gaunt and Katherine, his long-time mistress who became his third wife and the ancestor of both the Lancastrians (during the War of the Roses) and the Tudors, and also through the eyes of Geoffrey Chaucer. I read it three times, and since then the late 14th century has been my alternative world, a world where I would be quite as much at home as I am in this world (and probably more so!).
The first stories I wrote about Mariana form part of the prequel to this series, “Mermaid out of Water”, and readers should really start with that, or with “Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists” (Mariana de la Mar 1) rather than with “Live Bait” (Mariana de la Mar 2), the novel this extract is taken from. I chose the opening chapter of “Live Bait” for this site because it is the first (but not the last!) time Mariana comes face to face with one of the Plantagenets.”
DEAD MAN’S HANDS
All that do these things are an abomination
unto the LORD (Deut 18:12)
Southwark, March, 1379
‘Do you remember when you jumped into the river in Paris?’ Ferchard asked, suddenly. ‘In the middle of winter. Daft wench.’
‘Daft? If I hadn’t, the poor girl would have drowned.’
‘I didn’t mean you, not this time. The red-headed slut you jumped in after. What was her name?’
‘Aye, Natalie. Good thing you’re half fish. But to think it was her inherited all that gold you found.’
‘I didn’t find it. She did.’
‘Lass, she’d never have found it without you.’
Ferchard and I were standing on London Bridge, gazing down at the rushing water, thinking and dreaming and reminiscing. Flowing water will always make you dream, and how could we help comparing it with the Seine?
When the tide is out in London, there is no comparison, the Thames is just a shallow stream bordered on both sides by mud-flats littered with garbage, but when the sea surges back up, the river fills and spreads and is wider and to my mind even more majestic than the Seine.
‘Ah, remember that great island and the cathedral – Notre Dame – and the tavern where we took you after we fished the pair of you out? What was the name of the place? You can’t get food like that here.’
‘The Chaire,’ I said. ‘Ferchard, I’ve decided to take advantage of the introduction the Sire de Coucy gave me to Princess Isabel. Princess Isabel of England is Coucy’s ex-wife, did you know that?’
He glared at me.
‘It’s been a year now,’ I went on blithely, ‘and I need to make myself known to people who matter if we’re going to stay here. As Lady Marian, I mean. Before the same thing happens as happened in Paris.’
‘The Princess has contacts in France. She may already have heard about you.’
She may indeed, and I could hardly blame Ferchard for that, but still I hated the way he called people like Natalie a slut and made references, no longer veiled, to my own colourful past. What could I do, though? He was an old man, and at least he had never called me a slut. Half fish, yes, and a whore, yes, but not a slut. He was scrupulous like that.
And at least he hadn’t forbidden me to go.
The princess was staying at the Savoy Palace, the London home of her brother John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, uncle of the boy-king and without question the most powerful man in the kingdom. I thought it might help my cause if I met him, too, but there was little chance of that.
My note simply said I had met de Coucy recently at Beauté-sur-Marne and, on learning that I was coming to London, he had recommended that I present myself to her; that she always liked to meet interesting and well-travelled people.
Next morning, a messenger arrived wearing the Lancaster livery, a shy, gangly youth whom Khadija’s heart warmed to at once. She began to feed him on fresh-baked bread and new-laid eggs – we had chickens already, thanks to Undead John. I sat opposite the lad, hungry myself at breakfast-time for once, and devoured one of those omelettes only Khadija can cook.
As we ate, we watched each other – he uncertain at first, then relaxing as he realised I was on his side.
I looked back down at the note he had brought, back up at him. He was clearly hoping that notes between the Savoy Palace and this house at breakfast-time would become a regular occurrence.
Her Highness the Princess Isabel would be pleased to receive Lady Marian MacElpin this afternoon betwixt sext and nones.
‘Would you like me to return at midday to escort you, my lady?’
‘Yes, that would perhaps be a good idea this first time. Thank you – er – ‘
‘Humphrey, my lady.’
Why had the Princess agreed to see me? My first impression when I was ushered into their presence was that it was mainly her daughter Philippa’s desire to talk of her father, de Coucy.
‘Oh please! Tell me about him!’ she cried.
‘He seemed very well,’ I told her. ‘Happy, confident – everyone knew him and liked him.’
‘But did you speak to him?’
‘I met both him and Olivier de Clissons. Really, I just listened in as they discussed the peace talks at Boulogne. Your father seemed in favour of peace between England and France, Clissons less so.’
I glanced at Isabel to see whether she agreed with Clissons. She might. After all, she was by reputation very English and very much her father’s daughter. Despite having been married to Coucy for years, she had apparently been quite unable to settle down and live in France. Her father, the old war-horse Edward III, must be turning in his grave at all this talk of peace, but she seemed to have no strong feelings on the subject.
Politics best left to the men, no doubt.
I would stick to personalities.
‘Clissons wandered off and your father spoke to me for a moment, then the Emperor beckoned me over, and – ‘
‘The Emperor?’ Philippa was entranced.
‘Yes, it was he who had invited me. That was his last day in Paris, and – ‘
‘But how did you know him? How did he know you?’
Philippa reminded me of Thomas of Pizan’s daughter Christine. The wide-eyed enthusiasm, the open smile – albeit behind a large pomander, held to her nose to ward off evil smells – like the smell of me.
I wasn’t fooling her any more than I had fooled Christine. How had I ever expected to?
Her mother was not wide-eyed at all. She was after something. ‘A little bird told me …’ she began, from behind her pomander, and paused, waiting for our full attention. Then lowered her pomander and went on, ‘A little bird told me that you met the Emperor and King Charles in private and – is that not so, Lady Marian?’
‘Hardly in private, your highness. The Emperor’s three children were present, and Thomas of Pizan – il Dottore Tomasso di Benvenuto da Pizzano, to give him his full title.’
‘Ah yes, your friend the astrologer. Or should I say alchemist?’
‘Astrologer will do, I think.’ I was getting a little huffy. ‘He is the French King’s astrologer – and physician.’
‘Hmm. And this little bird informed me that you read the Emperor’s hands, told his fortune. Even predicted his date of death, Lady Marian.’
‘The songs of little birds can be highly misleading, your highness.’
My mind was racing. Who could have spoken of it? Not Thomas of Pizan, surely. It must have been the king – discussing the future with his ministers or simply gossiping with his queen, his family. And from there it spread, and crossed the Channel faster than the fastest ship.
It was Philippa who saved me for the moment. ‘And the princess? Anna? Did you read her hands?’
‘Yes. Her father wished me to, and she consented.’
I laughed. ‘These things are confidential. If I read your hands, told your fortune, would you want me gossiping about it afterwards?’
‘No, of course not. But … would you?’
‘Would I gossip? No, that’s what – ‘
‘No, would you read my hand? Tell me my fortune?’
‘Philippa! Are you sure you – ?’
‘Mama! Marian read Princess Anna’s hand!’
Princess Isabel stared at me. I’d been summoned here to have my brains picked but it wasn’t turning out like that. ‘Oh, very well. But don’t think I’m going to leave you two alone.’
‘No, Mama. Marian was never alone with Princess Anna, were you, Marian?’
‘No.’ Only with her father. I realised once again how much I had loved the Emperor.
But “Mama” was persistent. ‘First, Marian, why don’t you set my mind at rest by telling us something – just something – of what you learnt about dear Anna?’
‘But I told you. I can’t – ‘
‘What I really want to know, what we all really want to know, is whether she will one day be Richard’s bride and Queen of England.’
Yes, of course that’s what they want to know. I kept my lips firmly sealed.
But Princess Isabel persisted. ‘This little bird told me that was one of the questions her father the Emperor put to you after Princess Anna herself had left the room.’
I remained silent.
‘He wouldn’t have put it unless he himself – a notorious dabbler in the secret arts – unless he himself believed that eventuality to be likely. Highly likely, even. He simply wanted confirmation, didn’t he.’
Philippa squealed. ‘So you won’t be surprised if our next queen turns out to be an old acquaintance of yours?’
‘No,’ I admitted. ‘I shan’t be surprised. Though “old acquaintance” is pushing it a bit!’
‘But you will be one of the very few people in this country she already knows.’
‘All right, Philippa. You and Marian go ahead. I’ll watch and listen.’
‘And keep your mouth closed!’
I caught Philippa’s eye. She knew she’d said what I’d been longing to say.
She moved a chair so that I could sit facing her, and I did so. We were knee to knee. I took both her hands in mine and examined them, the palms, then the backs, then the palms again. They were the hands of a princess, yes, but they were large and strong for a girl her age, with wide-set thumbs on a full, firm Mount of Venus. However, the Lunar Mount was undeveloped and her Fate Line, though it started out strongly, wavered at the Line of Head and petered out at the Line of Heart. Only the Apollo Line came to the fore in later life.
So she was strong and healthy, loving and kind, and could look forward to a long life and, in the end, a measure of happiness. She was also a physical, practical person, with little feeling for the spiritual, the mystical, side of life. This I could tell her. She was also doomed to a loveless marriage and to remain childless. That I would rather not tell her.
I told her. She was not impressed, though she agreed it was true. ‘But “in the end a measure of happiness”? You mean most of my life I’ll be unhappy?’
‘Telling someone’s fortune honestly is never all good news, my lady.’
‘Philippa, I told you.’
‘Well, no, of course not, but … My marriage? Children?’
‘There is no sign of children here yet. But that is often the case on very young hands like yours, the hands of those who are little more than children themselves.’
‘But what I can tell you,’ I was guessing to some extent here, but given her character and her status not wildly so, ‘What I can tell you is that you will have a role to play in the great events that unfold during the years to come. An important role. And that you will be a close friend to Princess Anna – Queen Anne as she will be then. So, now I have answered your first question! And that must be enough for you.’
‘But not for me, Marian,’ said her mother, coldly. ‘Now I want you to tell me my fortune. Oh, not from my hands. I’ve had my hands read many a time. No, I want you to use these.’ From a small table that stood at her side she picked up two silk purses.
Ignoring her daughter, she held out one of the bags to me.
I took it. Opened it. Peered inside.
An assortment of the dried and withered feet of various small animals. Gingerly, I pulled some of them out, one by one, examining them. There were the feet and the tails of a rat, a rabbit – they were obvious – and what I thought might be a weasel; a mouse; a hare; and others I didn’t recognise. I’d seen the same at Cuenca, in Spain. But when Doña Inés had cast them and read them there had always been two hands among the unholy relics – two human hands, mummified and no doubt shrunken, and almost certainly cut from the body of a hanged man.
She gazed at me and said, ‘Do you know what is missing?’
‘A pair of hands.’
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