Read an Excerpt


by Leslie Silbert


Southwark, England—dusk, May 1593

His rendezvous was set for nightfall and the sun was sinking quickly. The young man had no time to spare. But as he neared London Bridge, the familiar sounds along that particular stretch of the Thames were hard to resist. His pace slowed. His ears perked up. The clamor of the bear-baiting arena beckoned—a chained bear howling as canine jaws tore at its flesh, frenzied dogs shrieking with every swipe of the bear’s claws, groundlings hollering out bets and cheering wildly.

Halting mid-stride, with one tall black boot hovering a few inches above the ground, he tested his resolve. It failed.

He veered off the riverside path and headed toward the arena. En route, a swath of bold colors drew his attention—the canopy of an unfamiliar booth. Curious, he approached. Long scarlet tresses came into view, then the gnarled face of an old woman, smiling with red-stained lips that matched her shiny wig. At first she appeared to be selling decks of playing cards, but after looking him over, she lifted a small sign advertising her forbidden trade: Grizel’s Tarot. With his rakish clothing and brown hair hanging loose, it was clear he was no prim city official.

Slapping a few pennies on her table, the young man asked, “Should I put my money on the bear?”

“You would rather hear the bear’s fortune than your own?”

He looked away for a moment, as if thoughtful, then turned back with a mischievous smile. “Yes.”

“It would be more worth your while to attend to yourself.”

“Well, that is a subject I’m fond of.” He took a seat.

She laid her battered cards out slowly, several ill-fitting rings sliding along her shriveled fingers. When the tenth card had been carefully placed face down upon the table, the woman looked up.

“May we skip to the end? I haven’t much time.”

“Why don’t you let Grizel be the judge of that? First, I must know who you are.” Near her left hand, five cards were arranged in the shape of a Celtic cross. She picked up the central card. “Your soul.” Turning it over, she gazed reverently at the faded image of a man in a red cloak and cap. “The Magician. Manipulator of the natural world…loves tricks and illusions. Has a powerful imagination. A master of language, he is most nimble with words.”


Raising a gray brow at his inarticulate response, she double-checked the card. With a shrug, she set it down, then selected the bottom-most card of the cross. “The card of the present moment. Oh my, the Page of Swords. You have a passionate mind, don’t you, my friend? Always searching, seeking to uncover the hidden truth. Indeed, you begin such a quest today.”

The young man leaned forward with interest. “Sweet lady, you’re good.”

Flattered, she began flipping over the cards that formed the remainder of the cross. “The Ten of Coins—in reverse. You like gambling. And risk, grave risk. Toeing the edge of a precipice.”

“Keeps life interesting, and my pockets full.”

“Outside influences…let me see. The Three of Swords—a dangerous triangle, a fierce conflict. Two powerful forces threaten you.” Looking up, she noticed that his expression remained calm. “You’d best take heed,” she declared sternly. “Danger discovered in this position is real, but it can be survived.”

“Threats, conflicts…such things are everyday occurrences.” He waved his hand dismissively. “If you please, my last card?”

Grumpily she turned to the second formation of cards on her table: a column five cards high. Lifting the top one, she peered at the image for a moment, hesitated, then showed it to him—a hand-painted skeleton, skull on the ground, toe bones in the air. “How could this be? Upside down, the Death card signifies an impending brush with danger, but one that will be survived. Here, in the afterlife position, it seems to mean you will live after your death…”

Puzzled, she tilted her head and studied his face.

“Does seem odd, I admit,” he said. “Though some have called my looks otherworldly, perhaps—”

She scowled, then broke into a toothless grin. “Ah, of course. I forgot who you are, Magician. Now I understand. It is your magic that is to survive. Long after you take your last breath.”

The young man bowed his head bashfully. Though Grizel didn’t know it, she was talking to London’s most popular playmaker, a writer whose deft pen had worked magic upon the theatrical stage. He marveled at her insight. Then his jaw muscle twitched. A pox on it! The cursed thought had wormed its way back into his head—the very one he had been chasing away for months. Would he make such magic again? Of course he would. When the time was right, he told himself.

Looking back up, he flashed his mischievous smile once more. “My lady, could you tell me just one thing I do not yet know?”

Grizel tried to frown, but the twinkle in his eye was contagious. Lifting the second highest card in the column on her right, she glanced at it, then slammed it down as if it burnt her fingertips.

“What it is it?”

Sadly, she placed a hand over his. “Barring angelic intervention, you’ll not live to see the next moon.”

Vaguely startled, he slid his right hand into the pocket of his close-fitting silk doublet. “There’s nothing like a second opinion. Particularly when the first suggests your end is nigh. Do not mistake me, you’ve been a delight, but there’s another lady I always consult when it comes to matters of fate.” He produced a silver coin. “If it’s her face that greets me, I’ve nothing to worry about.”

He tossed the coin up in the air. Glinting now and again, it flipped over a few times before falling into his left palm, landing face up. “Ah, not to worry, Grizel. The queen here says all will be well. And as her dutiful subject, I am honor-bound to take her word over yours.”

With a blown kiss and a smile, the young man left the Tarot booth and hurried once more on his way to London Bridge. Tilting his coin to catch the setting sun’s orange glow, he looked closely at the metallic image of Queen Elizabeth’s face. He winked at her, and as always, she winked back. He’d scratched off a fragment of the silver over her left eye, revealing just a speck of the darker metal beneath. The trick coin, which had more silver plate on one side than the other, was a counterfeit English shilling he’d fashioned with an associate while on a clandestine mission in the Netherlands the previous year. The fates are fickle. Better to manufacture your luck, than hope for it.

Luck of any kind was a precious commodity to him. After all, he was not just a writer in search of his muse. Young Christopher Marlowe was a spy in the queen’s secret service…a spy with no idea that the old crone was right.



©2005 Leslie Silbert. All rights reserved.
Website design by Chris Costello.