The week is over along with the wait, part 2 of Jim Hawkey’s Live Bait is here! If you haven’t read part 1 click HERE.
I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I did, and if you did, support Jim and grab yourself a copy of his book to find out what happens!
‘You see, Philippa? I told you she would – ‘
‘But I don’t!’
‘Don’t what? Don’t know that a pair of hands – ‘
‘I meant – ‘
‘Lady Marian, you are going to read the Feet and Tails for me. Here are the Hands.’
She passed me the other silk purse.
Philippa looked as horrified as I must have done. ‘No, Mama! If Marian doesn’t – ‘
‘Marian does. And Marian has no choice.’
I hesitated. I was in strange waters here in the Savoy Palace. Deep waters, with many swirling undercurrents and other hidden dangers. In unfamiliar water one must swim cautiously. Swim, not wade. To wade blindly was to court disaster. And I was wading. I was thinking: wondering whether a “real” lady would consider herself more or less the princess’s equal and simply refuse with a laugh. Or was a princess, a king’s daughter, so far above a mere knight’s daughter that she could treat her like a servant? I didn’t know. This society was utterly foreign to me. As was any such society, despite my brief acquaintance with the royals of France and Bohemia. I should have learnt that from my dealings with Queen Blanche in Avignon. Or rather her dealings with me. And looking back on it, I’d been nothing more than a moment’s diversion for the royals in Paris, too. A visit from a soothsayer. And to the Emperor, a potential mistress to pass the idle moment with.
At least I hadn’t started out here grovelling and afraid to look them in the eye. On the contrary, these two had treated me more or less as an equal …
So stop wading and wondering.
I dived in.
They were not small, the hands; not, deo gratias, a child’s hands as I had sometimes suspected the pair Doña Inés used in Cuenca might be. They were dessicated and shrunken, yes, skin, tendons and bones, but the fingers were long … Longer than mine. I held them up, examined them. She could wait. I wondered what I could read of the man – yes, it had been a man – who once owned and used these hands, considered them part of himself, then found, as we all must, that we are not our bodies, though our bodies may fleetingly, at least when in their prime, reflect our immortal selves.
The principal lines were still clear, but there was little I could tell from them. However, the long fingers, long narrow palm, indicated a water hand: a man, then, of sensitivity, and perhaps not entirely at home in this world.
I held the hands together between my own, palm to palm, and closed my eyes. And knew at once. When those hands had been cut off, that man had been still alive.
I opened my eyes, glared at the princess. ‘These are not Dead Man’s Hands. These are the hands of a living man. He could even be alive still now.’
She knew that. She even knew whose hands they were.
‘I need a dead man’s hands,’ I said.
‘He is dead. Now. Get on with your job.’
She didn’t say it – because Philippa was there? – but I heard the veiled threat. Before I have you whipped. Or even: The next may be a dead woman’s hands … She was all-powerful. Nothing she could say or do would ever be held against her.
I had no choice.
I put the hands into the first bag, the larger one, with the feet and tails, held it closed and mixed them up.
Before I cast them, I knew I had to clear my head of all thought of what the hands and the various different feet and tails might signify. Either way, what I remembered was little enough. The hands pointing out, away from each other, was good. The hands pointing in, fingers straining to touch each other, was bad. The rat’s tail was lucky, the rabbit’s tail unlucky. The mouse’s feet, if grouped together – yes, there had been all four – were auspicious; the coming winter would be passed in (relative) comfort. What else? Nothing!
Forget all that! Focus simply on the princess … her eyes, her face … her aura. Her aura? I don’t usually see auras! But suddenly hers was clear around her, and it was dark and murky. This was not going to be good.
I emptied the bag onto the floor from waist height, exactly as I had seen Doña Inés do.
They fell clunk: not a bounce, not a shuffle. Just a twitch of the hands as the tips of the middle fingers touched. A twitch? They were straining to touch! I had never seen that before. I doubted whether even Doña Inés had. But I knew what it meant. Especially as all the other objects had clustered beneath and on top of and between the fingers of the hands. Only the rat’s tail had somehow slithered clear.
She was looking at me. She could tell. So could Philippa.
I should have listened to Ferchard. What was I doing here? Please God, I will always listen to Ferchard in future if –
‘Well?’ Princess Isabel was keeping cool and calm, as she had been groomed to since childhood. ‘What do the disgusting things tell us?’
Disgusting. Said as though I had brought them into the palace and I too was disgusting.
‘The reading, girl!’
‘I’m not sure. I – ‘
‘Yes, you are.’
‘Very well. This foretells your death, madame.’
‘We all die.’
She studied me, not the objects. ‘How soon?’
‘As you say, we all must die eventually. If you follow my advice, do just as I say, you too will live out your full life span – ‘
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Less than a year?’
‘Less than a month?’
The door flew open and two liveried guards burst in.
‘Get out!’ Isabel snapped. ‘And you – be silent, child.’
‘Madame! This is not inexorable!’ Suddenly I was pleading. ‘You must break your habits, disturb and rearrange the threads of destiny – ‘
‘I suppose now you wish to sell me – or offer me in exchange for my favour – a spell of some kind to undo this fate?’
‘No! I told you! What you must do is change – ‘
‘Would you like to hear what Coucy actually said about you in his latest letter to me? I assume it was you, though there is no mention of a Scottish Lady Marian. He said: “At Beauté-sur-Marne the other day, the Emperor was wearing on his sleeve a Spanish courtesan, one Doña Mariana de la Mar. It transpired, however, that there was more to it than His Majesty’s famed lasciviousness. She shares his interest in the Dark Arts. He had not only invited her to read Princess Anna’s hands at a soirée a couple of days earlier, but had actually allowed her to read his own and predict his future and that of the Empire. I am telling you this because she mentioned in my hearing that she was considering making a move to London in the near future – France has grown too hot for her, apparently – and I suggested she present herself to you. I know you find such creatures amusant.”‘
What could I say? After all, every word was true. It was simply not the whole truth. It was one side of a coin. The coin, I was coming more and more to realise, that was me.
I said nothing. Philippa clung to her mother and gazed at me reproachfully over the pomander now clutched tightly to her nose.
I wanted to say “May I leave?” but I sensed that whatever I said, the princess would snap out a command to the contrary.
I kept my mouth shut.
‘How many days would you say?’
What? ‘Oh. At least ten, your highness. But the rat’s tail out there – that means this is not fixed, not inevitable. It is simply what will happen if things are allowed to go on as they are. If, however, you change everything, do nothing that you would normally have been doing during the next two or three months, then – ‘
‘Yes, you said that. I will go to Sheen.’
‘Not Sheen, my lady. That’s too normal, too much a part of your life. Go to a convent you have never visited, have never even heard of, would never normally visit under any circumstances, and spend three months there.’
‘Three months in some pokey, impoverished little convent? That would be the death of me! Though I suppose I could take my own servants, my own wine, my own sweetmeats – ‘
‘No! You must drink the sour wine the sisters drink, live as they live – ‘
‘That is enough, Doña Mariana. You may leave us. Guard!’
The door opened and one of the guards appeared on the threshold. His eyes were on me, not her. He knew I was trouble.
‘Ah. But as it turns out that you are not a Lady but a Spanish whore, I suppose you expect payment for your time. What have I here? Some cheap trinket.’
‘Here, Marian – Mariana, whatever your name is – take this.’ Philippa pulled a ring off her finger and held it out to me – careful, I noticed to conceal it from her mother.
I’d been going to decline payment, but this ring intrigued me. I took it and slipped it into the purse at my waist.
‘Remove her,’ ordered Isabel. ‘And inform the guards at the gate that she is not to be admitted to the Savoy Palace again. She is a Spanish whore named Mariana de la something or other but she poses as a Lady Marian MacElpin.’
I am quite tall, but my my feet didn’t touch the ground as they escorted me bodily along gilded corridors, down a different flight of stairs – where my feet did catch and clatter – and so to the guardroom.
Where they all turned and looked at me.
Oh God, no. No!
When she had told him I was a whore, she had been authorising them – inviting them! – to rape me.
My head snapped round.
A small, plump man was taking in the situation. He didn’t look like much of an ally – he was wearing no livery, and couldn’t have taken on even one of the guards by himself – yet they all seemed wary of him. His quick, clever eyes flicked over me, then passed more slowly over them – some looked guilty, some belligerent – then back to me. ‘Are you entering or leaving the palace?’
‘Oh, leaving. Most definitely leaving.’
‘Then allow me to accompany you.’
‘But that is not Lady Marian, sir!’ It was one of the guards from outside the princess’s room. ‘It is a Spanish whore who pretends – ‘
‘I have it on the very best authority that this is the Lady Marian MacElpin. Now, if you will excuse us …’
Once clear of the palace and down on the quay – ‘Fleet Street is no place for you,’ he murmured as he took my elbow and guided me down the slippery steps – he looked me in the eye and said, ‘You were in trouble there.’
‘May I ask what precipitated it?’
‘Oh. Princess Isabel took a dislike to me … You have the advantage of me, sir.’
‘Chaucer. Geoffrey Chaucer.’
‘Well, I must thank you, Master Chaucer. I am quite capable of looking after myself, but there were an awful lot of them.’
‘There were indeed. And bloodshed is always better avoided.’
‘How did you know me? Who was this “very best authority”?’
‘You were pointed out to me – twice – in Paris. First at a rather barbarous celebration of the Taking of Antioch, and then, a couple of days later, at Beauté-sur-Marne.’
When I didn’t answer, he went on.
‘As you may have guessed, I am a diplomat. At present in the service of His Grace the Duke of Lancaster. I had waited in Paris two weeks for a word with the Emperor. That little festivity at Vincennes was my last chance.’
‘And did you speak to him?’
‘Oh, yes. You saw me. Our eyes met. Then he patted your bottom and sent you away for a few minutes so that he could speak to me in private.’
‘Our eyes met?’
‘Oh, yes. Such eyes. You are very memorable, my lady. I am very forgettable. An advantage in my – ah – avocation.’
‘I will never forget you again, or what you did for me this morning.’
He chuckled. ‘It is not often I get to play the knight in shining armour. But tell me where you are staying. I must go to the Tower, and I am a little pressed.’
‘Then perhaps we can take the same boat? My home is in Southwark.’
‘Southwark? I see. Yes, this ferry will take you across, then drop me at the Tower wharf. Come.’
He took me by the hand this time and helped me aboard.
Once we were settled, I seized the opportunity of having his hand in mine to open it and examine it.
‘You read hands? Yes, of course you do. Was that why the princess summoned you? Yes, of course it was. That, and no doubt other talents and skills you are gifted with.’
‘Can any one join in this conversation?’
‘I do beg your pardon. Katherine – my sister-in-law – is always laughing at me, telling me I talk to myself because I can’t find anyone else sufficiently witty and well-read and widely-travelled to have a decent conversation with. Philippa – her sister, my wife – says it is simply that no one else will listen to my nonsense.’
‘I’m sure Katherine is in the right of it.’
‘In this case, Katherine would be quite wrong, for I feel I may have met my match.’
‘I am still a child, but one day perhaps we shall meet and converse, if not as equals, at least on equal terms.’
‘Soon then. For though it is true you are still in the spring of life, my summer is all but over and these white hairs on my chin remind me of the old man’s beard in autumn hedgerows.’
I laughed. ‘They become you.’
His eyes twinkled.
‘What are you thinking, Master Chaucer? That that was a professional response? Because of what you heard about me in the guardroom? What else have you heard about me? And who, may I ask, pointed me out to you as Lady Marian MacElpin? At Vincennes, Beauté-sur-Marne, everyone knew me as Doña Mariana de la Mar. Was it someone at the Louvre? At the Taking of Jerusalem?’
‘No. There, when I asked, I was told that you were a Spanish whore by the name of Mariana de la Mar. No surprise to me to see such a one on the arm of Dottore Tomasso di Benvenuto da Pizzano, though his daughter’s presence gave me pause.’
‘And so it should.’
‘Hm. When I saw you next, you were on the arm of the Emperor – his daughter was not present – and you were looking remarkably pleased with yourself. As well you might. Then someone whispered in my ear, “The Emperor’s pick of Paris. You approve?” “No Parisienne, though,” I responded. “No,” he agreed, his eyes running over you like fingers, “a little bird from the north, here for the winter no doubt. In the spring she will fly north again, back to her native Scotland.” He definitely approved! But Scotland? I am not often left speechless. Seeing my surprise, he said: “That is the Lady Marian MacElpin.” I might have thought you two women who chanced to look alike, but having the same name, Marian, Mariana, seemed too great a coincidence. Was this one woman passing as two quite different people? And if so, which was the real one? Which is the real one?’
‘Who told you my name?’
‘On which occasion?’
‘In the first case, it was a lady. One of Wenceslas’ entourage. In the second case, it was a young man – a mysterious young man I know professionally.’
‘Mysterious? But if he’d been invited, then he – ‘
‘You, too, are mysterious … There were the great and the good. And then there were the diplomats and courtiers, like me, and the – ah – hangers-on, like you. And then there were the servants. He was masquerading as a servant. I recognised him. Fortunately, no one else did.’
‘Ah, his real name. No, that is out of the question. But he travels under a variety of noms de guerre. One he has been using recently is Jack Cutting.’
‘Jack Cutting?’ That was my nom de guerre!
‘We are arriving. This is where you alight, Lady Marian.’
Perfect timing. The man was indeed a diplomat.
‘Master Chaucer, I hope very much to make your further acquaintance some day soon.’
‘Not soon, I’m afraid. I am going abroad again. But I shall seek you out upon my return. You and Katherine have in common that a man enjoys your company.’
‘No doubt it is simply that we both enjoy the company of a man like you … Are there others – like you – in London? I am new here.’
‘Well, let me see. Like me the courtier? Hundreds. Like me the diplomat and secret agent? A few. Like me the poet? There are only two other acknowledged poets practising their art in London now. One is John Gower. A neighbour of yours, incidentally. He will amuse you, but little else. The other is Long Will Langland. He will not amuse you. Indeed, after a couple of hours with him you may wish to jump in the river – which is handy – and be done with it all.’
‘If I jumped in the river, I would not be done with it all. I’m a swimmer.’
‘Are you indeed. Then perhaps you might choose to take to the water and live like a fish. For he will attempt to persuade you of the vanity of life in the world performing works in the service of Lady Meed, and of the vacuity of the alternative, life as a hermit performing no works whatsoever, good or bad. But when we are all long dead, his great poem will still be read, along perhaps with some few lines of mine and poor Gower’s.’
The boat bumped against the key.
‘Speaking of secret agents, do you know Lady Alice? Alice Perrers? I believe she might find a use for you.’
‘Alice Perrers? The old king’s – ‘
‘Poor Alice desperately needs a secret emissary, someone new and unknown, to run errands for her here and there. Highly confidential errands.’
‘By “here” and “there” you mean?’
‘”Here” is – here. “There” might well be France, to begin with. And she has no one now that she can trust.’
‘Not even you?’
‘Me? My master these days is John of Gaunt. But hush,’ he said, looking over my shoulder to where someone was obviously taking an interest in our conversation.
I hushed. ‘You said John Gower is a neighbour of mine.’
‘He has rooms at the Priory of St Mary Overie – just here.’
‘And Will Langland?’
‘Long Will? He is a clerk in minor orders, but has no money. He lives in a cottage in Cornhill and makes a pittance singing masses for the dead. Farewell, Lady Marian.’
I was handed off the boat, then turned and watched as my saviour was carried away from me across the river to the Tower.