11 Years Later:  London, April 1587

Blood. Eighteen-year-old Emilia Bassano stared in horror at the red streaks on her white gloves. “No! What have I done?” she shrieked, her wound stinging. Her eyes shifted to the carriage window frame. A bloody streak marked the spot where she’d struck her forehead as the carriage bucked onto cobblestones leading to Whitehall Palace. Again she touched the gash beneath her hairline, wincing from the sharp pain. “Of all times to be so careless!”

      “Why stretch out your head? You can see well enough from inside,” remarked Lady Susan Bertie, leaning from the other half of the bench and patting the cut with an embroidered handkerchief. “Hold this against your wound to stop the bleeding.”

      Emilia pressed the cloth to her forehead, triggering another stabbing burn. “I was trying to see who disembarked from the carriage ahead of us.” She again gazed through the window watching sunlight glisten off the palace’s flint and white stone blocks, portrait medallions above the formal entrances, and the domed tower. “I can’t meet the Queen looking like this!”

      “You won’t. It was never likely,” replied the middle-aged aristocrat, tucking her strawberry-blond hair beneath a pearl-studded headdress, drawing attention to her almond eyes and aquiline nose. “We’re here only to watch a play. You might see her from across the hall, but as a commoner, minor gentry at best, she’ll have little interest in you.”

      “Then who will be interested in me?” murmured Emilia, not expecting a response. Thinking about it, a fleeting question crossed her mind: Might Will be here today? She had met Shakespeare two years earlier quite by accident but he’d left London soon thereafter. She answered her own query: No, he’s a fledging actor attempting to write his first script, and probably still in Stratford-upon-Avon married to some enchantress.

     “Many fine men have come courting but your haughtiness drove them away,” chastised Lady Susan. “With whomever you meet today, act with greater dignity than you have with them.”

      Emilia tightened her lips to control her rage, only then seeing splatters of blood on the ruffles of her white silk sleeve and creamy satin gown. She felt like crying. The spots had spread, becoming scarlet blotches. She wiped her golden-brown eyes, swept strands of her coiled chestnut hair away from her face, and turned toward Lady Susan. “I want to fall in love, but those suitors lacked the courage to engage with a woman who sought her own success. I won’t be the docile wife they seek, nor will I be bored.” She disliked arguing with Lady Susan but disagreed with her characterization. “I’m not haughty. Strong-willed. Tenacious. Passionate. Aspiring. Those fit better.”

      Lady Susan retained her serene demeanor, which Emilia admired but found irritating, for she had difficulty staying calm when their opinions clashed. “Still, you needn’t challenge them with your quick-witted banter,” Susan admonished, keeping her voice even. “Men dislike feeling inferior. Act like a lady as you’ve been taught.”

      Emilia had heard this lecture before and had tired of it. She turned to see the scolding look on Lady Susan’s delicate features and disappointment in her eyes. The silent expression hurt more than her words, which Emilia knew rang true. Lady Susan could cut through her bluster. She knew her better than anyone, having raised her for the past eleven years. “Rest assured, I’ll be courteous by necessity. I won’t waste this chance to sway the powerful—be they nobles or dramatists.”

      As their carriage jostled closer to the imposing guard towers, Emilia removed the bloodstained handkerchief from her forehead. “How awful is it?”

     “It’s raw but not unsightly. Don’t let it tarnish your confidence.”

      “How could it not? I spent hours preparing my hair, applying makeup, and dressing. Now all anyone will notice is my wound and none of my finery…or take much interest in me or my assertions.”

      “I doubt that. Your commentary rarely escapes notice.”

      Emilia shivered. Her ambitions filled her head. “I’ve dreamed since I was small of being a playwright and loved acting out stories, even when you were my only audience.”

      Lady Susan touched Emilia’s arm. “And the most endearing were the tales you invented.”

      “Imagining and writing—that’s what I do best.”

      Their carriage rolled to a stop. Lady Susan clutched Emilia’s hand. “You look entrancing despite your injury.”

      Emilia swallowed, disbelieving. She didn’t see herself that way even without the cut.

      A palace guard helped Emilia and Lady Susan alight from the carriage. Emilia stumbled as her trembling legs reached the ground. She grabbed the guard’s shoulder to steady herself. Embarrassed, she checked to see if other arriving guests had noticed, but nobody heading toward the grand entrance looked back at her. In the brisk April air, smelling of leather and horses, she admired a bed of yellow lilies bending with the breeze. She then brushed dirt from the hem of her long skirt and squeezed her fingers to regain her composure. Before turning toward the majestic door, she gazed across the expansive grounds cleaved by the long palace road and a procession of horse-drawn coaches. She inhaled and exhaled to stem her dismay. She wouldn’t let it keep her from presenting a confident image.

      Lady Susan grabbed Emilia’s arm as they stepped through the massive gate and into the palace. “Bear in mind, if you act above your station, nobody will be the wiser.”

      Emilia knew her status well. It’s a fact I can’t change, she thought, but something to overcome, like my olive complexion that separates me from the fair-skinned English. She got it from her father who was a Venetian musician recruited by Henry VIII. He then played for Queen Elizabeth until his death in 1576. Emilia was seven when he passed but remembered his warning to conceal her Jewish faith, which also made her different. She wondered who knew or suspected, aware that many had been imprisoned or hanged for such an offense against English law. She worried that her skin tone would elicit unwanted questions.

      The palace’s opulent interior, which Emilia was seeing for the first time, struck her as a visual symphony—but her heart raced faster than the music she imagined. She scanned the royal portraits, tapestries, and elaborate chandeliers along the wide corridor. Vivid reds, blues, and silvers drew her eyes to the ceiling where paintings depicted English military victories—with each scene framed in gold leaf. It’s intended to impress and intimidate, she thought, biting her lip to contain her excitement and maintain her poise.

      She leaned toward Lady Susan. “Will Henry Carey be attending?”

      “Most certainly, but refer to him as Lord Hunsdon. He is, after all, the Lord Chamberlain—responsible for palace protocol and royal events, like this one today.”

      “Indeed, I’ll accord him all due respect.”

      “And do so for all Privy Council members you encounter, regardless of their reputation.”

      Emilia reveled being in the midst of power. It activated all her senses. These were people who could get her work published or performed. She’d curry their good will. She’d stoke their interest.

      Emilia watched lavishly-attired guests walking ahead of them and heard snippets of conversation echo off the stone walls. Two men spoke of Queen Elizabeth’s plans to establish a settlement in North America. An older woman, in a long ermine-trimmed gown with a full sapphire skirt, applauded the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots a few months earlier, pleased it had stopped a treacherous Catholic plot.

      Emilia frowned upon hearing the woman take pleasure from such a ghastly deed. She glanced at Lady Susan. “Nobody should be executed for devotion to a disfavored religion. Belief isn’t treasonous.”

      One of the men in front turned and glared, stopping Emilia cold.

      “Shh,” admonished Lady Susan putting a finger to her lips. “Keep such opinions to yourself, especially here.”

      Emilia regretted her comment before she’d finished saying it. She had a habit of announcing whatever she thought without considering whom it might offend.

      Emilia and Lady Susan glided through the Great Hall’s marble-framed entrance. High mullioned windows accented each end, bathing the room in light. A long theatrical scaffold with an elaborate set dominated the far wall. Rows of gilt-trimmed chairs faced it, centered by the Queen’s capacious throne. Emilia’s eyes gleamed at the sight of the stage. This was a far cry from the theaters she frequented outside the city gate, with their rough-hewn benches and straw-covered pits. She felt brilliantly alive.

      Many nobles had already settled into their seats as Lady Susan and Emilia strode forward. Emilia noticed one woman in a gray gown with fox trim waving her hands and twisting from the waist in exaggerated motions, no doubt a lower-ranking aristocrat striving to impress those above her station—something Emilia was loathe to do, but, she thought, I have my own devices.

      Emilia nodded as Lady Susan introduced her to acquaintances while they navigated through the center aisle. A broad-shouldered man in a wide ruff and charcoal doublet leered at her—making Emilia self-conscious of her gash, bloodstained sleeve, and exotic complexion. Still, she bowed her head demurely, pleased her form-fitted bodice, tight corset, flowing skirt, and willowy grace garnered attention.

      Upon reaching a row with vacant chairs, Emilia saw Henry Carey, an older man with a thin crooked nose, cinnamon-gray beard, and light brows curved over wary eyes. Emilia caught his gaze as he took his seat. He nodded with affection, pointed to his forehead, and mouthed, “What happened?”

     She smiled back, recognizing his overtures had become more pronounced and less paternal. Nonetheless, Emilia arched her small breasts upward and kept eye contact until he turned to sit. She’d explain about her injury later if necessary.

      A trumpeted fanfare announcing the Queen interrupted Emilia's reverie. She and the audience stood in unison as Queen Elizabeth paraded to her throne in a white gold-beaded gown in full royal regalia. Emilia beheld the Queen’s white-painted face, which rumors claimed covered smallpox scars.

      A master of ceremonies, dressed in bright blues and yellows, struck a dramatic pose at center stage. “My Queen, ladies and lords, and friends of the court, welcome to our encore performance of Knight in the Burning Rock. We first performed this tale of romance and chivalry eight years ago. By the gracious request of Her Majesty, we will reenact the drama with an entirely new cast. All the players are superb. I now turn the stage over to them, wishing you immense enjoyment.”

      Actors marched onto the stage with great flair in intricate brocade and velvet costumes, captivating Emilia from the start. Her eyes probed every nuance as she tried imagining how actors might bring her own fledging play to life. In one scene they created the illusion of fire with red and orange muslin strips, which Emilia considered excessive. When a hidden throne emerged from within a large boulder and roamed the stage, she thought the stunt had been added to draw attention away from the stilted dialogue. Regardless, the audience roared its approval and Queen Elizabeth cheered from her gilded throne.

      At that moment, Emilia came to believe that she could write a better script, a more poetic one, a more personal one. She hugged herself to dispel the chill accompanying her epiphany. An instant later, doubts invaded her mind. She questioned her abilities. Can I credibly portray natural human inclinations, the honorable and the unscrupulous, in comedic or dramatic form? My skills must rise to the level of my ambitions. But how?

      Emilia pushed these questions aside, resolving to contemplate them later, as she refocused on the drama. Her lips parted and her eyes widened upon hearing a familiar voice. Is that Will?

      She leaned forward, studying a secondary character.

     Could it be? She couldn’t tell because a hat and collar obscured his features, but soon they became visible. Yes, that’s him…his lithe movements, pear-shaped face, and bulging eyes.

      For the remainder of the performance and through the applause for the last encore, she concentrated on her immediate desire. She whispered to Lady Susan, “I recognized one of the actors. How can I meet him?”

      Lady Susan’s bearing projected a sprightliness Emilia had long admired. “Performers usually greet their audience at the back of the Great Hall. Let’s wait there.” On the way, Susan asked, “Who is this gentleman?”

      “Will Shakespeare. We met two years ago when he caught me secretly watching a rehearsal at Paul’s Theater.”

      “I remember the trouble you caused,” chided Lady Susan with a sly wink.

      Emilia grinned while scanning the room for Will. She smoothed wrinkles from her cream-colored skirt, finger-brushed her burnished red hair, and shifted her weight from foot to foot. Suddenly, Lord Hunsdon emerged from the crowd in his regal midnight-blue doublet and cape. Oh dear, thought Emilia, he’s not subtle and won’t appreciate Will’s flamboyance.

      Lord Hunsdon strode toward them with a military gait. Only his thin gray hair and flecked beard hinted at his age. Emilia first met him at Duchess Katherine Willoughby’s funeral seven years earlier and she liked that, even then, he had not treated her as a child.

      “Emilia, you’re exquisite today, even with your wound. Were you fending off a suitor?”

      Emilia felt her cheeks warm at his clumsy attempt at humor and feigned compliment, uncharacteristic for the usually smooth man. “Lord Hunsdon, you’re most kind. Alas, neither bravery nor self-defense caused my injury. I wounded myself.”

      “Henry, you know how to indulge the vanity of a blossoming young woman,” remarked Lady Susan, touching her jeweled hat as she linked arms with Emilia.

      Emilia realized Lord Hundson’s flattery had an intention and, obviously, Lady Susan did too. While Emilia wished to cultivate his interest, some mystifying force drew her attention away as she craned her neck looking for Will. “I’m sorry, Lord, I don’t intend to be rude. I’m searching for an actor and don’t want to miss him.”

      Henry showed his normal aplomb. “Perfectly all right. I trust you’ll introduce us.”

      She spied Will speaking with two young noblewomen dressed in gem-studded bodices, with their husbands standing nearby. Will appeared overly solicitous, and the men’s bemused expressions told Emilia they found his animated attempts to impress entertaining and benign. At the first break in his monologue, they escorted their wives away.

      “Let’s go to him,” suggested Emilia.

      Will bowed as the trio neared. Emilia found herself drawn to his bold manner and dancing eyes, which radiated kindness and intelligence. His hair had thinned on top and he had grown a wispy beard since she last saw him. As they approached, his face brightened in recognition.

      “Is that you…Emilia?”

      Emilia grinned with delight as she lifted her hand. Will raised it to his lips with a sweeping flourish. Emilia loved the theatrical gesture and the attention it drew from other women. “Yes, Will, it is. Please meet Lord Hunsdon—the Lord Chamberlain—and Lady Susan Bertie. Lord Hunsdon is a great patron of the arts, especially theater. Lady Susan has embraced me as a daughter.”

      Will bowed again, spreading his arms wide. “I’m honored to meet you both. Lord Hunsdon, you’re well regarded among actors. I’m delighted to make your acquaintance. I trust you enjoyed the performance.”

      Emilia interrupted, “My heart leapt upon seeing you on stage.” She pinched herself for blurting so eagerly. She wished to project greater poise. “I looked for you at Paul’s Theatre several weeks after we met, but Mr. Westcott, the owner, said you’d married and left for Stratford-upon-Avon.”

      Will seemed displeased to be reminded, looking down and squeezing his eyes shut. “Ah, yes, that’s true. I vanished with the unexpected tides in my life. I’ve returned to London to find work and, fortunately, acquired this role.”

      “Did you finish your script about Henry VI?”

      Will fluttered his eyelashes comically. “I’ve scrawled a lot of words…but not yet.”

      “You’re a playwright and an actor?” asked Lord Hunsdon.

      Will sobered at the question from a nobleman. “I’m working on it. It’s a long play which I must prune.”

      “May I read your draft?” asked Emilia, dropping her eyes demurely. A momentary misgiving struck her. She had no intention of following through on her flirtations but realized her charm could enlist Will’s help and that of Lord Hunsdon. When younger, her spirited intellect had been sufficient to persuade, but now she felt compelled to be bewitching as well.

      Her flirtation apparently took Will by surprise. His eyes widened as he took a half-step back. When they had met, she was sixteen and not given to such dalliance. Will replied, “Let’s arrange to meet and I’ll show it to you, but promise kindness with your criticism.”

      Emilia held his gaze, flattered he’d offered her the opportunity. Although a commoner, like herself, he seemed worldlier. “I promise. My intention will be to help.”

      “Lady Susan said you’re composing a script of your own,” interjected Lord Hunsdon, touching Emilia’s arm.

      Emilia smiled, pleased Henry had raised the subject in Will’s presence. She wished to impress both men with her project but worried they’d see it as folly. “I am. At one of Lady Susan’s assemblies, I overheard a man telling a tale about two sets of identical twins, one of boys and one of girls in his town. He claimed they married one another and nobody could tell the couples apart, unless the twins identified themselves.”

      Will leaned in and Emilia felt his warm breath on her cheek, arousing her unexpectedly. Emilia’s voice rose and her cadence quickened. “The man went on to explain how the pairs merrily pretended to be each other, creating confusion until a farmer accused one of the brothers of stealing a chicken. But the farmer didn’t know which one and the twins wouldn’t confess. So neither was arrested.”

      “Quite interesting,” pronounced Lord Hunsdon, shifting his feet to crowd Will’s space in a bit of manly competition. “You’re turning it into a play for your own amusement?”

      Emilia forced a smile while smoldering inside. “No, not that exact tale and not for my own amusement. I’m writing it to be performed, to entertain audiences, and to earn royalties.”

      Now she felt on stage, hoping her reaction wasn’t too harsh and aware of Will absorbing every word. “The idea inspired me but I’m creating my own storyline. Today it’s a raft of scribbles.”

      Lord Hunsdon raised his eyebrows and jutted his chin. Emilia recognized this skeptical grimace and braced herself for his comments, suspecting they’d be unfavorable. “That’s not the role of a woman, particularly one raised with privilege,” he said with conviction.

      Emilia burned, incensed, but kept her expression neutral. She had a polite rejoinder on her lips but Lady Susan spoke instead. “Henry, you surprise me. Why should such limitations be imposed? Are you defending them without knowing Emilia’s abilities?”

      Lord Hunsdon maintained a stoic expression as Emilia straightened her back. Her feet felt glued to the floor while awaiting his reply. He stood silently, apparently collecting his thoughts and she sensed a touch of flattery and humor might diffuse the tension. “Lord Hunsdon,” she said affably, “I’ve long admired your wisdom, which I’ve taken to heart since my younger days.” She inched closer to him. “Over the din in this hall, I wasn’t sure if you said role or rule of a woman—for you’ve always spoken well of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. I know you believe women can do more than cook meals, wash clothes, and look enchanting on a man’s arm. Just as men can do more than plow fields, chop wood, and escort women.”  She cocked her head to the side watching for Lord Hunsdon’s response as she lightened her tone. “Which would delight me literally and figuratively.”

      Lord Hunsdon’s impassive expression gave way to a deep laugh. “You make compelling points and I admire your fire.” He reached out and touched her arm. “Although I can’t change English customs, I’d be pleased to read your script and render an opinion.”

      I swayed him, thought Emilia as Lord Hunsdon maneuvered his large frame to edge Will out of her view. “I’d be honored if you did,” she replied, touching his sleeve with dainty fingertips.

      Will leaned inward in an exaggerated manner, appearing from beside Lord Hunsdon’s shoulder. “I trust you’ll let me read it as well.”

      Emilia chuckled at his antic as a shiver of anticipation coursed through her. “But of course. We’ll read each other’s.”

      “Indeed. I’ll see you soon, little theater spy.” With a gleam in his eye Will added, “Your gash—I trust it’s not from other covert ventures.” Without waiting for a reply, he bowed toward Lord Hunsdon and Lady Susan and cut toward the door.

      Emilia felt her face flush and hoped her embarrassment didn’t show.

      Lady Susan frowned at her then turned toward Lord Hunsdon. “Henry, if you’re serious about reading her script, come by Willoughby House. You and Emilia can gather in the drawing room.”

      Henry stroked his thin beard. “I am serious, but it must wait until after my trip to Essex. I’ll send a messenger with possible dates upon my return.”

      Emilia nodded. “I’ll be prepared.”

      “But, Emilia,” warned Henry, “don’t have fanciful expectations. I doubt theaters will accept anything composed by a woman, no matter my judgment.”

      Emilia’s brief tinge of hope seeped away.

      Lord Hunsdon turned, ensuring the actor had truly left. Then he asked, “Now, Emilia, what’s this about being a theater spy?”

Copyright © 2020,  Steve Weitzenkorn. All rights reserved.

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