Harlequin's Slash Fic

Will & Kit

Title: Will & Kit: A Poignant History of the Love & the Words between Two Poets
Author: Julien
Universe: Shakespeare in Love
Characters featured: Shakespeare/Marlowe
Category, Word count: Story; 16997 words
Rating: NC17
Summary: Will is in desperate need of a Muse. Marlowe wants company on a trip to Dover. Will doesn’t know whether he resents or admires the man more, but agrees to go with him. They each find, for a short while, what they most want.
Notes: I wrote this soon after being blown away by the movie, during the very early phases of a longterm love for Marlowe. As a result, the Kit stalking through these pixels is a curious hybrid of Rupert Everett’s portrayal in the movie and the Marlowe that further research has created in my head. I wouldn’t write him quite this way if I had it to do over! So I suppose this fic is left to stand or fall on its own merits!
First published: 10 August 2000 in Espresso 3

 

 

Will & Kit

A Poignant History of the Love & the Words between Two Poets

 

Winter 1592

Will Shakespeare strode into the tavern, with the Admiral’s Men and Philip Henslowe following close behind – Will’s pair of plays were doing well at the Rose, and the whole company was in the mood for celebration. They settled around their usual table, and the usual strumpets brought out pitchers of their usual ale. Familiar though the details were, though, the intensity of the players’ joy had remained at opening pitch through two weeks now, and that was unique.

‘Another great performance,’ Will commented to Henslowe, ‘and well received.’

‘Here’s the chinks that tell that story,’ the manager replied, satisfaction glowing in his eyes. And Henslowe actually tossed a coin to one of the girls in order to pay for the company’s drinks, which brought a rowdy cheer. ‘Those gulls I couldn’t cram inside, paid to stand by the open doors.’

Such a situation was understandable to the dramatist: ‘The audience loves the plays. Marlowe never drew such crowds.’

‘Good Lord above, they’d love anything right now.’ Henslowe cringed under the full force of Will’s glare, but loudly protested, ‘The playhouses have been closed for eleven months of the year! People are hungry for a laugh or a love story.’

Acknowledging the truth of this, Will’s glare became a happier grimace. ‘Or a tale of rebellion and war, betrayal and death… The story of York and Lancaster is rousing stuff, and you know it well.’

Henslowe saluted him with a mug of ale, and drank deep. With foam whitening his moustache, the manager declared, ‘Write me two more plays, the equal of these but funnier, and we’ll never want for anything again.’

Will laughed at the exaggeration of their possible fortunes, and looked about him for more reasonable compliments. But those that had the wit to please him were already pleasing others. A new serving–girl was fetching pitchers of ale from the barkeeper, a pretty girl with something of good humour about her, so Will idly watched her for long moments, wondering as he did so whether she could be the one. Lately his speculation was inevitably accompanied by his own discouragement, without waiting for the woman’s discouragement to wound him first, but Will hadn’t quite given up hope. There had to be someone out there, a lady or someone less exalted, to inspire him.

As the girl turned away towards a nearby table, Will spied a man sitting on a stool in the corner of the tavern, watching him even more intently than Will himself was watching. Christopher Marlowe.

A sour confusion of emotions tightened Will’s gut – resentment and admiration chief among them. Marlowe, though always dressed well, looked particularly fine tonight in a royal purple doublet with gold buttons and clean linen, as if he deliberately sought to provoke Will’s envy.

When Marlowe beckoned to him, Will swallowed his ale down, filled his mug afresh, and then slowly walked over. His reluctance was justified by Marlowe’s cheerful opening remark: ‘Here’s our upstart crow, in all his beautiful borrowed plumage.’

‘Then what are you?’ Will angrily retorted. ‘A peacock – willingly plucked – dreaming he can remain untainted though he’s trooping with crows?’

Marlowe was laughing in appreciation. ‘Master Shakespeare, your turn of phrase will be the making of you. Greene’s insults were witty, particularly for a dying man, but you surpass him.’

‘He wouldn’t even let Death take him until he’d written out all his rancour…’

The two men exchanged troubled glances. Will assumed Marlowe’s thoughts echoed his own, as he imagined Robert Greene dying in his mistress’s squalid house, begging for a last glass of malmsey on credit, scrawling out pamphlets of tirades against his former friends and literary enemies until at last his bile drained away… No poet deserved such a pathetic end.

But no poet deserved such insults, either. The words arose in Will’s mind of their own accord, as if inscribed on the tavern’s wall for all to see: For there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Jack–of–all–trades, is in his own conceit the only Shake–scene in the country.

Will angrily shook off the moment’s pensiveness, and demanded of Marlowe, ‘What in God’s name are you doing here?’

Unexpectedly enough, Marlowe quietly dropped his gaze again and toyed with his beaker of brandy. A moment passed by before he murmured, ‘I came to see the plays.’

‘You said they were mine!’

‘And they are yours, Will. You made them what they are. Need I remind you? You did all the work, and I just talked a great deal…’ Marlowe’s dark eyes rose to meet Will’s again, and despite the tongue’s banter there was a seriousness in the gaze – a seriousness that Will fought hard not to trust. ‘You write well, even when you’re as much concerned with vulgar men as with great ones. Do not fear: if I am ever accused of dramatising a common character such as Jack Cade, I promise you I’ll deny it to my dying breath. He’s one feather you never plucked from me.’

Will’s fierceness had dwindled away by the end of this assurance; he could only wish that Marlowe’s amusement and candour didn’t disarm him so readily. Well, and he could wish that Marlowe’s disapproval of Jack Cade didn’t rankle despite Will’s own confidence in the character. Marlowe was right, of course – he loved to write about Kings and Great Men, while Will’s Muse demanded an equal dealing with commoner voices. For surely the man who rebelled against the King was just as significant in the tale of the whole.

The tavern’s noise rose around them, isolating the two men and their secrets. In more amicable tones, Will asserted, ‘Call Cade a crow’s feather if you like, but I fancy he weighs heavily in my favour.’

‘How can he carry even half the weight of royalty?’

It was an argument already old between them. Will almost smiled. ‘Cambridge drained your blood away, Kit. You’ve forgotten what it is to be a man.’

‘If you had the wings for it, a university would have sent you soaring above a common bound. Though the right university of course – you really shouldn’t visit Oxford so often.’

‘It is on the way home to Stratford.’

‘Another excellent reason to avoid the place.’

‘Ah, I had a perfectly good education,’ Will said, breaking the pattern of the quarrel. He hauled a stool closer, sat by his tormentor, and plunged to the heart of the matter. ‘It’s a Muse I currently lack.’

There was a silence for a time. Will felt the despair close over him. The Contention and The True Tragedy were obviously performing well if Henslowe was throwing coin around, but what would the next play be, and where was it to come from? He needed a Muse. Will lifted his eyes to stare again at the tavern’s women. Could any of them be the one? No – none of them stirred him. Or they had stirred him in times past, and were unmemorable. Will let out a sigh.

Marlowe inconsequentially commented, ‘The weather is turning warmer. They’ll be closing the playhouses again in a week or so.’

Something else designed to torture him. ‘This plague will kill us all, if not with sickness, then by taking our livelihoods. My poetry has been good – they’re already talking of reprinting Venus and Adonis – but my plays are the thing. I need another play. Henslowe wants another two! Damn them for closing the houses! On what authority,’ Will cried, though his righteousness was fast becoming undermined by the knowledge he was being unreasonable, ‘on what authority do they have it that the plague spreads faster amongst crowds?’

‘Once the houses are closed, I’m to Dover for a few days.’

Will nodded to indicate he was listening, though his thoughts were actually conducting another frantic search through all the women of his acquaintance, looking for the one worthy of being immortalised in verse.

‘Come with me.’

All the women he knew were baggages or harlots or in love with their husbands. Not that William the Conqueror hadn’t seduced a wife or two in his time, but now he needed something more than adultery could provide.

‘Will?’

‘What?’ Will let his actor’s memory catch up with the conversation, then frowned as he reached the conclusion. ‘Why on earth would you want me to? And what are you doing in Dover?’

‘I have a commission,’ Marlowe slowly said as if he savoured the words.

‘To write a poem? You have a patron in Dover?’

‘You’ve almost hit the mark – my patron sends me there. Come with me, Will.’ Those dark eyes met his directly once more. ‘You might discover your Muse on the journey.’

‘In Dover?’ Will laughed. ‘I doubt it, Kit, but I’ll consider your invitation.’

‘Good. Send a note to me when you decide.’ Marlowe drained his brandy, and stood. Another serious though unreadable stare met Will’s, and then Marlowe wound his way through the turmoil and out of the tavern.

 

Late on the allotted morning, Marlowe collected Will in a carriage, complete with a servant to drive it and two of the finest horses Will had ever seen. He must have been caught gaping, for Marlowe carelessly informed him, ‘I have the use of it.’

The servant swung limberly down from the driver’s seat and deigned to take Will’s one pathetic bag. As Will climbed inside and sat opposite Marlowe, he asked, ‘Who’s your patron?’ for there was no coat of arms on the door. ‘I hadn’t heard of your good fortune –’

‘Of course you haven’t heard. There is to be no gossip.’

‘He’s sending you a long way for a poem.’

‘Ah.’ Marlowe’s amusement, though it was always wry, seemed to soften him a little. ‘Well, it is to be a long poem…’

Will laughed at this delightful absurdity. All London’s variety jostled past the windows, each man or woman a blend of the city’s own honesty and treachery, vulgarity and nobility. Will divided his attention between the unfolding pageant and his quiet companion. From the luxurious way Marlowe was dressed in a blue taffeta doublet, matching breeches and an embroidered velvet cloak, every stranger they met would assume the carriage was his, though Will knew these extravagant clothes were simply a reflection of Marlowe’s chosen style. Even the short–stemmed pipe Marlowe soon produced was apparently made of silver. It glinted elegantly as Marlowe began the arduous process of packing it with tobacco and then lighting it. ‘Is it worth all the trouble?’ Will asked once Marlowe finally gained a mouthful of smoke.

‘I am not in the mood for idle chatter,’ Marlowe announced, ‘so unless you have some wisdom to request or impart, kindly restrain yourself.’

Though he’d been interested in the answer, having never yet tried the stuff himself, Will let the matter go with a shrug. The carriage rattled along as fast as the road would allow, increasing speed once they left the city. The two men sat as silently as if they were each alone, barely even moving but for being thrown here and there at random.

Will watched the countryside. He hadn’t expected to find himself glad to be out of London, but the wintry bounty beyond the window promised him peace. Farms slumbered; the only sign of life a glimmer at a window, a lazy trail of smoke from a chimney. Orchards lifted bare branches to the silvering sky, dark and orderly against a light fall of snow. And then woods, thick and impassable, brooded over the secrets they kept. As the hours drew on, Will dozed, jolted awake occasionally by the carriage’s rough passage or by Marlowe’s brooding silence.

They reached the town of Maidstone by dusk, and pulled up outside an inn on the village green. Marlowe swept inside as if he were royalty, and Will followed as best he could with his brain and limbs still jolting. ‘A room for the night!’ Marlowe demanded of the innkeeper. ‘We will share,’ he told Will. ‘I am not wasting my funds on a second room for you, and I’m sure you cannot afford it.’

Whatever Marlowe’s reason for inviting him along, Will was yet to discern it. The man might have been a hundred miles away for all the notice he took of his companion that night, even when they lay in bed curled up close together for warmth.

 

The next day was little different – the two men arrived in Dover late that afternoon after exchanging no more than eight words between them. ‘We’re not stopping?’ Will had asked in surprise as they swept through Canterbury, for he suspected that Marlowe must still have family there.

‘No. Why ever would we?’ Marlowe coolly replied.

Will had had marginally better conversation with the servant, whose disdain only lacked reserve when compared to Marlowe’s. ‘Your name?’ Will had asked as they waited in the frosty morning air for Marlowe to appear.

‘Robert, sir.’

‘My name is Will. There’s no need to sir me.’

‘As you wish, sir.’

‘Apparently it is to be as you wish, Robert.’

‘Yes, sir,’ was the unperturbed reply.

The little town of Dover throbbed and blared with all the business the harbour brought its way, for this was Britain’s closest seaport to France, and through France the rest of Europe. The burgeoning frantic squalor of the place was even worse than London’s. ‘Very poetic,’ Will dryly commented. ‘Dover’s beauty is most inspiring.’

Marlowe merely lifted an eyebrow, and let his stare drift away from Will.

‘But there’s the white cliffs, and Albion’s shores, and your patron’s pale skin – I’m sure you can come up with something. The old castle there presiding over its flock like a noble caretaker.’

‘Yes, that’s good, let me make a note of all that,’ Marlowe said, though his obvious lack of interest made his words ironic. He seemed to lapse back into the silence, but just as Will was turning away to examine Dover more closely, Marlowe announced, ‘You mustn’t call me by name while we’re here.’

That was unexpected. ‘Why the devil not?’

‘My patron wills it, so we must go by other names.’

Will took a moment to consider that, though he could only speculate on the reasons behind such a demand. ‘What do I call you, then?’

Marlowe smiled – a small and secretive but happy smile, and the first one since they’d left London. ‘Call me Taleus, and I’ll call you Ramus.’

The latter name alerted something in Will’s memory, but it wouldn’t come clear for now.

‘No need to look so suspicious, my friend,’ Marlowe said with a show of fond indulgence. ‘They are characters in a play I’m beginning to work on. Peter Ramus is a gentleman and a scholar, and you have no need to fear for your good name.’

‘Then I’ll take you at your word,’ Will replied, and he turned towards Dover.

Among others, they passed a plump and elderly woman arguing with her man. Slowed by a turn in the road, Will overheard her unanswerable argument: ‘No, I am a woman with a woman’s reasoning – I think it because I think it, and that is all.’

He laughed at her spirit, and at the man’s perplexity, and turned to share the humour with Marlowe – but Will’s companion did not care for such common philosophies, and did nothing more than stare pointedly out the other window.

 

The reason for Will coming on this journey was at last made clearer that night, while they shared a late supper at the inn where they were staying in Dover. The two of them were tucked tidily away in a quiet corner of the inn’s main room, away from the unreasonable heat of the fire and the few other patrons of the establishment – though Will suspected Marlowe would have made the same declaration even if they’d been surrounded by witnesses.

‘I want to be your Muse, Will Shakespeare.’

He could only stare dumbfounded for a moment. Then, his wits in shambles, he asked, ‘What?’

‘You heard me.’

‘I don’t understand you.’

‘I want to be your Muse.’ Those dark eyes met his levelly. ‘Where is the difficulty in that? The words are all of a simple length.’

This proposal was so ludicrous that Will had trouble searching for the best way of countering it. He made do with the most obvious: ‘I was looking for a woman to play the part. I need a woman –’

‘Ah, women…’ Marlowe muttered dismissively to himself. When he noticed Will staring at him, Marlowe considered him in turn and then divulged, ‘I respect the Classics, of course, but my Muse was never female. Even Dido sent her inspiration through the young man destined to play her on the stage at Cambridge.’

‘That might do for you, but not for me.’

‘Are you so indifferent?’

‘Not indifferent –’ Will spluttered for a moment, exasperation jamming his throat. ‘Oh for God’s sake – a poet begets his poems upon his Muse. What exactly am I to beget on you?’

‘Love.’

The word threw him for a moment, but Will soon retorted, ‘A barren love.’

‘Not barren of words, I promise you.’ Marlowe seemed cool, as if nothing could really touch him deeply, and certainly not Will’s rejection. ‘I served well enough for your historical plays, did I not?’

‘Well, yes, but I thought of you more as a –’ Will glared at him, feeling anew the shame of Greene’s deathbed insult. ‘As a collaborator. The upstart crow who borrowed your fine feathers, remember?’

‘Ah.’ Marlowe dropped his gaze, and – unusually for quick–witted Kit – thought for a moment. ‘That was a mistake, wasn’t it?’ he murmured.

Will took a deep breath, satisfied that at least Marlowe was seeing reason now. ‘And what would the rest of the University Wits think of you associating so closely with a mere player? A player with unwarranted pretensions.’

‘You care for their good opinion far more than I.’

The man seemed sincere, but Will drew further back and said, ‘We’ll not talk of it, Kit. You have your commission to fulfil. I need to find a play. And we have Dover to explore.’

Marlowe smiled wryly, and lifted his mug of wine. ‘To Dover!’

‘Dover,’ Will echoed, and he drank deep.

 

Will woke, tired after a restless night jammed into the window–seat. Painfully uncurling, he found his feet, commanded his reluctant legs to bear him, and stretched out the unwanted bends in his back. It was difficult to recall exactly why he’d been so reluctant to share the bed with Marlowe, when the disadvantages of the alternative were so clamorous.

Marlowe was gone, and it appeared that he’d left in a hurry – the man’s bags were empty, and the contents were scattered about the room. It was a wonder he hadn’t woken Will while creating all this confusion. To his great surprise, Will found his own copy of Holinshed’s Chronicles amidst the debris. He’d been wondering where that had gotten to. But why on earth would Kit have borrowed the book? Christopher Marlowe had never yet written a play or a poem set in England.

Shrugging off this puzzle, Will poured out some water still warm from Marlowe’s ablutions, splashed it where it would do the most good, then hauled on his plain old doublet and breeches over the shirt and hose he’d slept in. He tried to settle at the table to read the Chronicles – glancing through the pages from William I to Henry III and back again – but soon found he wasn’t in the mood. He took paper, quill and ink from his own bag, and sat down again with the express intention of beginning a new play, but only succeeded in signing twenty–three variations of his own name.

Wondering where Marlowe had gone, and why, and when he’d return, Will cast another look around at the man’s belongings. A small silken pouch tied with a strip of leather peeked out from under the fancy lace collar of a shirt that had apparently been bundled up and tossed onto the table. Will looked at it for a long moment, and then tentatively drew the pouch closer. A glance at the door, which remained closed and Marlowe–less, and Will undid the leather knot.

Coins. Freshly minted coins. Mostly pennies, thruppenny bits and shillings, and in goodly quantity. Will sighed enviously, wondering again who Marlowe’s patron was – obviously a man or a woman of generous means. No, Will amended – no doubt a man of means. His poverty overcoming his conscience, he took two shillings and slipped them into his pocket. Marlowe would have given them to him if he’d asked, Will was certain of it. Though his honesty noted that he wasn’t asking. Will retied the knot and tucked the pouch away again under the shirt, heart thumping in shame.

He turned back to the empty pages and stared at them for a while. But, finally, driven by a mixture of restlessness and hunger and guilt, Will pulled on his boots and headed for the street. People were everywhere, conducting business, carrying goods, escorting ladies, running errands. Will stepped amongst them, as curious as ever. Before he’d gotten more than five paces, Will was barrelled over by a young lad reading a scrap of paper whilst walking fast.

‘I’m sorry, sir!’

As they picked each other up, Will gestured at the letter that the lad still clutched in one fist. ‘This must be from your lady love. What else can distract you so thoroughly?’

‘To tell the truth, sir, I know not. Can you read?’

‘Oh yes,’ Will replied, thinking of his morning, its only fruit born of shameful origins. ‘I can read my own fortune in my heart and my purse.’

‘It wouldn’t take books to learn that, sir.’

‘You have that right.’ Will relented: ‘Yes, I can read.’ Between them, they sorted through the orders written by the lad’s master, and then Will at last set off on his way.

Will soon discovered Marlowe – he was seated outside a millinery shop, just a few doors down from their inn. With his serious expression so immovably fixed that it seemed grim, Marlowe was talking with a man, while taking the opportunity to pack his pipe and light it. Once he’d done so, Marlowe leaned against the wooden wall behind him, and stretched out those long legs, apparently unconcerned for the stream of humanity that was thereby required to adjust its flow around him.

Taking advantage of the fact that he hadn’t yet been noticed, Will drew closer until he could overhear Marlowe’s conversation. ‘– a foul habit,’ the other man was observing with a scowl on his coarse face, ‘and I fancy you will discover as much in years to come. I don’t understand why it’s becoming so popular.’

‘What utter rot,’ Marlowe retorted in annoyance. ‘Smoking is delightful. You are too quick to condemn without trying it first.’

‘But then, I forgot myself for a moment – you are a blasphemer and a fornicator, and all of your habits are foul.’

‘Hah!’ And, as if he were on a stage, Marlowe declaimed, ‘Anyone who does not love tobacco and boys is a fool.’

‘For God’s sake, keep your foul remarks to yourself,’ the other man said, drawing a little away from his companion – as well he might, for though he had similar dark hair and dark eyes, when compared to Marlowe’s refined beauty he would always be the loser. The man glanced around to see if anyone had paid attention to Marlowe’s outburst. Will was carefully occupied elsewhere as the harried gaze swept past him.

But apparently Marlowe had been angered, and Will could only wonder where his friend’s cool facade had gone. ‘You are a fool, Reverend Baines,’ he said with disgust. ‘You proved it in Flushing, and now you’re proving it again in Dover.’

‘That’s Smith to you, Marlowe, unless you want to undo what little good you’ve done by coming here.’

‘That’s Taleus to you – though how can I expect you to remember such a literary name? Good Lord!’ Marlowe, oddly enough, directed his eyes heavenward in a brief but fervent prayer. ‘Why the devil were we set to work together again?’

A resentful silence ensued for a long moment, with the two men glaring at each other. Eventually Baines said, ‘You have the money?’

‘Of course I brought the money. Have they agreed to meet with us?’

‘Not yet. They are wary.’

Unexpectedly a wry smile broke across Marlowe’s well–favoured face. ‘And so they should be. If it were me, I wouldn’t be too quick to trust either of us.’

I am not the untrustworthy one –’

‘Oh, give it up, Master Smith,’ Marlowe drawled, seeming to regain his equable humour. ‘We must muck in together as best we can. Let us focus on the task at hand.’

‘I’ll do what I can to persuade them,’ Baines eventually agreed. And the two arranged to meet on the following morning.

Baines stalked off, leaving Marlowe to relax further and draw contentedly on his pipe. Will watched him, letting the pale winter sun soak into him where he stood, just as it must be soaking into Marlowe…

The man suddenly frowned and sat upright. A moment later Marlowe was on his feet, and striding up the street in Will’s direction – Will barely had time to step back into a convenient doorway. Though perhaps he needn’t have tried to hide himself, for Marlowe rushed past without letting anything distract him from his new goal.

When Will caught up with Marlowe a few minutes later, the man was in their room, in the process of hiding the pouch of coins and some papers in the false bottom of a travelling case. ‘Ah,’ said Marlowe, hesitating, and then ceasing all action. ‘There you are, Will. Good morrow.’

‘Good morrow, indeed.’ Will considered the man for a moment, having never seen Marlowe at all discomposed before now. ‘Your commission has nothing to do with poetry, does it?’

‘But everything to do with drama.’

‘Your patron obviously has ample powers of persuasion. What task has he given you?’

Setting his prodigious jaw, Marlowe deliberately finished hiding the troublesome pouch away. ‘Your curiosity will not do you service this time, Will.’

With deliberation equal to Marlowe’s, Will drew one of the stolen coins from his pocket, and held it out towards the man at arm’s length.

Marlowe took it with an accusing glare. Once he’d tucked it safely away with its fellows, he drew close to Will – intimately, disturbingly close – and murmured a warning: ‘There are men who have reason to paint me more dangerous than I am. Nevertheless there are good reasons to keep your distance from some matters.’

Will let the silence grow until Marlowe’s discomfort was about to burst its bounds. ‘Then, once again,’ Will reassured him at last, ‘I’ll take you at your word.’

 

To his surprise, Will learned that the servant Robert was to sail for France on the evening tide. Marlowe and Will accompanied the man down to the docks. A battered leather satchel hinted at Robert’s task: it was the sort in which couriers carried letters, and while it was old and worn, the sturdy lock was obviously secure. Rather than ask questions that no doubt would not be answered, Will held his tongue.

‘You’d better wish him Godspeed, Will,’ Marlowe commented as they watched the ship reach the open water, ‘or we’ll need to hire another man. Unless among your many talents, my dear Jack–of–all–trades, you can drive a carriage…?’

Will shook his head no, refusing to bridle at or be distracted by yet another reminder of Greene’s comprehensive insults. Obediently, he turned to follow Marlowe back up through the town. His curiosity might indeed do him no good, as Marlowe warned, but that in itself wasn’t enough to quench it, not at all.

 

During the course of the following morning, as a result of further shameless spying, Will discovered that the mysterious ‘they’ had agreed to meet with Baines and Marlowe – or, rather, Smith and Taleus – at noon at a certain tavern. Having accepted Marlowe’s excuses for his absence, and then followed him a few minutes later, Will loitered in the alley alongside the tavern. When the two men met up with a third and a fourth at the allotted time, and settled at a table, Will wandered towards a nearby window, assuming an innocent air while he did so. He could only hear half of the conversation from that vantage point, but it was enough.

The strangers were middle–aged men; the one who Will could see had greying hair that belied a youthful though serious face, and unnaturally light–coloured eyes. ‘…simply no other way to raise the necessary funds,’ the man was saying, apparently with some regret. ‘I’ll warrant you’ve heard that tale before.’

Marlowe leaned forward to offer some comment.

But the stranger drew back disapprovingly after a few words. ‘Time is of the essence. Do you have the sample you promised?’

The silken pouch was produced; Marlowe randomly selected a few coins from it, and slid them across the rough wooden table. One by one, the third man picked the coins up and examined them carefully before passing them to his companion. ‘This is good workmanship,’ he grudgingly said when he was done. ‘They could be real.’

Will heard Marlowe’s response for the first time – with a loud laugh, Marlowe declared, ‘They are!’

The strangers were startled by the assertion, and unappreciative of the humour. It took Baines to mollify them.

But by this stage, Will had worked out something of what was going on – improbable though the idea was, it seemed that Christopher Marlowe was dealing in counterfeit coin.

Will took the stolen shilling out of his pocket, and stared at it, endeavouring to discover its imperfections. The third man was right, though: for all that Will could tell, the coin could be genuine, though it seemed overly dulled with use. Perhaps the metal was some base alloy –

The coin was suddenly whisked from Will’s fingers. He glanced up, surprised – his first thought was that Marlowe had caught him eavesdropping and had reclaimed what was his – but, no, a boy was darting off down the street, and Will belatedly realised that the shilling had once more been stolen.

‘Hey there!’ he cried, and gave chase.

For a while, Will managed to keep up with the youth, though he couldn’t gain on him. The boy obviously had an extensive knowledge of the streets and alleys and shops of Dover, and used it to his advantage. Already spurred on by resentment of his own loss, the thought occurred to Will that this situation could compromise Marlowe, and desperation added speed to his heels. Will even had the nerve to follow the boy through the entrance hall, courtyard and kitchens of a fine private residence, then back out into the street with outraged shouts and a wooden spoon thrown after him. But eventually he realised he hadn’t sighted the wretch for long minutes during which the boy could have hidden in any one of a dozen places. Will quit running in a street near the harbour, slowed down to a walk, and then – with an indiscriminate glare around him at the people passing by – he stood propped against a wall for a while, trying to catch his breath.

Orienting himself by the castle, which could clearly be seen from everywhere in the town, Will headed back to the inn. He felt so foolish and so guilty that Will did not confess all to Marlowe when he reached their room. Instead, he silently nodded in response to Marlowe’s greeting, and then sat himself in the window–seat, hoping that the daylight behind him would make it difficult for Marlowe to read his expression.

Making everything worse, Marlowe seemed to he in a friendly and expansive mood. ‘Have you eaten?’ he asked. When Will shook his head in reply, Marlowe took it upon himself to go downstairs and order that a meal and a bottle of French wine be sent up.

When he returned, Marlowe relaxed on the bed, pillows propping his shoulders up so that he could gesticulate to his satisfaction. The man waxed lyrical on a long sequence of irrelevancies beginning with reminiscences of their days together working on Will’s two plays, and ending with thoughts about the significance of dreams, with nary a mention of counterfeit coin in between. They ate and drank when their meal arrived, and still Marlowe talked.

Will watched the man, intrigued by the mystery and by Marlowe himself. What the devil was the man doing? The most popular playwright in London surely needn’t risk his liberty and ultimately his life through such serious criminal acts. Even with the playhouses closed, Marlowe must still have made enough money on the production and the publication of his plays and poems to tide him through, and he had a patron now, too! If Marlowe was simply seeking adventure, there were far more interesting ways to find it – and Will suspected that Marlowe would not let scruples dissuade him – so why get involved with something as mundane as counterfeiting coin? It was a conundrum. There must be factors of which Will wasn’t aware.

It was an attractive conundrum, Will found himself thinking. Marlowe cut a fine figure: he was taller than most men, and he carried himself with grace and assurance. Even sprawled there on the bed, with the counterpane suffering from contact with his boots, Marlowe appeared dignified. And when he talked like this, relaxed and in his element, his observations and his stories were irresistible. ‘Did you hear about the first performance of my Doctor Faustus?’ Marlowe was asking. ‘It was said that the actors, to their horror, realised there was one devil too many amongst them! The real Mephistopheles was fascinated enough to make an appearance. True or not, the idea attracted multitudes.’

Will had heard the story, of course, but hearing it again in Marlowe’s proud and delighted tones was no hardship. Perhaps there was a play to be found here after all, Will reflected as Marlowe continued with his tales. A drama, an intrigue, a mystery, with a handsome enigmatic arrogant man at the centre of it, and the audience would never be quite sure if he were gentleman or charlatan, worthy or thief. Something stirred within Will, something rare, something he wanted more than anything. A character whose stature indicated honesty, yet his wits and creativity enabled duplicity…

Will only realised he was staring when Marlowe stopped talking and began returning the stare. They were locked there, across the room from each other, for long moments. If they’d played such a tableau on stage, the audience would have hardly dared to breathe.

Managing not to break the moment, Marlowe murmured, ‘What better Muse for a poet… than a poet?’

That idea again. Will smiled, and said, ‘Leave it be, Kit.’

‘But you have the old spark in your eye, Will, I recognise it. You are thinking of poetry.’

‘Perhaps. And perhaps it has nothing to do with you.’

Marlowe just laughed at that. ‘You can’t lie to an inveterate liar, my friend. You have been inspired, and I am glad of it – though I could wish you felt fonder of the inspiration.’

Will let a silence add weight to his demand: ‘Tell me about your commission.’

‘Is that the price you set?’

‘There is no talk of price in this matter.’

‘I cannot tell you, brother.’

Shrugging, Will turned away. He curled up in the window–seat, hugging his knees to himself, and looked out across Dover to the sea. His imagined gentleman–rogue, dashing and forthright, was dealing in counterfeit coin, but it was all for the sake of raising funds for… what? Some doomed, noble cause? Royalty in exile?

‘It is worse than dislike or distaste,’ Marlowe commented from across the room. ‘You are indifferent, and therefore it cannot be mended. I recognise it, because I am indifferent to women.’

‘No,’ Will replied. Confession was easier when his back was turned and Marlowe’s discerning face was hidden from him. With a twitch of imagination Will could pretend he was with his trusty Doctor Moth instead. ‘I am not indifferent. I am… incapable.’ His gaze dropped. ‘Kit, there’s a pert, delightful wench crossing the street at this moment – she’s lovely, you should see her – but if I called to her, and she walked into this room, she would have little joy of either of us.’

‘Ah,’ said Marlowe, comprehending at last, and then for once he was mercifully silent.

 

Two days later Will’s snooping led him to a private home in one of the more pleasant parts of Dover. He was fairly sure this had been Marlowe’s destination, though he couldn’t be absolutely certain for Will had lost sight of his friend at the last moment. Looking for him, Will walked to and fro in the street, glancing in through the windows as best he could. When no one was revealed, Will entered the yard, and crept down the side of the house. Around the back, his intentions were thwarted by the fact that the drapes were all tightly drawn. Everything seemed so quiet, and yet he was sure that Marlowe was there. With a shrug, Will turned to leave.

‘Hold, you scoundrel!’ A heavy hand gripped Will’s shoulder.

He twisted around to find three burly servants glaring murderously down at him. ‘Good morrow,’ Will offered with his most ingratiating smile.

‘What’s yer business?’

‘If you unhand me, I’ll tell you.’ When it appeared the man wasn’t prepared to comply, Will told him anyway: ‘I’m searching for a friend.’

The servant looked at his companions. ‘Either of you want a friend?’

‘Nuh.’

‘Got plenty.’

‘Sorry,’ the leader offered, ‘yer out of luck.’

Will grimaced wryly, making a note of the exchange. ‘Oh, very droll. If you let me live, I might even immortalise you in verse. But in the meantime, I believe my friend had business inside with your master.’

‘What do you know of my master’s business?’

‘More than you might imagine,’ Will said with a knowing wink.

It was the wrong thing to say. If he’d thought the servants posed a threat to him before now, Will was soon convinced they were positively dangerous – he was dragged inside the house, with a hand clapped over his mouth so that he could not cry for help. Though Will struggled, each of the three weighed twice as much as his own slim frame. The door was shut and locked behind them with an ominous thud.

‘Sir!’ the leader called. ‘We’ve got trouble.’

There was movement and a few hurried footsteps from a nearby room, though no one appeared. Now that they were safely inside, the two servants loosened their grip on Will, and let down their guard a little – Will managed to pull free, and darted towards the sound, roaring, ‘Taleus!’

Despite pursuit, Will reached the room where Marlowe was. A strange scene greeted his eyes. The grey–haired man with an interest in counterfeit coin was there, standing by a Catholic altar, hands on an ornate crucifix as if protecting or beseeching it. Marlowe was on his knees before the altar as if he’d been praying. A woman, too – Marlowe stood, and helped her up from the cold stone floor. Will could only stare, the shock of it all stopping his thoughts as well as his limbs.

‘Ramus, my dear,’ Marlowe greeted him urbanely.

‘You know him?’ the man demanded, his light eyes sharp with fear and anger.

The servant reported, ‘He was prowling around outside.’

‘Of course I know him.’ Marlowe walked over to Will, slipped an arm around his waist, pressed a kiss to his temple. ‘Poor Ramus – he can’t bear us being separated for any length of time.’ To Will, he suggested, ‘Come, say a prayer with us now you’re here.’

There was no chance of that. Even as they spoke, the man of the house was closing up the altar, shutting it all away into a hidden compartment. He was still suspicious, despite Marlowe’s easy tones – and who could blame him? They had been caught committing treason. And so the counterfeit coin must be a way of raising funds to promote the cause of the Church of Rome… The woman slipped discreetly from the room.

Excusing himself, Will muttered, ‘I thank you, Taleus, but I do not know these people.’

A section of the wall was folded back into place, and the altar was gone. Only a seam in the plaster betrayed it to someone who knew what to look for. The man and one of the servants shifted a heavy table to stand before it.

‘We’ll take up no more of your time,’ Marlowe announced, as if they’d merely been visiting. ‘Smith and I will meet with you again, as we agreed.’

The man nodded, though his eyes still cut Will to ribbons.

Marlowe was escorting Will from the room without removing his embrace. The servant was following them – he unlocked the back door for them, and then locked it soundly again once the pair were outside. Still not letting go, Marlowe sped up, walking Will around the house and through to the street, where they lost themselves in the flow of humanity.

Now that the worst of the danger was over and they were away, Will could feel anger beginning to stir him. Marlowe was hurrying him down the street, or he was hurrying Marlowe, he barely knew which. And they were silent. Marlowe’s arm remained firmly around Will’s waist, and Will was not only allowing it but was pressed up against the man. They were silent. Until Will finally burst out, ‘For God’s sake, what are you doing, Kit? What game are you playing?’

‘Yes, do you see?’ Marlowe said lightly, though something made his voice quaver. ‘I am an actor, too.’

‘Answer me!’

‘I am a fool for bringing you here, I am a fool ten times over.’

‘Your patron?’

‘This is sanctioned, I promise you. I am playing a role, Will. You have no need to fear for me, but I should not have introduced you to danger.’

Sanctioned… ‘Burghley?’ Will hissed, needing to know the answer even more than he needed not to be overheard.

Marlowe turned to him for a moment. Where their bodies pressed together, from hip up to shoulder – there was heat. But those dark eyes gazing down into Will’s own shone with an unexpected unworldly sincerity. ‘Yes, though you didn’t have it from me.’

‘Your commission is for… the Baron or his son?’

‘You know how it goes – it is all one. Actually, my patron is another man again, but you have hit the mark.’

The gentleman–rogue handsomely loitering in Will’s imagination became an agent provocateur working for Henry VIII in Britain and the Continent during the King’s struggle with the Roman Catholic Church.

They were nearing their inn. Marlowe seemed eager for answers, as well. ‘But you must tell me – how did you find me? Why did you follow me?’

‘I was searching for a friend,’ Will weakly repeated, ‘or I was intrigued beyond reason, or I could not bear to be separated from you.’ He levelly returned Marlowe’s stare. ‘Take your pick.’

‘I will,’ Marlowe said in a rough low voice.

Maybe it was the excitement, maybe it was the danger, maybe it was concern for his friend – whatever the cause, Will found himself stirred to his very marrow. He didn’t want to think about it, he didn’t want to risk losing it. He wanted to act upon it.

Luckily Marlowe seemed to concur.

They were in their room, the door was barred, their doublets were being cast off along with their boots. Marlowe declared, ‘This is one peacock who never wanted to remain untainted.’ They hadn’t even touched yet.

‘Kit,’ Will responded. ‘Shut your clever mouth for once, and let it do something sweeter.’

Two strides each and they crashed together, mouths bruising with urgent potent kisses. Marlowe’s arms surrounded Will, his hands caught him up close, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough.

Will took the lead, got them both to the bed – they fell across it, still tightly wrapped up together, still kissing. It wasn’t enough. Marlowe’s mouth broke away to begin gnawing at Will’s throat, which was exquisite torture, and it still wasn’t enough.

‘For God’s sake, man,’ Will cried in desperation. ‘Finish me! I’ll make it worth your while after.’

A hot glance from those dark eyes, and then Kit took mercy on him. That mouth returned to its mission at his throat, and a knowledgeable hand plunged down below to take hold of Will’s prick. The torment grew for a moment, increased drastically, in fact – but Will welcomed it, for with the torment came the promise of its own beautiful release… Kit’s mouth wandered south to gnaw at Will’s nipple. And it was finally enough.

A strangled cry escaped as Will’s seed pulsed from him, that hand remaining firm and true throughout the ordeal. ‘Bless you,’ he said breathlessly to Kit, even before he was really done. ‘Bless you.’

Once Will could focus his gaze again, he saw that Marlowe was smiling down at him, amused and fond. ‘You’ve been lonely, brother, you’ve been needy.’

‘If you say that I have,’ Will warned him, ‘you might have much to make up for.’

‘Good Lord, what a terrible fate!’ Marlowe fell back onto the bed beside him. After a moment, his shoulder nudged Will’s. ‘And exactly how will you make it worth my while?’

Will bestirred himself. Fair was fair, and to be honest he was more than interested in proceeding. ‘I will repay you like so…’ He unfastened Kit’s velvet breeches and silk hose, and took the man deep into his mouth.

For once Kit had no witty response.

 

Will lay there sprawled on the bed with Marlowe, utterly comfortable and satiated, lazily spinning the story of his new play in his head. The gentleman–rogue was devoted to Anne Boleyn, though of course she loved the King, and so he was doomed to die alone as a result of his selfless intrigues even as the King and Anne achieved their aims and the child Elizabeth Tudor was born legitimate…

It was Marlowe who broke the contented silence. ‘So this isn’t strange to you after all.’ The man laughed freely. ‘Your tongue has wit in actions as well as words – I swear it’s had practice.’

‘Of course this isn’t strange to me,’ Will replied. ‘But you are far different to how I imagined my Muse to be, in sex and in demeanour.’

‘But I will suffice, will I not? I do inspire you…?’

Will turned his head to look at the man. Those were the most humble words he’d ever heard from Marlowe, though they were voiced with his usual casual arrogance. ‘Better than suffice,’ Will reassured him. This wasn’t how he’d envisaged the matter, but if Marlowe was to be Will’s Muse then so be it – the writing was the thing, and all other considerations paled to insignificance. ‘Far better than suffice, you proud peacock.’

‘A peacock has every reason to be proud, don’t you think?’

Caught between groans and laughter, Will settled for a growl; and they turned to each other again.

 

Will woke early the next morning, and took great care in disentangling himself from Marlowe – the man obliged him by sleeping on regardless, stretching out to sprawl with comfortable elegance across the entire width of the bed. After adding wood to the slumbering embers in the fireplace, Will poured some icy cold water and splashed it on his face. Then he took the paper, quill and ink from his bag again, and cleared enough room on the table in which to set them. He spun around widdershins once, rubbed the quill between his palms, and spat, a ritual he barely noted any more, and then he sat down, all business.

The words flowed as fast as the scratchy old quill could write them down, and it was truly inspired – the play poured through Will as if it came from the ether and he was simply the vessel of its expression. He never felt more alive than he did in this glorious state. At other times he was prey to doubts and fears, but all that was forgotten when the words ran through him and onto the paper like quicksilver.

When Marlowe finally woke, there were already five pages scattered across the table, and Act One was drawing to a close. From the comer of his eye, Will noticed the man smile with great satisfaction. ‘Good morrow, Will.’

‘Good morrow,’ he murmured in reply, his hand not breaking stride.

Marlowe simply lay there for a while, watching him complacently. Eventually he commented, ‘I’m glad to see my labours yesterday were not in vain.’

Will spared him a sardonic glance. ‘Such noble sacrifice on your part, Kit.’

‘So, what are you writing?’

‘A play. Another history play.’ And still his hand did not pause.

Act Two. Scene One. A ship bound for Rome.
Marlin: Like this ship’s proud full sail he set his course,
Bound for the prize of all too precious you.
And I, your only faithful friend, do curse
The fateful day I

‘Then it is well that I brought your Chronicles.’

A brief silence while Will concluded the gentleman–rogue’s poignant speech with a clever and polished turn of phrase. He had never before conceived of anyone quite like this Marlin. An unexpected unease prickled the back of Will’s neck, and he quietly said, ‘It is set in the time of Henry VIII. The Chronicles are no use to me.’

‘Really…’ Marlowe got up from the bed, and made goodly use of the chamber pot. ‘There is material aplenty there that the censors will not like.’

Will’s hackles had definitely risen by now. His hand halted, though he didn’t lift his gaze from the paper. ‘The play will favour the Queen’s mother and her circumstances,’ he carefully replied. ‘Elizabeth will like it.’

‘Good.’ Marlowe poured out some water, scooped up a double handful, and vigorously washed his face. Will watched him, unaccountably wary. ‘Tell me more,’ the man asked as he sat down opposite Will. ‘Tell me what I can do to help.’

Will gathered up the pages, and secured them under his elbow. ‘Kit. I have valued your help before now, but I need to write something,’ he explained, ‘that is wholly my own.’

Marlowe considered him for a long moment. ‘You shouldn’t let Robert Greene rankle. His pamphlet spewed his words at me as well, if you recall. Do you believe I’m nothing better than the son of a cobbler? My verse bragging and bombastic? My Tamburlaine pages fit only for peddlers to wrap their goods in?’

‘No, of course not.’

‘Then why care for the insults of a bitter man, dying without a penny to his name and envious of your rising fortune? All he ever wrote was awash in ink and tears and cheap brandy. He was not in any state to judge the truth of the matter.’

‘Whatever the truth is, Kit, please just let me have this one for myself alone.’

For some reason Marlowe’s expression abruptly melted into fondness. ‘Of course. Of course, my dear.’ He stood up, and began dressing himself. ‘I will make myself useful and go order some food. You cannot write without physical sustenance – I have taken care of the spiritual.’ An outrageous wink accompanied that last claim.

Will dipped his quill into the ink pot, turning his attention back to the words, taking a slow deep breath as he felt them begin to flow into him again, flow through him.

‘Besides,’ Marlowe said as he searched through his bags for something, ‘I have a new play of my own to think about.’

‘Yes, you said,’ Will distractedly replied. ‘Taleus and Ramus.’

‘No, something else.’ Marlowe became quite still until Will was forced to look up at him. ‘Your English histories have been so successful, I thought I might do something of the sort myself.’

Resentment clutched Will’s gut. ‘What?’

‘Perhaps Edward II. He interests me. Edward and his friend Piers Gaveston, you know.’

Various emotions roiled within him, but what Will most wanted right then was to write, so he swallowed them down, nodded politely, murmured, ‘I wish you luck,’ and bent his head to his task. At last Marlowe took his cue to exit the room, leaving behind a timely reminder that if Lord Marlin was to be as difficult a character as Will originally envisaged him, then he would need to provoke and profoundly perturb every other character in the play – even his beloved. Or maybe especially her.

 

Will kept writing throughout that morning, while they ate and then while Marlowe lay on the bed to browse through the Chronicles and other books he’d brought with him. When Marlowe readied himself to go out and meet Baines, he spoke for the first time since the Edward II revelation: ‘I’ll warrant you won’t be following me today. You have better things to occupy your time now.’

‘Yes,’ Will agreed with a chagrined smile. ‘I mean no, I won’t follow you.’

Marlowe stopped behind him and leant down to kiss Will’s temple. ‘You are proving yourself to be a True Poet, my dear – you don’t let anything distract you. Just remember that such inspiration is paid for with the Muse’s pleasure…’

Will set down his quill, and gazed directly up at the man. ‘I won’t forget that, I promise you.’

A moment passed while Marlowe’s palms smoothly eased up Will’s throat, while his fingers scratched through Will’s beard, while his eyes drank in Will’s very essence. Then the man leant swiftly down to kiss Will, a full–mouthed kiss, before turning to stride out the door.

The peace Marlowe left behind him was a turbulent one – perfect for creation. Will took a breath, rubbed the quill between his palms, dipped it in ink, and then he let the words flow again.

 

By the time Marlowe returned, Will had written enough for the time being. The vessel could only hold so many words in a day, but there would be more words ready to flow when the sun next rose. Will greeted his friend with a passionate kiss, and then proceeded to ensure that the Muse was repaid with interest. Hands and mouths conjured earthly pleasures. Afterwards, their words conjured more unworldly matters. Will confessed, ‘I had a dream last night.’

‘And so did I,’ Marlowe replied.

‘Well, what was yours?’

‘That dreamers often lie.’ The man’s sensuous mouth was beautiful with wry amusement.

Will laughed, both at this conclusion and at the poetry of the words. ‘I was lying abed with you while I dreamed, that’s true enough.’

Marlowe kissed him, and then rested closely there, forehead to forehead. ‘Tell me about your dream, then.’

Risking ridicule, Will said, ‘You were in it, dressed in red velvet and gold cloth. Bearing that crucifix from the altar. You were strong and sure, but there was such danger and darkness all around.’

That damnably sensuous mouth had softened unbearably. ‘You are worried for me.’

‘Yes, a little.’ Though Will’s most powerful reaction had been to the dream–Marlowe’s magnificence. While he did not admit it, though, he raised the topic now because he was eager for his Muse to add flesh to Marlin’s character. Will whispered, ‘Do you owe your faith to Rome?’

Marlowe drew away, to lie on his back and stare through the ceiling and roof to the sky above and his own visions. ‘All the pomp and circumstance… It is a beautiful illusion, a lovely deception.’

‘You care more for the simple truth?’

‘You know me better than that. I hate Catholicism, but I love its colour and its seductiveness. When you caught me praying, Will, that was all a ruse. A pleasant ruse. Though in another time…’ Marlowe’s voice became hushed. ‘A long time ago, I thought of joining the Church – the Church of England. My circumstances were quite different back then. I was a different kind of man.’

Will reached a hand to caress that long handsome face, the surprisingly soft skin and the rough stubble. ‘I don’t know what to do about you. I am torn – I want to stay and defend your honour – and I want to seek safety by smuggling you out of the country.’

Though he laughed, Marlowe seemed charmed by the latter idea. ‘But, alas, my brother, I do not need rescuing.’

‘Working with a man like Baines, who despises you –’

‘Ah.’ Marlowe pulled away, and sat up. ‘He does, yes, but you mustn’t interfere. Exactly how much have you witnessed?’ Without waiting for an answer, Marlowe began setting his clothes to rights. ‘I must go out. Do you want to come with me?’

Abruptly, Will sat up, too. ‘You’d let me accompany you?’

‘Yes,’ Marlowe replied with a chuckle, ‘but don’t get too excited. I simply have some business to conduct – ordinary business, the stuff of daily life – and I need to purchase a few necessities.’

‘All right.’ Will began dressing.

‘I warn you, I must leave you alone this evening. I am dining with the gentleman you met yesterday, and his lady – and, no, you may not accompany me!’

Will put on his most persuasive expression. ‘You could lend me a good doublet. And I can act, they will not suspect me. My father is a Catholic, and my grandfather Arden –’

‘You have nothing to fear from me on that account.’

‘Of course not, they pay their recusancy fines. But I know more than enough to act the role.’

‘No.’

Will turned the persuasive face into a wounded one, but he knew better than to argue further. For desisting, he was rewarded with a kiss.

The pair of them spent the rest of the afternoon rambling from milliner’s to shoemaker’s to grocer’s and so on, talking all the while and never once mentioning Will’s play or Marlowe’s commission.

 

Will surreptitiously followed Marlowe to a fancy eating house that night. He bided his time, avoiding the notice of the burly servant who’d caught him snooping the day before. After Marlowe and his two companions had been served their meals, Will finally walked inside himself. Though Marlowe immediately saw him, Will simply sat at a table near the door where he had a clear view of his Muse. A serving–girl brought him a mug of wine.

After Marlowe, the woman was the next to spot Will. Fearful, she whispered in her husband’s ear. After a glare at Will, the man began remonstrating with Marlowe – who soon walked over to where Will sat.

‘Go away,’ Marlowe said, with amusement undermining his exasperation. ‘You’re making them nervous. Begone!’

‘I can’t bear to be apart from you, remember? What’s the matter – don’t I appear lovesick enough?’

‘Never. I am insatiable when it comes to such matters. But that is not the point. Will, I was never going to love you for obedience, but you’re not taking this seriously enough.’

‘And when did you ever take anything seriously, Kit?’

‘Exactly. Don’t be fooled by my demeanour – this is not just a game. It is not a game at all.’

Chagrined, Will dropped his gaze to the table. Marlowe was right, and all Will’s curiosity, all of his willingness to do anything for the sake of furthering his play, all of that together did not tip the scales when Marlowe’s safety and his own were placed in the counterweight bowl. ‘I’m sorry,’ he muttered. Will dropped a ha’penny on the table for the wine, and stood.

Marlowe was generous enough to grasp his hand for a moment’s reassurance. And then Will slipped out of there.

He was a fool.

Well, he didn’t feel like returning to their room, and he no longer felt hungry. Will loitered in the shadows near the eating house. For once, though, he wasn’t trying to eavesdrop. He was simply pondering the error of his ways, and wondering what on earth to do with himself for the following hour or two – which was when he heard Marlowe’s name venomously hissed from just around the corner.

Will crept closer. It sounded like Baines in full tirade, though he was whispering. The man would strangle himself with his own disgust if he kept talking in that knotted–up way. ‘Do you know what he said to me yesterday? That religion was only begun to keep men in awe. He is an atheist and a deviant. He brought a man with him –’

‘Another agent?’ a second voice interjected. ‘One of ours?’

‘No! This week’s bedfellow.’

Will almost laughed. Was that all he was? Such a characterisation seemed unlikely. He carefully crept closer to the comer of the building, hoping to be able to catch a glimpse of both men.

‘Why in God’s name did you set me this task?’ Baines was pleading. ‘The man hates me almost as much as I hate him.’

‘But he seems so freely spoken with you, Richard,’ the other man replied in soothing, oily tones that made Will’s skin crawl. ‘Perhaps he is unwise enough to underestimate you. Give our Kit enough rope, and…’

A pregnant pause while Baines sought for the conclusion. Will was far ahead of him, and his gut was already clenched in fear as Baines at last completed the thought: ‘And he’ll hang himself!’ The good Reverend seemed delighted by the prospect.

‘There you have it.’

A rustling movement and then footsteps warned him – Will darted back towards the eating house, and tucked himself away in a convenient alcove.

‘Richard, I mustn’t be seen here,’ announced the other man, ‘so you must wait and report to me in London next.’

Will managed to catch brief sight of both men as they walked past him and down the street. Baines’ companion had long straw–blond hair and a prominent but thin nose, was well–dressed, and was of much the same age. Perhaps these men had all met at Cambridge – though Baines often seemed untutored he had apparently taken orders, and this blond man had the cultured accents of someone who reckoned himself a gentleman.

At times it seemed that Christopher Marlowe – bluntly spoken, arrogant, and the most contrary man of Will’s acquaintance – had no true friends at all. Will sighed, and decided he must wait there for Kit, in order to warn him of Baines’ duplicity at the earliest opportunity. Accordingly he strode out of the shadows and settled himself on a bench outside the eating house, thereby bringing himself to the notice of the Catholics’ burly serving man. Will sat there returning his glare measure for measure.

When Marlowe and his companions eventually emerged and began making their farewells, Will and the serving man hovered to either side, waiting to reclaim their respective charges.

And at last Marlowe and Will were alone, and walking through the dark streets back towards their inn, with Marlowe’s arm snugly around Will’s waist again. ‘Lord’s sake, Will, you’ll flatter me into thinking you really are lovesick. There was no need to wait for me.’

‘There was need. I overheard that fool Baines talking about you – and he does not mean you well.’

‘That’s no news to me, my dear.’

‘But it seemed as if he’d been given the task of watching you, and reporting on you. The other man said if you were given enough rope, Kit, you’d hang yourself.’

‘Ah.’ Marlowe considered this for a moment, but soon said, ‘Well, that’s no great news, either. We are in a cutthroat employ, and it’s to be expected that we’re asked to spy on each other along with our proper quarry. If Baines were any more intelligent, I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me he was reporting to the Catholics as well.’

Will shook his head in disbelief at this tangled web of deceit, but he was already embroidering Marlin’s tale with a close boyhood friend whose treachery was only revealed midway through the play…

 

‘What have you planned for today?’ Will asked as they lay abed the next morning.

‘Nothing. My day is yours if you want me.’ Promises glinted in the depths of Marlowe’s dark eyes. ‘But if you intend to be writing, I will make myself scarce.’

Will couldn’t help but smile. ‘Whoever would have thought you’d be so amenable a lover, Kit Marlowe?’

‘Amenable?! That’s to remain our secret, Will.’

‘Never fear – your reputation is safe with me.’ Will kissed the man, a rough and earthy and wanton kiss. But just as Marlowe seemed to have given himself over to the embrace, Will pulled away. ‘The castle,’ he said. Perhaps he was learning contrariness. ‘It is a sunny day, and I want to walk up to the castle.’

Marlowe took a deep breath as if drawing in patience along with the air. ‘Then that is what we’ll do.’

 

There was no escaping the castle: it dominated the town like a stern, aging, unkempt father. The two men strolled up there in silent companionship. Once they’d reached the highest remaining ramparts, both men turned towards the south–east horizon, for it was said that on a clear day one could see the coast of France across the Channel. Sure enough, now that the week’s clouds had blown away, Will could discern a hazy jagged line of darker blue between the sea and the sky.

‘That way Calais lies,’ Marlowe murmured.

Will could no longer consider any of the man’s comments as innocent. ‘And what intrigue were you involved in there?’

Marlowe merely smiled at him. ‘How goes the new play?’

‘Very well. Exceedingly well. I am almost halfway through, and about to reveal a terrible breach of trust.’

The smile became more genuine. ‘Tell me about it.’

But Will was strangely reluctant to divulge the detail. ‘I won’t spoil the surprise. One day soon you shall read it.’

‘With pleasure, I’m sure.’ Marlowe gazed out across the sea. ‘Discovering a friend’s betrayal, or a lover’s treachery, will always catch the audience’s attention. But more than that, you need transgression. Anyone with an imagination will love to watch their heroes transgress on the stage, for so few of them can do so in their ordinary lives.’

‘My play is filled with transgressions,’ Will assured him. For once he was in a happy enough mood to take advice from Christopher Marlowe. ‘I learned that requirement from your Faustus.’

Marlowe was flattered, but not yet done lecturing. ‘And they love to see lowly men fulfil their own greatness and rise to power, for most of the audience are not even gentlemen and never will be.’

That almost did away with Will’s good mood, for he was not a gentleman and probably never would be – while of course Marlowe, the son of a Canterbury shoemaker, had risen to the rank of gentleman once he’d gained his Master’s degree at Cambridge. ‘There is a third requirement,’ Will said, making the effort to think only of writing, in which he at least had the chance to try to match Marlowe’s success though he’d never exceed it.

‘What is that?’

‘Avoid serving them the answers on a platter.’

‘Oh Lord, yes!’ Marlowe laughed in delight, and shifted closer to Will so that they were almost touching. ‘Give them no answers at all! If they must have answers, they had much better think of them by themselves. If they are capable…’

‘Then I already have my last two lines. The Chorus will say –’ Will stepped back and assumed an authoritative pose, there in the breezy sunshine – ‘Go hence, and have more talk of these strange fates; some have found justice, and some escaped.

‘Ah, now that sounds like a promisingly difficult conclusion.’

Will took a sweeping bow as if overcome by a thunderous ovation.

‘But I must tell you,’ Marlowe said with an air that seemed both distracted and very very focussed – ‘Will Shakespeare, I am famished. All this talk of writing has awoken your Muse’s hunger. Let us return.’ And it was apparent that Kit wasn’t thinking of food.

 

They fucked as if they were gods.

Will had never experienced the like before. It wasn’t so much what Marlowe did, as the mood in which he did it – unbearably patient, unbearably honest, unbearably profound – but Will wanted to bear it, so he let Kit reach into his very soul for the truth, and in turn Will was transported far beyond merely physical concerns.

Afterwards they lay there bound up close together, utterly unclothed and utterly unprotected. They had flown to such great heights, and committed such wonderful transgressions, that now it seemed as if some envious deity had cast them down, and they were lying there in the damp dark earth with broken wings. But there was no pain, there was no pain at all.

It was Marlowe who impregnated the hush with a whisper: ‘I love thee, Will Shakespeare.’ And in silent reply, Will pressed a kiss to the man’s lips, made tender with passion and honesty.

 

The awed mood could not last, of course, and neither of them could want it to. Marlowe began murmuring a confession, in far gentler tones than Will had heard from him before. ‘I used to come and see you act with the Admiral’s Men, Will, long before I knew you could write. You were in my play at the Rose – you were Mephistopheles, my fallen angel, playing to Ned Alleyn as Faustus…’

‘I remember it,’ Will murmured in response. Then he thought to ask, ‘You came to your play, and did not make yourself known?’ for that did not sound like Kit’s beautiful arrogance.

‘No, do you not see, I was…’ Marlowe’s smile was full of wistful, hungry memories. ‘You both did justice to the roles, but it was you who caught my eye. Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?

Will returned the smile with amusement. ‘You are a True Poet, Kit, for only a True Poet has the audacity to quote himself.’

Unabashed, Marlowe continued: ‘Sweet Will, make me immortal with a kiss.

‘I thought that was Sweet Helen.’

Come, Will, come, give me my soul again.

The mood was merely playful, now, as it had been every other time they’d made love. ‘Give me my sin again!’ Will declared, daring to rewrite Marlowe.

‘Oh, if this be a sin,’ Marlowe responded with a groan, ‘then I will gladly suffer for eternity the lake that burns with fire and brimstone. The payment is nothing compared to the prize.’

This time, they fucked like the human creatures they were, and it was raw and it was crude and it was good, though they never once left the ground.

‘Well,’ Marlowe said afterwards, ‘I have my love and you have your writing, and nothing ordinary will do for either of us. I imagine that we are as happy together at this moment as we are ever going to be.’

Will tightened his hold on the man. ‘Perhaps we’ll never be better than this.’ For he hadn’t yet found it in him to return Marlowe’s love in kind, and he doubted that he ever would. ‘But it is a goodly sort of happiness, Kit.’ And he wasn’t going to let go of this unexpected but very welcome Muse. ‘Should Mephistopheles appear before us now, he couldn’t tempt me with anything more than this.’

‘I believe you,’ Marlowe replied, ‘and we must simply make the most of it.’

They solemnly kissed, as if sealing a promise. And then, exhausted, they loosened their embrace a little, and fell asleep there in each other’s arms.

 

Will had spent the morning writing, and then Marlowe had taken him out for dinner as the church bells rang twelve. When they returned to the inn, it was to find the servant Robert safely returned from his journey. Judging by his whispered conversation with Marlowe, and their nods and satisfied expressions, Robert’s commission had been successfully completed. The servant let Marlowe glimpse the letters in his satchel – presumably ones fetched from France – but obviously didn’t care for Will to see them further. Leaving the pair of conspirators to their business, Will wasted half the afternoon endeavouring to locate a decent source of fresh quills and paper.

When he finally walked back into the room they shared, Will saw Marlowe sitting alone at the table with a page in his hand. Not a letter – a page of Will’s play. All at once, Will was excited both by fear and delight. His heart thumped deliciously. ‘Did you read it?’ he asked. ‘You’ve read my play?’

Marlowe barely reacted to him. Indeed, the man seemed deep in thought, and somehow despondent.

Will cast a look at the table, wondering where the play was – now he could see that the paper in Marlowe’s hand merely held those twenty–three signatures. Dread flooded through him. ‘Kit. Where are my pages?’

‘There,’ Marlowe at last declared in a strained voice. ‘There, I have burned them.’ He lifted a heavy hand to indicate the fireplace.

The flames burned merrily, mockingly. Will dashed over there to see the truth of it – all his fine words had turned to ashes, with only a few odd scraps and comers of paper lying beneath the grate, and nothing worth saving. He leaned there against the crude stone chimney, utterly drained. Wanting to be angry, but only dying a little. Perhaps he’d always known it would come to this. It hadn’t been like him to keep the play to himself while writing it.

When Will could bring himself to turn and look at Marlowe, he saw that the man was pale, unusually nervous, oddly defiant. For of course Marlowe knew all too well what this destruction meant to an up–and–coming dramatist. Will sank to sit by the hearth, and bitterly muttered, ‘What better Muse for a poet, indeed…’

‘It was good,’ Marlowe offered, voice almost breaking. ‘It was very good, and I was flattered.’

‘Kit, it was set in Henry VIII’s time, it was set sixty years ago.’

‘It was still too close to now.’

‘I changed the names, the circumstances…’

‘But I was known as Marlin in Cambridge, and besides it’s not just me you’d be endangering.’

Though Will shot a mutinous glare at his erstwhile friend, there was something within him that knew he’d been a fool to even begin this play. But he also knew that he could never forgive what Marlowe had done. Such was man’s contrary nature.

‘Audiences want all the old tales retold, Will,’ Marlowe was lecturing, ‘they want the lively tuning of stories and characters that are already familiar to them, they want you to turn a known tale on the lathe of your cleverness and imagination. There is plenty of other material for you to draw on, even in the Chronicles.’

Will weakly asserted, ‘This story is already known –’

‘Meanwhile, the censors want to maintain the peace. You chose dangerous stuff. It would never have been approved.’

‘You don’t know that!’ The well of Will’s imagination was drying up again, he could feel it. There would not be another play to replace this one. How wrong he had been to think of Marlowe as his Muse, how misguided he’d been, when really the man was his rival. His rival who’d already won – for no one would ever eclipse Christopher Marlowe’s success. Will said disconsolately, ‘I will never be free of you and your words.’

‘Don’t stop writing, my dear. When best is so magnificent, being second best is no bad thing.’

‘Am I even that? You and I are of an age, and you already have five plays, and another two on the way. Great plays; the audiences love them. Poetry, translations of Ovid. While I have a poem and three plays, and I don’t know where the next is to come from, or even if there is a next.’

‘I might have bested you in writing, but you have bested me in love.’

‘Is that supposed to be some kind of consolation?’

‘You will write more,’ Marlowe declared as if he had no doubt of it, ‘and you will write well.’

‘And you will forget me,’ Will replied.

They stared at each other, divided forever; both knowing that the reassurances were half–lies and half–truths.

Sounding as if he was quoting himself again, though Will didn’t recognise the line, Marlowe murmured, ‘That like I best, that flies beyond my reach.

Will hauled himself up, and forced one foot in front of the other, and then the other foot, and then the other foot again, attention fixed only on reaching the door. Nothing would ever be the same again. The vessel through which the words flowed had been broken.

‘Where are you going?’

‘Out. To get drunk.’ He didn’t want to be near Marlowe right now – Will’s unjustly chastened feelings and wholly justified resentments were still too raw.

‘Take care,’ Marlowe warned him. ‘This isn’t a game, and we are not necessarily safe.’

Not bothering to acknowledge the man, Will dragged the door shut behind him, and headed for the nearest tavern.

 

Will wasn’t really asleep late that night when Robert crept into their room and tiptoed over to where Marlowe lay bundled up in the bed – Will was oblivious with brandy and torn with anger, he was aching and cold from being wedged into the window–seat with too few coverings, he was exhausted from staving off grief – he was many things, but he wasn’t asleep. Given the alacrity with which Marlowe roused himself, Will suspected that he hadn’t been asleep either.

There was an urgent whispered conversation between the two men. Robert apparently had some news of import, to which Marlowe responded with a series of instructions. Will couldn’t make any of it out, and didn’t even deign to try.

Once Robert had left again, Marlowe advanced on silent feet to where Will lay curled up. For a moment the man gazed down at him, and then he ran the back of his fingers as light as a feather from Will’s temple down past his cheek and his beard to the vulnerable skin at his throat. Stillness.

And then Marlowe started, and stepped back, realising that Will wasn’t asleep – perhaps he had seen Will’s eyes glint in the moonlight dimly glowing through the glass.

‘Will. I’m afraid you must get up. We are leaving Dover. Robert has gone to ready the horses and the carriage.’

‘Why?’ Will asked thickly, not moving. ‘What’s happened?’

‘There has been a murder. Not the man you met, nor his wife, but a friend of theirs. A man through whom Baines contacted them. I shouldn’t have brought you here, so now I will take you back to London before anything worse occurs.’

Oddly enough, Will felt reluctant, even though he’d spent all evening praying over his brandy that they would return home soon, or at least that Marlowe would lend him the money to take a stagecoach. He uncramped himself from where he lay, but only to turn over onto his back, propping his feet high on the wall. ‘What about your commission?’

‘I’ve done what I can,’ Marlowe said shortly, ‘and that will have to suffice. Get up, Will. You no doubt have every right to make this difficult for me, but I know you are too generous to be cruel.’

‘What time is it?’

‘Does it matter?’ Marlowe ground out. After taking a breath he continued in more reasonable tones, ‘I will not be responsible for your loss. You might hate me now, Will, but I still love you. You might think you will never write again, but I know better. So do as I say.’

At last Will dislodged himself from the window–seat, and slowly began unwinding. He felt as rickety and dirty as if he’d been living in the street for a year or more.

Marlowe was busying himself with clothes – while he’d apparently been lying abed fully–dressed, he was now wrapping himself in a warm cloak, and trying to find the mate of a glove he held. Distractedly he announced, ‘I must go and warn Baines, but I’ll be back soon, and then we’ll leave.’

‘You don’t owe him any loyalty.’

A glance flashed Will’s way, as if Marlowe was surprised by this sane contribution to the conversation. ‘The man is worse than a fool, but I must warn him that he is on his own now. In fact, he should probably leave Dover, too.’

‘Then I’ll go with you. You might need me.’

‘No. If you want to be helpful, the best thing you can do is pack our belongings.’ Marlowe was wholly focussed on Will by now.

‘We can do that quickly enough on our return, and Robert can help us.’

Silence for a long moment. And then Marlowe asked, ‘Why?’

‘You were right,’ Will replied, ‘I do hate you, Kit. But Britain would be the worse for the loss of Christopher Marlowe.’

The man’s eyes drifted closed for a moment. But when they opened again, Marlowe was back to his old firm–jawed and unreadable self. ‘Come on, then.’ Giving up on the gloves, Marlowe picked up Will’s cloak and tossed it to him, then led the way out through the door.

 

‘How should I know what happened?!’ Baines spluttered angrily.

‘He was your contact,’ Marlowe spat back. ‘You could have taken better care of him.’

Will stood there in Baines’ room, watching the pair of them anxiously, and worrying that if they got any louder they’d have half of Dover awake.

‘Oh, and if this fellow –’ Baines flung a disgusted gesture at Will – ‘didn’t have you so distracted, I’m sure you’d have taken prodigious care of the man.’

‘Nonsense, Richard – he wasn’t my type.’

The two of them were glaring murderously at each other by now. The argument had begun heatedly, and only gotten worse. Will dared to lay a hand on Marlowe’s arm. ‘Peace, Marlowe, peace. This accomplishes nothing.’

Marlowe dragged his gaze away from Baines and towards Will. Those dark eyes were more turbulent than Will had ever seen them, but after a moment the man seemed to calm a little. When he turned back to Baines, Marlowe said more reasonably, ‘We need to know what happened, and whether it’s connected to our work here. I’m leaving for London tonight –’

‘You’re all words, Marlowe,’ Baines cut in. ‘You talk sedition and scepticism, and then you run at the first hint of trouble.’

‘It’s not me I’m concerned about, you thick–witted dolt.’

‘Oh, believe me, I realise that. If you think that I’m not going to inform certain men that you’re more concerned with your plaything here than fulfilling your sworn duty –’

‘Tell whomsoever you like, Baines. Do you imagine I care a fig for your opinion? Do you imagine anyone does?’

‘Kit,’ Will murmured.

That got Marlowe’s attention immediately. His dark eyes focussed once more on Will and asked, Yes?

‘You need to find out what happened. The rest of this can surely wait.’

‘Of course. Of course it can wait, for we have the rest of our lives in which to argue. Baines, you should probably leave Dover, too – but stay for a few hours once day breaks, long enough to hear what’s being said, and reassure our other contacts that the deal isn’t cancelled, but only postponed. Will you do that?’

Baines glowered at him. ‘Only because I’d already decided to.’

‘Oh yes, God forbid you should do anything I suggest…’ Marlowe’s tones were almost back to his usual teasing urbanity. ‘Do you have the coin safely?’

A moment dragged by in which Baines tried to hold onto his defiance. At last he admitted, ‘I can’t account for all of it.’

Fear and guilt gripped Will’s gut. ‘What?’

‘What do you mean?’ Marlowe pressed.

‘There’s some missing! What else would I mean?’

‘Do you think that’s why this happened?’ Will asked faintly. ‘The coin was discovered – someone realised what it was, or what it wasn’t…’ He trailed off as both men turned to stare at him. ‘I took two shillings that day,’ Will confessed, ‘and only returned one of them. I didn’t know they weren’t genuine. And then a pickpocket stole it from me, and… Is this my fault?’

Baines was furious. Will’s heart plummeted. But Marlowe –

Will turned to him in wonder. Marlowe was laughing.

‘You’ll pay for interfering,’ Baines ground out. It was the first time he’d ever spoken directly to Will. ‘You’ll be punished for this. As if you won’t have punishment enough through all eternity, for associating with this creature who calls himself a man –’

‘Oh, give it up, Baines,’ Marlowe managed over his chuckles. ‘Get back to your pulpit, so you can scare the ladies. Will, I’ll tell you a secret. The coin was perfectly real, though we chose coins freshly minted to suit our purposes. We were counterfeit counterfeiters in all senses.’ And Marlowe took an elegant bow, delighted by his own clever performance.

Will sighed in relief. ‘Then, if your business is done here, and you’ve argued enough for now, let us leave.’

‘Of course, my dear. Baines, no doubt we’ll meet in London where we can loathe each other some more. I wish you luck tomorrow, for I’m sure you will need it.’

Baines simply growled in farewell. And Will hustled Marlowe out of the room.

Marlowe seemed to be in fine spirits now. But Will hadn’t softened enough to permit Marlowe’s arm to wind about his waist, even though the night was cold and he could have done with the shared warmth. ‘Leave me be,’ Will muttered. Beautiful Lord Marlin stalked through Will’s imagination, betrayer and betrayed, seducer and seduced, quite unlike anything Will had ever created before or would ever create again. ‘I still hate you, Kit.’

‘Yes, I imagine that you do,’ Marlowe murmured with a return of his usual coolness. Nothing would ever touch the man deeply, Will was sure of that. Especially not love. They walked silently up the empty streets towards their inn, mere inches apart and many miles apart all at the same time.

 

They journeyed to London without stopping anywhere for more than the half–hour necessary for Robert to deal with the horses. While the night’s darkness lingered, Will and Marlowe shared nothing more than a few bitter little exchanges. Will was in a mood to brood and accuse, surly with disappointment and lack of sleep.

‘You only gave me your patronage of wits because you see me as no threat to your success.’

‘If that’s what you think, then you are a bigger fool than Baines.’

‘I’ve never written anything like Marlin.’

‘And he was wonderful.’ Marlowe smiled with what must have been irresistible vanity, turning his face away to try to hide as much from Will.

‘So, why destroy him? How could politics be more important to you than poetry?’

‘Stop it. You’re being petty and ridiculous, Will, and you have more character than that. You’ll write more, and better – how many times must you make me promise you that?’

Something finally occurred to Will as the dark hours jolted by. ‘You always dress so well, Marlowe, you always have money for a drink and a meal and a roof over your head. And now I know why.’

‘Yes, my dear. Poetry and plays don’t pay enough to maintain the style I rapidly became accustomed to once I left Cambridge.’

Will felt like an idiot. If Christopher Marlowe needed to supplement his income, then what hope did Will Shakespeare have to live amply as a playwright? He should have known his ambitions were mere fancies. ‘Then damn God Himself for making me this way – I have no urges or talents for any other way of providing the necessities.’

‘Don’t curse your God, Will.’

‘Why ever not? You do so.’

‘Because blasphemy suits you less well than it does me. And because we make Him in our own image, and end up cursing ourselves.’

Even now, Will felt a frisson of shock at such an idea; he withdrew from the conversation once more.

It was only when dawn began glimmering on the horizon behind them, and the cold had become as bitter as their words, that Will shifted to sit beside Marlowe, and they wrapped themselves up together in both of their cloaks. Will wanted Marlin, adorer and adored. But if he couldn’t have Marlin, then Will Shakespeare would write something new. He began grasping after scraps of inspiration that were as different as humanly possible to what he had lost.

‘I do have a new play,’ Will eventually announced. It wasn’t brilliant, but it would do.

‘Ah, that’s good,’ Marlowe murmured. He forgot himself so far that he pressed a kiss to Will’s temple, but Will allowed it. ‘Tell me.’

‘It is not about us at all. It is about two gentlemen of some faraway place – Verona, perhaps – who are great friends. They vie for the love of a woman, but it all ends happily.’

‘Oh yes, they sound nothing like us.’ Marlowe’s reassurance seemed excessively amused.

‘Well, then,’ Will stiffly countered, ‘you will find no reason to burn it.’

Marlowe actually laughed then. ‘No, I promise you that I will not burn it.’ And they travelled the rest of the way in companionable silence, while Will searched his memory for a suitable story to use for his new play.

 

They reached Shoreditch late that afternoon. Will climbed wearily down from the carriage, and waited for Robert to untangle his bag from amidst Marlowe’s luggage. After a moment of standing there alone in the bustling street, though, Will decided that Marlowe deserved a better farewell than this, and that Will wasn’t so full of envy and resentment that he couldn’t provide it. He got back up onto the step, and leant in through the window to meet Marlowe’s gaze.

‘We’re still friends, Kit?’

‘Of course,’ the man coolly agreed, as if there were no question of it.

Unexpectedly, melancholy drifted through Will. He was, after all, farewelling a Muse… Gazing at Marlowe for long moments, he recalled the moments of passion they’d shared, and the glorious feeling of the words flowing through him afterwards. It had been richer than anything he’d felt yet, having a poet for a Muse. Marlowe was gazing back at him, his dark eyes enigmatic and his handsome face solemn. Dark eyes and dark hair and pretty features – why did that strike a chord?

Will glanced away for a moment, struck by sudden memories of Richard Burbage’s pretty new seamstress Rosaline. Maybe Burbage wouldn’t be keeping quite so close an eye on her by now; the actor’s attentions were notoriously fickle. Maybe the spark of interest she’d shown in Will could be fanned to a flame next time they met…

‘Whatever are you thinking of?’ Marlowe murmured, recalling Will to his noble intentions of respectfully farewelling this man who had sworn he loved him. ‘Or should I ask whomever? Life entices you away from me.’

‘I’m sorry, Kit. I really have –’

Before he could stumble through any more words, though, Robert dumped Will’s bag in the muck of the street, and then climbed back up onto the driver’s seat, no doubt impatient to end this long day.

Trying again, Will began, ‘Kit, I wanted to say –’

‘Will!’ someone cried from behind him. Will sagged, for he recognised Henslowe’s shrewish voice. ‘Will, where have you been? I’ve been looking for you this past week, for I need a new play to take on tour, or Ned and the Admiral’s Men will drive me mad hanging about the Rose with nothing to occupy them.’

‘All right,’ Will said as soon as he could fit a word in. ‘If you’ll give me a moment –’

‘A moment!’ Henslowe declared as if Will were asking for the moon and the stars. ‘Oh yes, what’s a moment of time to me when you’ve already taken away my days?’

‘Go to, man.’

Henslowe bristled at Will’s impatience. ‘That’s no way to speak to the man who’ll be the making of you.’ Sudden suspicion crossed his mutable face. ‘But who are you talking with in there? You’re not wasting your time looking for another patron, Will? Just remember that I can always put on one of Marlowe’s plays if you’re going to be difficult. He knows how to write a crowd–pleaser.’

Will crumpled even further with the unjustness and embarrassment of it all. Life was farce and tragedy all mixed up together…

Marlowe finally revealed himself, getting up off the seat and leaning across to speak through the window just over Will’s head. ‘You’re right, Master Henslowe, I do.’

‘Kit!’ cried Henslowe in tactless delight.

‘But there’s no need to resort to my old plays,’ Marlowe magnanimously continued, ‘when Master Shakespeare here has already begun a new one.’

‘What’s it called, then?’

Will shrugged hopelessly, so Marlowe supplied, ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona. A crowd–pleaser for sure.’

‘Thank you, Kit,’ Will murmured. Henslowe at last retreated a few yards, apparently appeased, leaving Will to say his farewells. ‘Kit, I really did –’ But the words wouldn’t come, politeness and gratitude and even a sense of kinship being swallowed whole by resentment after all.

Marlowe smiled down at him with his familiar languid composure. ‘I know. And do not worry over me, Will. I never once thought it possible to live content, not even when I dreamt of you. Contentment is not in man’s nature.’

With a nod, Marlowe sat back down and rapped twice on the roof to indicate that Robert should drive on. Will hopped down off the carriage’s step and watched them go, before picking up his bag and turning to Henslowe, all the while wondering how quickly he could be rid of the man and thereby be free to visit Burbage and Rosaline…

 

Summer 1593

The Two Gentlemen of Verona was being played at Whitehall for the Queen by Richard Burbage and the Chamberlain’s Men – despite this success, Will had barely received half of what he was due for it. Rosaline had proven an even bigger disaster of a Muse than Marlowe had. Will’s imagination was as dry as an old bone sucked clean of marrow, and he was… well, as Doctor Moth recently put it, Will had been humbled in the act of love once more. As if all of that wasn’t enough, Will had faithfully promised Henslowe a play that the manager was even now casting for, which Will hadn’t started writing. Life didn’t get much worse than this.

The tavern had emptied – everyone had gone to the Rose for the casting sessions for his nonexistent play – and Will had no answer left but to drown his sorrows. Which was when Marlowe announced his presence by saying to the barkeeper, ‘Give my friend a beaker of your best brandy.’

Will looked up to find the man sitting there at the bar. ‘Kit!’ They’d hardly even caught sight of each other since they parted six months before. Marlowe was looking well enough, though pensive, as if weighed down by circumstances.

‘How goes it, Will?’

‘Wonderful, wonderful.’ For some reason it seemed vital to lie to this man. Will insisted on buying brandy for both of them – using a sovereign that Burbage had given him for the play Will was supposed to be writing for Henslowe – and then casually commented, ‘I hear you have a new play for the Curtain.’

‘Not new – my Doctor Faustus.’

‘I love your early work,’ Will burbled on. ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless lowers of Ilium?

Marlowe bore this impassively. Of course he expected something more from his friend and erstwhile lover, Will chided himself. Oh, this was awful. It was as if they were merely strangers – or worse, enemies. Well, there was little chance of continuing to avoid each other, and it was a wonder they’d managed to do so for so long already. In London’s besieged little theatrical world, despite all the internal quarrels and competitiveness, at some deep and unspoken level they all banded together against their many common enemies – so Will and Kit might as well be friends if they could.

‘I have a new play nearly done,’ Marlowe announced, ‘and better. The Massacre at Paris.

‘Good title,’ Will replied with honest admiration.

‘And yours?’

Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter.’ Oh, it was terrible. The bravado suddenly ebbed away, leaving Will stranded.

Marlowe glanced at the barkeeper, but was kind enough not to comment. ‘What is the story?’

Will confessed, ‘I haven’t written a word.’

‘Romeo… Romeo is… Italian,’ Marlowe improvised. ‘Always in and out of love.’

‘Yes, that’s good. Until he meets…’

‘Ethel, the daughter of his enemy.’

Oh, this was excellent stuff. Though the name didn’t have quite the ring to it that Will wanted. It had been Rosaline for a while, but had since reverted to Ethel, though that really wouldn’t do.

Marlowe continued, ‘His best friend is killed in a duel by Ethel’s brother… or something. His name is Mercutio.’

‘Mercutio… good name.’ Which was when Will was called for – Henslowe was expecting him at the Rose to help with the casting. Marlowe had obviously been a marvellous help, for something was stirring in Will already. It seemed they could be friends after all. ‘Good luck with yours, Kit,’ he said, meaning it.

But, ‘I thought your play was for Burbage,’ Marlowe observed, unwittingly undermining Will’s brief confidence.

Back to the lies. ‘This is a different one.’

‘A different one you haven’t written yet?’

Will shrugged helplessly, and hurried out of the tavern before Marlowe’s prodigious wit could pick apart the whole sorry situation.

 

Within a few days Christopher Marlowe was dead, stabbed through the eye in a Deptford tavern.

Will had found his Muse and his True Love in the person of Viola de Lesseps, and Romeo and Juliet was flowing through his quill – and in the midst of all this joy, tragedy hit him like a bolt of lightning from a summer sky. It was easier now to acknowledge all that Marlowe had meant to him, easier to acknowledge that Will’s plays were built on Marlowe’s foundations, easier to acknowledge there had been love between them.

‘You never spoke so well of him,’ Viola observed.

‘He was not dead before. I would exchange all my plays to come for all of his that will never come.’

But she judged him and found him lacking. ‘You lie.’

 

Epilogue 1599

‘Hello, Will.’

Marlowe’s voice. Will would never be free of it.

Painfully, Will raised his head from the table, where he’d fallen asleep amidst the pages of his new play. With some disgust he noticed that he’d smudged the ink on the uppermost page – no doubt he now had blurry words written down one cheek. The latest words: Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might: ‘Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?’ It was the only time Will had ever directly quoted anyone in his plays… Oh, everything hurt, from his skull to his wrenched neck to his poor old bent back. He groped after the brandy, but found the bottle unhelpfully empty.

‘Are you too full of self–pity to even greet me?’ Lazily sardonic tones.

The shock obliterated the pain for a moment. Will twisted around to see a man’s form hidden away in the shadows. A familiar, long–gone form. Christopher Marlowe.

‘Oh God,’ groaned Will, ‘I am drunk.’

‘That doesn’t necessarily imply that I’m not real.’

‘They’re burning your books, Kit,’ Will said, almost as mournfully as if they were his own. ‘Your Ovid’s Amores.’

‘Ah, well. One likes to create a fuss.’

‘And there are so many rumours about your death. Last year Meres wrote that you were killed by a rival for the lewd love of a woman.’

The apparition chuckled quietly. ‘I’m sure you gave that one all the credence it deserved.’

‘And Baines was repeating all those things you said. Shocking things, and everyone knew he wasn’t clever enough to make any of it up. You were unwise, Kit.’

‘But didn’t I warn you that there were men who wanted me painted more dangerous than I am?’ Another spectral chuckle. ‘Than I was, at least…’

Will let his aching head sink back down to the table. This was better than confessing to Doctor Moth. ‘For a while I feared that I had killed you. I thought I would die of the guilt and the shame and the grief.’

‘You lie,’ came the inevitable whisper.

‘And then I was bested in love. You had your revenge.’

‘But you have your plays, Will. Great plays. All the University Wits are lost or dead now, and you have triumphed. Don’t you feel like you’ve won?’

‘No.’ Sleep was reclaiming him.

A touch light as a feather from Will’s temple down past his cheek and his beard to the vulnerable skin at his throat. ‘Peace, Will. Though maybe you’ll never realise you’ve won; find some peace, like you once wished for me… Farewell, my dear.’

And the rest, until cruel sunlight roused him, was silence.

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