An act of indiscretion from her immortal trickster companion sends Annie and her league of ladies-in-waiting on a time-defying adventure that becomes the inspiration for William Shakespeare.
Annie and Crow were at odds.
Lord Eros had woven a dozen sets of sheets from sighs and orgasms he had collected in his avatar as Lady Incuba. A thousand times smoother than silk were those sheets and infinitely more sensuous. To touch one, however lightly, was to abandon reason for desire. Lust became one’s master, one’s purpose, one’s all. Questions of gender or rank or appearance no longer mattered. So potent were these shimmering cloths that their effect could be felt through burlap.
Crow stole one of the sheets, wearing gloves made of Lord Eros’s own hair, and then, for a prank, held a party for as many of the Peers of Creation as could abide his presence. As they entered, he sent them into an unlighted room to leave their coats upon a bed he had made up with the stolen sheet. Then he watched, laughing, as they rutted themselves to exhaustion.
Annie didn’t think it was so funny.
“Look, babe, I played it straight with you. I told you what the sheet was and what would happen if you touched it,” Crow said.
“The fuck. You thought you could leave something like that lying around without me trying it out?” She hit him hard in the stomach. Annie packed a lot more muscle than you’d expect in a woman so delicate-featured and slim-waisted. Crow waited until she had turned away in scorn before wincing in pain, then composed himself just before she spun back to confront him again.
“Th’art a vile, whore-mongering rogue!” Annie spat, eyes flashing like summer lightning. “Thou . . . thou . . . asshole!”
“Hey, hey, hey. You knew I was a trickster when you hooked up with me. This kind of behavior comes with the territory. It’s a compulsion. I ain’t got no say over it.”
“So you say!” Annie grabbed her purse and flung it over one leather-clad shoulder. “I’m going to the Rite Aid for some tampons. Don’t wait up.”
She slammed the door behind her.
A few seconds later, Crow heard the world-shaking roar of his Harley starting up. “My hog!” Outraged, he ran outdoors and was just in time to see Annie’s red hair flying behind her as she hit the road. For an instant the heat shimmering up from the highway mingled with the exhaust to make Annie, her hair, and the motorcycle billow and swell and snap in the air like a banner. Then she was gone, out of this gods-forsaken nation and century entirely.
“Shit,” Crow muttered. This was really going to fuck up the timelines.
Annie was almost half a millennium deep into the Mountains of Eternity before she had to stop and take a leak. After she’d taken care of business, she checked the maps and saw that she was close to home. So she unstrapped the saddlebags and unpacked her silks, laces, and whalebone stays. She knew from experience that sixteenth-century England would accept a woman on a motorcycle a thousand times more readily than it would one in skintight jeans.
Men! she thought. With ill grace, Annie changed into clothing more appropriate to her destination,, skimming her leathers onto the verge of the road. Then, perforce riding sidesaddle, she started the Harley again. Not just Crow—all of them! They would have to be punished. Only how?
This would require some thought.
Half an hour later she arrived at Maidenshead Manor, in the depths of the Old Forest, and had all her servants and ladies-in-waiting assembled for inspection in the main hall. Everything appeared to be in order when—
“What is this?” Annie seized a young male—well-made and even handsome in his way—by the ear and hauled him from among the servants. She glared not at Mistress Zephora, her head-of-household, but at Mistress Pleasance, who was the most likely source of any mischief at Maidenshead. A glimmer of her aspect must have shown in her face, for all her ladies-in-waiting turned pale and a few backed away in fear. “Everyone here knows that my household has one unbreakable rule.” Even before she had abandoned her husband for a raggedy-ass trickster, she had maintained this one mansion free of men, so as to have a periodic refuge from their at times oppressive company. She was not anxious to see it defiled.
“That applies only to males of rutting age,” Zephora said, adding with a dismissive flick of her fingers, “This pillicock is yet a boy.”
“He came wandering out of the forest one day, cold and wet and miserable, and none of us had the heart to turn him away. Who knows where and into what year he would have emerged, had we done so?” Pleasance babbled.
Annie’s nostrils flared. “By the smell of him, he won’t be a youth much longer. A place for him must be found elsewhere. Account for yourself, lad. What skills hast thou? Ostler, footman, page?”
“Lady, I am a poet,” the boy said with a short, stiff bow.
“May the Moon give me patience! Am I supposed to retain thee in order to tell me my eyes are the sun, my lips coral, my breasts as white as a January snowfall, my cheeks like roses, my bearing that of a goddess?”
“Your eyes are nothing like the sun—I can gaze direct at them without pain. Coral is redder than your lips and from what I can see of them your breasts are more dun than white and doubtless nowhere near so chill as snow. I have seen roses both red and white and they are not at all like your cheeks. Granted, I have never beheld a goddess, yet you show no signs of walking in the air rather than on the ground and therefore I doubt you are one.” Thoughtfully, the youth added, “You are, however, far more beautiful than any woman I have erenow seen. That said, I am young and there are many women I have yet to see.”
Zephora raised a hand to cuff the boy for his insolence. But, hiding a smile, Lady Anne forestalled her, saying, “Very well, you are a poet. If I can find you a post elsewhere before you mature, I won’t have to kill you.” Something about the pallor of his face prompted her to examine him more closely. “There is a fey look about thee, lad. Art dying?”
“Aye. Within the year, so the physician says.”
“Best hope, then, that thy mortality wins the race with thy maturity.” Annie turned away from the poet. “Are there any more unpleasant surprises awaiting me? Very well, I shall—” But the faces of her ladies told her that she had moved on too quickly. “What?”
“The child told a strange tale,” Lady Zephora said, “of a man and a woman he encountered in the forest. They were in a carriage made all of metal and drawn by no animals that he could see. They stopped and asked him the year and when he gave it, one looked to the other and said, ‘Forty-three yet to go, then.’ We grammar’d out the dates and it seems sure they headed for this very year. He said the two were tall beyond normal stature, dressed in black, and wore white masks.”
Lady Anne turned to the boy. “The masks—were they white as chalk? Or white as lilies?”
The boy considered. “No,” he decided. “White as bone.”
“Crap. What’s today’s date?” Then, when Annie was told and had checked her PDA, “The king’s bairn’s christening occurs today at the Church of the Observant Friars. This can be no coincidence. Why are my best clothes not laid out? Why was I not given my invitation immediately upon arrival?”
Yet another uncomfortable silence fell upon the court.
Annie felt her lips go thin and white, and her heart correspondingly ruthless and hard. “Invited or no, we shall make a procession,” she said. “Have the boundaries of the estate moved so that they border Greenwich.”
The walls of the buildings leading to the church were lined with bright tapestries, and the street itself strewn with rushes, turning it green. A turbulent sea of peasants, priests, merchants, and other nonentities filled every open space and balcony and roof eave, waving scarves and roaring like an ocean squall.
Parked by the church was an ugly metal box of a vehicle, with thick black wheels, irregular sides, and windows of tinted glass. “Does’t look familiar, poet?” Annie asked.
“Aye. ’Tis the conveyance I saw in the forest.”
“That’s an Ural Typhoon. It’s a light troop carrier. Russian Federation, twenty-first century. Composite body armor and a KPV 14.5 millimeter machine gun mounted atop the cab. You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
The boy shook his head.
“All that matters is the knowledge that none but Lord Vacant would have the bad taste to bring such a grotesque thing into Bluff King Hal’s England.”
The unwashed sea of celebrants froze immobile and silent as Annie’s procession neared the church. It was the easiest way for her kind to deal with the rabble.
At the procession’s approach, the crowds washed away from it like ocean waves parting—save for one, an old man who, unnoticed by the multitude, was pissing upon the church. Some flicker of motion made him look up. When he saw Annie, he blanched. “Lady Anne! You . . . You weren’t supposed to be here.” At her glare, he tucked himself in and buttoned his trews.
“Obviously not,” Annie said. Laying a hand on his sleeve, she said, “Tell me, Papa Goatfoot—what’s going on?”
Because the tale Papa Goatfoot told alarmed Annie greatly and because, technically, she was a party-crasher, she drew shadows around her entourage and slipped them inside the church unnoticed. Though all the pews were filled, enough new ones appeared to seat everyone. Such were the courtesies the universe provided those of her ilk.
“Looks like all the heavy hitters are present,” she muttered to Papa Goatfoot. “I have half a mind to inflict a passionate desire for an unobtainable lover upon each and every one of them.”
The satyr by now was sweating with fear. “Please. I’m supposed to be one of the godfathers—it wasn’t my idea! I just agreed because I was in my cups when I was asked.”
“As always. Never fear. You’re too old and sozzled for me to bother with.”
Papa Goatfoot breathed a sigh of relief. “I knew you wouldn’t do that to a pal,” he said, drawing a flask from an inside jacket pocket.
Taking the flask from him, Annie said, “Don’t get cocky. You’re not immune. I was the one who introduced Aristotle to Phyllis—and you know how that turned out.” She took a swig, returned the flask.
At the front of the church was a baptismal font of silver, carved with symbols that were never Christian. It illuminated those standing by it, for it was filled with uisce solais, the water of light. Annie watched as one by one the Lords of Creation stood forward to proffer gifts to the babe.
First and most fearsome came Reverend Wednesday, old man Death himself. “Courage,” said he. And sat down in the front pew, motionless as a stone. Then, solemn and richly dressed, as in a dumb-show, the other Peers advanced, each by turn, up the aisle to loom like storm clouds over the infant and bestow their gifts.
“Insight,” said Lady Dale, sometimes called Lord Dale the evasive.
“Restraint,” one of Lord Silence’s gray ladies said, and he nodded grave approval.
“Loyalty and the charm that inspires it,” said Prince Mundus.
“Strategic brilliance,” said Fata Morgaine.
“Ruthlessness,” growled Lord Vacant, “and the sense to employ it sparingly.”
There was a long pause. Finally, Annie jabbed her elbow in Papa Goatfoot’s side and he popped to his feet. “Sobriety!” he squeaked, eliciting a ripple of laughter. Under his breath, he added, “But in moderation.”
With each blessing, the infant was dipped quickly in and out of the luminous water. It bore the ceremony with surprising self-restraint, looking about alertly and making no complaint about the immersions.
Lady Anne waited until she was most of the way up the aisle before lifting the glamour that hid her and her ladies-in-waiting from the congregation. In her most commanding voice, she cried, “No one has asked me what gift I have for the infant.”
Lord Vacant placed himself between her and the baptismal font, saying, “Stand away, upstart! You are but a weak archetype. Only the strong have the right to be here.”
“Yet I have a blessing for the child. If I am as weak as you say, then you have nothing to fear from me, do you?”
For an instant, Lord Vacant hesitated. Then, with a brusqueness that was all but identical to rudeness, he stepped aside.
Lady Anne made her way into the circle of Peers surrounding the baptismal font. Then she dipped her hand into the water and dribbled a few drops on the infant princess. “My gift to thee is that thou shalt neither wed nor bed any man who is your inferior in wit or character.” A pitiless smile rested complacent on her lips for a breath, and then she said, “After the gifts you have today received, I have good reason to doubt you shall ever find such a paragon. So, really, what I’m bestowing upon you is a lifetime sans husband or offspring.”
A gasp rose up from the assembled Lords of Creation. Outraged, Fata Morgaine cried, “You would destroy the king’s daughter’s value?”
With a cold glee, Lady Anne said, “I would. Moreover, upon the babe’s sire—who, I mark, did not bother to attend her christening—I visit the curse that his daughter will be ten times the king that e’er he was.”
Elizabeth, princess of the House of Tudor and someday Queen of England, began to wail.
“There will be many changes made,” the Lady Anne announced to the assembled women of her household, once they had returned to Maidenshead. “From this day onward, women shall not take lovers who are their emotional or intellectual inferiors. This will apply not only to the Princess Elizabeth but to every woman everywhere.”
In horror, Mistress Pleasance cried, “We’ll all die virgins!”
Heads swiveled to look at her and she turned red.
“But, milady, how is this to be done?” asked Mistress Zephora, who was always the most practical one of the household and, consequently, the least popular. “The world needs to be populated—under your terms, it will dwindle to nothing in mere centuries.”
“Watch and learn. Oh, and clean the manor house from top to bottom and decorate it to a fare-thee-well. I anticipate guests. Erect tents and pavilions on the lawn and long tables covered by white cloths embroidered in silk with red hearts and yellow roses intertwined. Perfume the air and decorate the nearby woods with fairy lights and tame white harts. Set up targets for archery and prepare a lawn for tennis. Be ready to serve fruits and ices, roasted meats, crisp crudités, breads fresh from the oven with crocks of sweet butter, pâtés and mousses, Viennese pastries, and all manner of good things save only alcohol.”
Appearing from nowhere, her new pet poet observed, “’Tis a strange feast that has neither flagons of ale nor goblets of wine. Wouldst have them drink dew, like mayflies?”
“No, still water, like carp. You wouldn’t want to see this gang plastered,” Lady Anne said. “When they get drunk, they break things.” She clapped her hands and raised her voice. “Everyone! You are to make our visitors welcome. They may go where they please and do as they wish in all regards save one: Allow nobody male inside the manor house. No man may penetrate my chambers, whether from the front entrance or the rear or by any other ingress.” Somebody tittered and she glared. “What?!”
No one dared say a word. “Very well,” Lady Anne said. “You have your duties—see to them.”
The women scattered like so many doves to the six quarters of the estate, and Lady Anne flung herself down on a couch. She caught herself drumming her fingers on its arm and stilled them. All her plans had been made in a trice, but if there was one thing she had learned from years with Crow, it was never to overthink matters. “Plot out your first seven moves,” he had told her. “Then forget the last five.” If things went awry, she could always extemporize.