Current Work – Masterplayer

Three years ago I was asked to write a novel set in the Elizabethan era. I was interested in the challenge so I got stuck in. The amount of research required to bring any depth to such a work is demanding, but worth it.

Below is the opening passage, the year is 1588 and we are on the Royal barge.

“Majesty.” The Lord Mayor of London doffed his hat and bowed as Elizabeth strode past.
“Sir Martin.” The Queen gestured for the Mayor to follow on behind. “My barge is ready?”
“It is, your Majesty, all of the entourage and consort are in place awaiting departure.”
“Good.” Elizabeth walked down the ramp onto the barge through the corridor of oarsmen in their brilliant white jackets and bright red trousers, holding their oars at arms. Snatching up a cushion from her seat she turned around and flung it at Leicester, the Earl caught it in one hand, plumped it and promptly sat beside his queen. “What has your goat now, my goodly Majesty?”

The queen’s eyes narrowed for a breath which she released in a huff of impatience. “As if you have no idea.” She forced a smile.

The oarsmen took up their seats, nine to port and nine to starboard. The starboard contingent kept their oars high while the port side men pushed the barge out into the muddy waters of the River Thames. Two Yeoman Warders stood at the entrance to the royal enclosure ensuring Her Majesty and the Earl of Leicester would not be disturbed by anyone, not even the Lord Mayor of London. A string quartet of Black Moors began to play at the prow, filling the barge with their soft melodies. The gold work roses on their red velvet jackets glittered in the sun, sending light dancing across the deck.

“It pleasures me much.” Elizabeth waved a hand at the musicians who continued with their eyes lowered so as not to displease their monarch.

“Elizabeth, why do you tease?” Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, stroked his greying beard. “I have been as loyal as a man could ever choose to be. And yet and I was not to be yours,” he soughed.

“Perhaps, were it not for your scurrilous Commonwealth,” Elizabeth leaned across Leicester gesticulating wildly at the southern bank of the river. “Such magnificent animals.” She clasped her gloved hands to her mouth. “Who would keep such fine stock on the Marsh?”

“Are we going to discuss that matter at hand or are we just going to ignore it?” The Earl tugged his hat straight again.

Elizabeth slid her hands down her dress, resting them on her knees. She tapped her fingers twice, inspected the delicate stitching of her purple gloves, then snapped her head toward her good friend.
“I… never… wanted… this,” the Queen enunciated every word with a tilt of her head. “I wanted Dover.” She pushed herself back into her seat and folded her hands in her lap with her nose toward the sky.

“God’s strength,” the Earl muttered to the swirling eddies of the oars.
“Bridge approaching!” the Mayor cried out.

Shadows played upon the water, masking the excrement flowing on the tide. Bobbing corpses of cats and dogs made edible rafts for the sleek furred rats that feasted upon them. The ebbing tide could not drag the foul stench of yesterday’s London out of the city no matter how hard it tried. Buckets of filth poured from the triple-storied shops and tenements bordering the two lanes of traffic across the spans of London Bridge. Carts piled with goods from every city of the known world vied for carriageway alongside the dung-carts of the street cleaners. Two hundred thousand beating hearts fought for space on the overcrowded streets as England reveled in its triumphal glory.

“Gloriana, Gloriana,” the cheers of the peasantry hailed Queen and country as the Royal barge slipped beneath the bridge eastward toward Tilbury below the death gaze of the severed heads atop crude pikes.

“I shall be glad when we pass beyond the city limits with the Tower to our back and the green fields of England unroll before us.” Leicester winced as he adjusted the pillows in his ornately carved chair. “Was this seat meant to be sat on by noble blood?”

“Are you going to gripe all the way or must I issue a decree of silence?” Elizabeth scowled at her companion. Her eye was drawn to the plight of three men hanging from chains along the Southwark shore. “Clearly, the Liberties come at a cost.”

The Queen turned her attention to the opposite bank where the grey towers thrust up at the sky warded by the dark stone bailey, a challenge and threat to all would be invaders.
The Thames River meandered through the English countryside pulling the royal barge toward the sea. The number of traders and ferries dwindled as the city faded behind them. The sun slipped across the August sky, heading into the afternoon wastes as the royal party dined on hampers of provisions. Queen Elizabeth sipped wine from a golden goblet while the Earl of Leicester, her long-time consort, and suitor, regaled her with tales of heroism and conquest and of the young Lord Essex who even now was readying her troops at Tilbury.

“Tell me.” Elizabeth peered into the distance where small barges were aligning across the half-mile width of the Thames. “What are they doing? Why are so many assembled?”
The Queen reclined in her seat as the barge angled toward the northern shore and the sight of Tilbury Fort sitting amongst its spike palisade.

“Before I left here to collect you in person, I had them set a boom across the Thames. Should the vile Spanish make passage up the river, they will strike the anchored masts.”
“Will it work?” Elizabeth smiled.

“I hope not to find out.” The Earl of Leicester rose to his feet as the barge nested against the jetty. “Take care, my Queen, the moorings are not fastened, and the lands here are soft underfoot.”

“I would like to inspect the troops before traveling to Saffron House,” Elizabeth strode from the barge toward the main gate.

“Essex will have everything ready for the morrow, Majesty, will it not wait until then?”
Elizabeth spun around, “It may.” Glaring at Leicester, she snapped, “I will not.”

“As you wish,” Leicester lowered his head, allowing Elizabeth to continue on foot to the Blockhouse.

I hope to be finishing Masterplayer over the next couple of months so that I can return to my fantasy saga, the Dark Mistress will not wait forever.

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