Authors: C. S. Quinn
Barbara’s face was haunted. ‘Charles would never have agreed to it,’ she whispered.
Amesbury looked away. He’d come to be sure Barbara’s children were safe. But she’d interrogated him on how fire would affect the city prisons.
‘We have no choice,’ said Amesbury. ‘We can’t have prisoners escaping.’
Barbara shook her head as though she couldn’t believe it.
‘Monstrous,’ she said. ‘It’s a monstrous thing you do.’
‘And what would you do?’ demanded Amesbury. ‘Set them free? Women know nothing of . . .’
woman knows something of war,’ said Barbara, the strength in her voice matching his. ‘This woman travelled to Holland and bedded an exiled King. This woman listened to the campaigns, the strategies. The hopelessness.’
She ran an angry hand through her long hair.
‘Charles would have married me,’ said Barbara. ‘In Holland. That’s how little he believed he’d ever return to England. I said no. Because I had faith in him. I loved him too well to spoil the dowries and allegiances he could make.’
‘And you have more power as a mistress,’ said Amesbury.
Barbara looked annoyed. ‘You weren’t there,’ she said. ‘You chose the winning side. But I know what it is to lose at war. And I know this, Amesbury. Win or lose.
I would not burn men alive
.’ Her violet eyes were aglow with fury.
‘These are murderers,’ said Amesbury. ‘Child killers. Rapists. Men who would choke a whore rather than pay her shilling.’
‘Do you think this shocks me?’ demanded Barbara. ‘Nothing men are capable of shocks me, Amesbury. Remember that.’
Amesbury sighed. ‘Most are due to hang tomorrow,’ he said.
‘In the Clink!’ said Barbara, ‘not in Bridewell. Paupers and gentle lunatics.’
Amesbury shook his head. ‘Bedlam has religious dissenters,’ he said.
Barbara hesitated. ‘Charles set them free,’ she said.
‘As did Cromwell,’ said Amesbury. ‘Being high up. It gives you the luxury of idealism. Practical matters fall to men like me.’
‘The King commanded those men be released from prison,’ said Barbara. ‘Your duty is to carry out orders.’
‘Bedlam is not a prison,’ said Amesbury.
‘You had the dissenters locked away for lunacy?’ Barbara seemed torn between horror and admiration.
‘England was torn apart by holiness,’ said Amesbury. ‘The streets are thick with religious plotters as it is. Imagine if more of them were loose, spreading their poison.’
‘Bedlam is a dreadful place,’ said Barbara.
‘So you hear,’ said Amesbury. ‘You are fortunate. Stay here in your fine dresses. Leave the horrors of running a country to men like me.’
Lily sat on the straw of her cell, hugging her knees defiantly. She listened to the streams of hysterical French and Dutch from wrongly imprisoned foreigners.
‘Are you for business?’ A man was tugging at her dress. She twitched her skirt away irritably. He eyed her evilly and laid a dirty hand on her arm.
‘Gypsies are always for sale,’ he observed. He was looking at the cheap necklaces and rings on her fingers.
Lily smiled. ‘You’re mistaken.’ The man looked down at the blade in her hand.
‘Provoke me further,’ she warned, ‘and you’ll have nothing to proposition women with.’
The man spat, jiggled his groin suggestively and backed away muttering. He joined a group of prisoners and pointed towards her. Lily sensed something bad about to happen.
She moved to the prison door. It was an old Tudor creation. Thick and sturdy. The prison had modified it to have a small barred grating so prisoners could wave for the gaoler. To the back was a tiny window leading to the street, so prisoners might beg for food from passers-by. But today there was no hope of scraps.
Lily slipped her arms through and let them hang through the bars, feeling the free air beyond the dank cell. Something seized her wrist.
Lily started and instinctively balled her fists. Her rings. Even brass rings and coloured glass were worth something in Bridewell. Some escaped prisoner must have chanced on her vulnerable arms. She’d heard of London thieves who’d cut off a finger to get at a tight ring.
Then she saw a pair of familiar brown eyes at the prison door.
‘Hello, Lily,’ said a gruff voice. ‘Where’s my key?’
Lily beamed in relief.
Charlie had tried for menacing, but catching sight of her his voice didn’t come out as planned. He caught hold of the prone forearm to shake it.
‘How could you do it?’ he accused. ‘I saved your life!’
Lily smiled at him. ‘I knew you would come,’ she said. ‘Hurry. Break me out. There’s a hammer. At the end of the corridor. I saw one of the prisoners drop it as they fled. You can open the lock.’
‘You think I come to free you?’ Charlie was incensed. ‘You robbed me! Of my most precious possession. And left me for dead on the banks of the Thames besides, when I near drowned myself dragging you to shore.’
to leave you, Charlie,’ Lily said, looking over her shoulder at the other prisoners, who were watching silently. She dropped her voice to a whisper. ‘Blackstone means to fire the Palace. I had to get a message to Amesbury. To warn the King.’
‘Why did you steal my key?’
Lily threw out her hands exasperatedly. ‘Think. The city is burning. What if I’d found the chest and let the papers burn for want of a key? You’d have never forgiven me.’ She sounded hurt.
Charlie made a strangled sound. She looked so helpless, staring up at him through the bars. Already his firm knowledge that she’d left him for dead was slipping away. Something about her proximity was playing havoc with his normal rationality.
‘You were out cold,’ said Lily. ‘On the riverbank. I tried to rouse you but you wouldn’t wake. I knew you’d find me,’ she added. ‘You’re clever enough to deduce that Bridewell is the place to look for religious prisoners.’
Charlie’s head span. He didn’t doubt she’d tell mistruth after mistruth for her own selfish gain. But before he could properly contemplate the issue there was an explosion.
They both started, but Charlie kept a firm hold on her wrist. Then he leaned back to get a better look at what had happened.
When his face reappeared it was grim.
‘I think Blackstone has fired the Apothecaries’ Guild,’ he said. ‘Fire comes to Bridewell quickly now.’
Lily’s face was stricken.
‘Let me out.’
‘My key,’ said Charlie. ‘Do you still have it?’
‘Give it to me.’
Lily set her mouth in reply. ‘I’m not a fool, Charlie.’
‘I . . .’ he dropped her hand, offended. ‘I wouldn’t leave you here,’ he said. ‘You’re a thief and a liar. But I’m not heartless.’
Lily was not convinced. ‘Help me escape the gaol,’ she said. ‘Then I’ll give you the key.’
‘Tell me what you know of the Tree of Life,’ said Charlie, thinking of what he’d seen in the Cutlers’ Guild. ‘You didn’t tell me all you knew in Torr’s cellar.’
Lily looked surprised.
‘It’s nothing,’ she said. ‘Just a story really, on how to lead a good life.’
‘Like a religion?’ demanded Charlie.
Lily shook her head. ‘No. Tarot, Kaballah’s Tree of Life. They’re creation stories. They teach us the journey.’ She glanced behind her. ‘Let me out,’ she said.
‘That’s it?’ asked Charlie. ‘A journey?’
Lily eyed the bars impatiently.
‘In the beginning you have open-hearted willingness. Then come the tests,’ she waved her hand, ‘set-backs, things to be overcome. Finally you shed your old self and receive enlightenment. Charlie,’ her voice grew insistent. ‘You have to let me out. Now.’
She looked behind her. Prisoners were eyeing her with interest.
‘Things are about to take a bad turn,’ she added.
Charlie glanced back into the cell. The handful of men were talking and looking more intently at Lily now.
Charlie released her wrists.
‘Over there,’ said Lily gesturing. ‘The hammer rolled under that bench.’
Several burly prisoners were heading her way.
Charlie picked it up, approached the thick door and swung. The heavy padlock rebounded. Another blow split it and on the third spun it away on to the wooden floor.
Charlie stepped away from the grating and pulled it open. Lily stood inside, her knife held outwards, a circle of prisoners eyeing her. He grabbed her arm. The prisoners inside surged at the door.
‘Come,’ he said, pulling her free as the other prisoners stampeded past. He eyed the colourful smoke breaking into the upper windows.
Lily was reaching in her dress.
‘Here,’ she said. ‘Your key.’
She handed it to him, looking apologetic. Charlie took it and looped it over his head.
‘We need to leave,’ he said, relieved to have the key back. ‘This whole prison will be aflame.’
‘But what of the prisoners on the Mermaid?’ asked Lily. ‘If we find them we might find Blackstone. The King defends Whitehall,’ she added, ‘but Blackstone sabotages his plans at every turn. We must stop his blue fire.’
Charlie shook his head. ‘Cromwell released the religious prisoners. A gaoler told me.’
‘No.’ Lily was holding his arm urgently.
‘I’ll explain on the way,’ she said. ‘We need to get to Bedlam.’
Barbara eyed her empty apartments. Amesbury looked uncomfortable.
‘You talk as though I were weak,’ said Barbara. ‘Don’t forget who has more sway with His Majesty.’
‘His Majesty doesn’t rule England,’ said Amesbury. ‘Parliament has the money. Parliament and the guilds.’
His face softened.
‘Think of how it will look on the King,’ said Amesbury. ‘People already think him weak. If he releases felons. If murderers roam the streets . . .’
‘Have you ever heard a man burn?’ demanded Barbara.
Amesbury looked away.
‘I never believed it of you,’ said Barbara. ‘Now I see what you are capable of.’
‘I am capable of far worse,’ said Amesbury shortly. ‘My duty is to protect the King. I do my duty no matter what people say of me.’
‘Then kill the dissenters in their cells,’ said Barbara quietly. ‘At least do that.’
Amesbury shook his head. ‘There are not the funds. We’d need fifty hard men.’
‘Not if you had guns and shot,’ said Barbara, calculating.
‘Guns and shot?’ Amesbury was smiling at her naivety.
‘Charles has a secret supply,’ said Barbara, and Amesbury’s smile fell away. ‘Twenty guns. Powder. Shot. They’re for his personal guard. In case of an assassination attempt.’
‘How would you possibly . . . ?’
‘I can get them,’ she said.
‘Even if you could . . .’ began Amesbury.
‘Even if you could. And I don’t doubt your influence on the King. We’d need men to fire them.’
‘With the arsenal you describe, twenty men.’
‘I didn’t ask how many men,’ said Barbara. ‘I asked how much it would cost.’
‘A guinea a man,’ he said. ‘For that I could find some willing.’ He raised his old eyes to hers. ‘But the King doesn’t have so much. Nor would he give it for such a thing.’
Barbara was unfastening her emerald necklace. She pushed it into Amesbury’s gnarled hand. Slowly his fingers closed around it. Then he stuffed it into his leather purse. Barbara’s eyes shone as the bright jewels vanished. She turned away.
‘Bedlam first,’ she muttered.
‘I sent a message to Amesbury,’ Lily explained as they raced through the smoking hallways of Bridewell. ‘The King won’t believe there’s a plot. We must find Blackstone ourselves. They never released the religious prisoners,’ she added. ‘We might still find one who was held on the Mermaid.’
‘But gaolers couldn’t have kept them in Bridewell,’ said Charlie, confused. ‘Not if Cromwell commanded their release.’
‘They didn’t keep them in Bridewell,’ said Lily. ‘They declared religious dissenters insane.’
Charlie’s stomach turned. ‘They put them in Bedlam. The lunatic place?’
Charlie closed his eyes. He could hear the screams of maniacs drifting on the breeze. The Apothecaries’ Guild was to the south side. If the wind stayed high it would gut the prison and fire the lunatic asylum in the blink of an eye.
‘Why did you ask about the Tree of Life?’ asked Lily as they followed the wails of Bedlam’s madmen.
‘I saw it in the Cutlers’ Guild,’ said Charlie. ‘I thought there could be a connection with Torr’s cellar.’
‘The Tree of Life would be a good tool for a guild,’ said Lily. ‘Mastering a craft. It’s a journey with trials and tests. Enlightenment at the end. Probably no more connection than that.’
Charlie considered this. Guilds regulated professional trade in London. They forced certain professions to join and set prices, or work elsewhere. But they exacted a standard of training and merchandise as well. From what he knew, guilds valued honesty and integrity. It made sense, he thought. ‘But why hide it?’ he pressed.
‘The church doesn’t like it,’ said Lily. ‘Tarot and other mystic things take power from ministers. Give men god-like powers over their own destiny.’ Her dark eyes met with his. ‘But since Cromwell,’ she said, ‘men begin to question, don’t they? Religion is not fixed like it was.’
They broke out into a courtyard and suddenly the maniac screams took on a fever pitch.
‘They get louder.’ Lily’s face was pale. ‘The screams of the lunatics.’
Charlie nodded grimly.
‘We’re here.’ He pointed to a mouldering doorway leading to an enclosed corridor.
Bedlam was a crumbling corner of Bridewell. A part deemed too rank and malodorous for common criminals.
‘They’ve locked them in,’ whispered Lily, pointing to the barred door. ‘And left them to burn.’
‘We’ll break the lock,’ said Charlie, hefting the hammer he’d used to break out Lily. ‘Stay behind me in case any inside have broken free.’
Fire was already licking at the asylum windows on the far side, driving the occupants to a frenzy. As Charlie and Lily moved to the door, terrible howls rent the air.
Charlie raised the hammer and made short work of the aged padlock. The shrieks inside rose higher.
‘Be ready to run,’ murmured Charlie as he pulled the door open.
A surge of chittering rats poured free and they twisted back. The torrent of teeth and claws raced over their feet and Lily shrieked, kicking one free of her skirts.
Charlie stood still as the rush abated and the wails of the madhouse rose again.
‘This way,’ he said, gesturing Lily follow him through the door.
They both stopped in horror.
‘Holy Jesus,’ said Lily, drawing back. ‘Are they human?’