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.
“Poet,” she said, “I require distraction. Recite for me ‘The Bastard Queen of England.’”
The boy blushed.
The assault began with a flyover of combat jets, meant to intimidate the defensive forces Lady Anne did not have, followed by an all-out invasion of cavalry, infantry, and armored forces. War machines churned up the sod and crushed flowering topiary under their treads. Over the course of four hours, the grounds of the estate were secured, a task that could have been performed in an eighth that time had the invaders been capable of believing there were no defenders. Tanks and mobile guns were parked among the pavilions, latrines and defensive trenches were dug, rolls of barbed wire were unreeled along the perimeter, and guard stations were established by every gracefully winding road.
Servants offered lemonade and petits fours to their bemused conquerors. Lute music and diesel exhaust filled the air.
“Set up a chair in the croquet grounds by the great willow,” Lady Anne told her handmaid Larissa. “Have a pitcher of martinis nearby, in case my guest decides to be reasonable.” She did not think he would, but it was best to be prepared for all possibilities. Seated in what by no coincidence looked like a wicker throne, she waited for the head barbarian to come and announce that Maidenshead was no longer hers.
“If you die,” said her poet, “I will write a ballad in your honor.”
“Remind me again why I haven’t had you strangled?”
“It will make all who hear it weep.”
“Oh, go tell Mistress Zephora to find a hidey-hole for you, lest you be impressed into Lord Vacant’s forces for the rest of your pathetically brief life. Be off. Shoo!”
Shortly thereafter, he whom she awaited arrived. At his approach, she stood gracefully. “Lord Vacant,” she said.
“Slut!” Lord Vacant backhanded her across the face. Fata Morgaine stood by his side, looking amused. “The royal brat was to give birth to a son who would conquer all of Europe and plunge half the world into a war that would last for centuries. You have undone a great deal of patient work today.”
“I am glad to hear it,” Lady Anne said, and Lord Vacant struck her again.
She was dragged to a Sarsen stone at the edge of the Old Forest and there stripped of her ribbons and finery. Barefoot and clad only in her shift, Lady Anne was lashed to the stone. “Do not think to use your witchy wiles upon the guards,” Lord Vacant said. “For they desire only men and are thus immune to you.”
Then he left her.
There were five guards, Greek soldiers by their gear and outfits, and their faces were hard and stony. As an avatar, Annie could not be killed—not permanently, anyway. She could, however, be made to suffer. She was capable of enduring this captivity forever. It was a rare drawback to being what she was.
After a time, she began to hum “Arthur’s Seat Shall Be My Bed” and soon after to sing the words aloud:
It’s not the cold that makes me cry,
Nor is’t the wet that wearies me:
Nor is’t the frost that freezes fell:
But I love a lad, and I dare not tell.
She was not surprised to see the soldiers looking wistful and sad with old memories. She had the voice for the song and she knew how to deliver it. Soon, one of the large, stolid men began to weep.
Lady Anne hung down her head so that her long, loose hair hid her smile.
Weeks passed. Every now and then, Lady Anne would talk, as if to herself, of her life and sorrows, of the cruel husband Crow had stolen her away from, of how much she had given up and how little she cared. Then she would sing another ballad. By the time her long-awaited supplicant arrived, she and not Lord Vacant owned the hearts of her Greek guardsmen.
At last Fata Morgaine came striding out of the Old Forest. Shoving a guard aside, she removed her mask of bone and said, “I would parley with you.”
“Morgi! How delightful to see you again. Timon, be a dear and send for tea.”
Twin servitors—Hélène and Héloïse—fetched service, tea table, and a chair, then disappeared. At Lady Anne’s nod, so did the guards. Fata Morgaine took a pro forma sip of Lapsang souchong and then said, “One of your whores is sleeping with my husband. This can only be your doing.”
“It was my whim,” Lady Anne admitted. “I put a geas on my ladies not to sleep with their inferiors. Being as they are, that drastically limited the number of potential bedmates. Who’s the lucky lass? Pleasance, I presume?
“Zephora.” Outrage sharpened the Morgaine’s tone. “I am an avatar of War, feared and revered in every culture there has ever been. Wherever the bodies are piled high and their stench assails the heavens, there am I. How dare Lord Vacant prefer the company of a slattern over mine?”
“The ladies of my court are, when they choose, very close to irresistible. Since your husband insists on staying here, the outcome was inevitable.”
“He is waiting for you to undo your curse on the child Elizabeth.”
“You and I both know that’s not going to happen. Just as we know that if Zephora keeps her hooks in your husband much longer, you will lose him forever. Now, given that you no longer have enough influence over Lord Vacant to get him to free me . . . what else can you offer?”
“Whatever you require. Ask.”
The shift Lady Anne wore was sweat-stained and beginning to fray and her hair hadn’t been washed in all the time she’d been kept prisoner. Yet, lashed to the stone as she was, she was able to look down upon the Morgaine. This psychological advantage was one of the reasons she had ordered a chair for her guest. “Wouldst kneel before me?”
Flustered, the Morgaine said, “I . . . yes. Yes, I would.”
“Kiss my foot?”
“Yes, damn you!”
“Pledge your allegiance to me before all the world?”
“Anything! Anything! Anything!”
“None of that is necessary. By your words, you prove yourself my acolyte. All I require is that you borrow one of Lord Vacant’s machines and drive it to the far side of the Mountains of Eternity. Then come back and tell your husband what you have seen. Do this and I promise he will never see Mistress Zephora’s baubles again.”
“That’s it?” Fata Morgaine said in disbelief.
“That’s all. And more than enough.”
As soon as the Morgaine was out of sight, Lady Anne’s boy poet appeared out of nowhere and began tugging at the knots of the ropes that bound her to the Sarsen stone.
“What are you doing? Stop that.”
“Lady, we have little time before the Greeks return. I have a set of men’s clothing that should fit you stashed in the woods, along with a knife to hack your hair short, a leathern water flask, a wallet of food, and a bow and quiver of arrows. We can live off of venison and drink from forest pools until you have fled far enough to avoid recapture.”
Lady Anne found herself strangely touched. “’Tis a gallant but fantastical plan. I doubt any girl your age would be fool enough to come up with it. But there is no need. Tell Corydon—that’s the curly-haired brute, the cute one—that the hour has come for my release. Then do thou follow me, a step behind and to the side, to the manor. I must look my best for the coming confrontation.”
Walking point and trailed by her poet, guards, and a growing number of maidens, some of whom sang while others played lutes and pipes, Lady Anne made straight and sure through the enemy encampment for Maidenshead Manor. Soldiers started and stared, but without direct orders dared not interfere with one so obviously in command. She left her Greeks to defend the door, not because it needed defense, but for appearances’ sake.
Indeed, they did look formidable.
A trip across the Mountains of Eternity and back, though objectively grueling, could be made in the subjective flash of an eye. So Lady Anne barely had time for a bath, fresh clothing, a new hairdo, a discreet touch of makeup, and a dab of Nuit de Titania behind one ear before Lord Vacant came howling to her door. Standing at the top of the steps (again, looking down), she turned the day in her hand so that the sun sank low and the light turned blue. It was twilight now, when her puissance was greatest. She left just a gleam of sunlight lingering on her face, so that all might admire her complexion.
Had anyone ever seen Lord Vacant as angry as he was now? Lady Anne doubted it. His bone mask crumbled in his clenched hand. “What have you done?” he screamed at her.
One by one, the other godparents of the infant Elizabeth faded into existence behind him, for they all had a stake in this wrangling. Lord Silence looked stern and forbidding, Mundus and Dale looked alarmed, and Fata Morgaine was outright frightened. Even Papa Goatfoot, though obviously pixilated, looked as though he would be worried if he could just remember why. Only Reverend Wednesday appeared serene and untroubled.
“You came into my territory unannounced and without my leave, plotted to turn its queen into a broodmare for a would-be world warlord, and failed to invite me to a christening in which I had an obvious interest. The offense was not slight. I took appropriate action.”
Gathering himself together with an obvious effort, Lord Vacant said, “You have killed off the human race, without whom we none of us have any purpose.”
“I have killed not a single soul—slaughter is your prerogative. I merely assured that the species would quietly and without fuss dwindle over the coming centuries to nothing. As was my right and privilege.”
“You have no privileges,” Lord Vacant said with cold disdain, “and no rights. You are a songbird, whose sole purpose is to lighten the lives of drabs and housewives on their death march to the grave. Stick to your soap operas and confession magazines and leave the running of the universe to your betters.”
So saying, he made a foul gesture.
Lady Anne hissed in outrage. Then she took on her aspect, so that she shone as bright as the moon. She yanked down her bodice. It helped that her seamstresses had access to elastics available to no one else in this century. “I am Romance, proud and fair—look upon my tits, ye Mighty, and despair. Thinkst thou mere brutality can stop me? Entropy? Desolation? I piss on you and all you stand for.”
Lord Vacant sneered. “Such vulgarity, lady, ill suits you.”
“You dare call me out on aesthetics? Fuck you! Do you imagine that Romance is neat and tidy? Meek, mild, and easily defeated? Polite? It invades the heart like a conquering army and it takes no prisoners. Whatever stands in its way it lays to waste. Family, friends, duty, love of country, common sense—all fall before it. Decency is set aflame! Morality is tossed aside! Reason is trampled underfoot! Self-preservation? Don’t make me laugh. There has never been a tyrant more ruthless or less prone to mercy than I. And I claim this era—nay, all eras!—for my own.”
“I defy,” Lord Vacant cried, “your every claim and throw them back in your teeth. You think to set murmured words and diadems of daisies against napalm and cold steel? Have at me! I am the lash that drives men on to greatness. You are a distraction for adolescent girls. Mine is the power that creates kings, destroys empires, and writes the lying histories afterward. What have you—”
It was Reverend Wednesday who had spoken. He raised a hand and Lady Anne found she could not speak. A coldness, like the first frost of autumn, touched her heart. “Your case, dread lady, has been made.” He turned to Lord Vacant. “As has yours.” Then, gesturing, “Come forward, little ones, and kneel before me.”
Side by side, like children before a stern parent, they knelt. For the first time she could remember, Lady Anne felt small and unimportant. She did not much like the sensation. A quick sideways glance at Lord Vacant’s face showed he felt much the same. “Lord of Discord, you have dissed a Peer and she has given you a taste of your own medicine. From this moment onward, you will treat her as your equal.”
A choking noise came from Lord Vacant’s throat and he nodded.
“Lady Anne, your trickster has not been a good influence on you, I fear. In extinguishing the human race, who are under my protection, you overstepped yourself. You will immediately remove the curse from them, so that they may thrive.”
Lady Anne tried to speak and could only croak. So she, too, nodded.
“Nevertheless, you had cause. So I command that young Elizabeth be exempted from your lifting of the curse. Lord Vacant will have to create his world-encompassing war somewhere else, at some other time.” He stroked Lady Anne’s hair, as if she were a cat. “Now stand. This matter is over and done with.”
Reverend Wednesday began to fade away, then became solid again. His eyes twinkled. “Oh, and do try to keep out of trouble.”
Then he was gone.
Next to depart was Lord Vacant, taking his forces with him and leaving behind an estate that would be the despair of the groundskeepers for years to come. Fata Morgaine, hurrying after him, threw Lady Anne a look of what may have been gratitude. The others left in a more leisurely fashion.
Last to depart was Lord Silence. At his nod, one of his courtiers said, “All present capable of doing so will forget this day’s doing and all that led up to it. The princess was christened like any other princess.” Then Lord Silence flicked his fingers and the man said to Annie, “You have caused a great deal of trouble, lady.”
“All of which could have been spared if you’d only sent me a fucking by-your-leave invitation to the christening. Remember that next time.”
When the intruders were gone at last, Lady Anne’s shoulders sagged and with all the sincerity in her body, she said, “Thank Whomever.” Then, all business again, she said, “Pleasance. Take Master Shakespeare and put him back in his proper time and place. Oh, and he has an illness lurking within him. Give him the kiss of life so that he may have his two-score-and-twelve.”
Eyes gleaming, the lady-in-waiting said, “Yes, milady.”
“One kiss, no more, Mistress Pleasance. On the mouth. Nowhere else.”
Eyes dimming, Pleasance curtseyed, saying, “As you will.”
Annie kissed the boy farewell on his forehead. “I really should castrate you,” she whispered in his ear. “Alas, I was always a sucker for a gaudy line of patter.”
Because the Harley had disappeared—her ladies being no better than they ought to be, Annie was not surprised that one of them had nicked it in order to keep a tryst beyond her ken and reckoning—she left Maidenshead riding a white palfrey.
Not half a mile into the Old Forest, the path turned, and there was Crow, leaning against a tree. Annie did not ask how he had found her. By their very nature, it was hard for the universe to keep them apart. “Hey, babe,” he said. “I brought you something more comfortable to wear.” Neatly folded on the ground before him were a pair of jeans, a bomber jacket, a tank top, socks, and biker boots. Typical for him, the underwear was lacy and impractical. She was about to say something about that when he dropped a full carton of Kent Menthols atop the pile. For that, much could be forgiven.
Crow watched appreciatively as Annie stripped out of her skirts and furbelows and pulled on the riding gear. The horse she set free, to brighten the day of whatever rascal found it. Casually, Crow mounted his new Norton Commando and started the engine. “So how was your little vacation?” he asked when she climbed on behind him.
“Dull,” Annie said. She wrapped her arms around Crow so tight that it made his ribs creak. “Let’s go the fuck somewhere else and stir things up.”
“Annie Without Crow” copyright © Michael Swanwick
Art copyright © 2021 Wylie Beckert