Outside the Westminster tilt-yard, the hellish claws of a roaring fire tore at heaven. Shaxper and several others coughed at the smoke and stepped around the angry mob, which had been preached into a frenzy by a group of Puritan clergy. Men and women, their faces contorted with hate and prejudice, shrieked like demons as they furiously tore apart Catholic books and tossed them into the fire. Shaxper was certain that none of them could read the books they were intent on destroying. It then occurred to him that in all of his time in London, he had never seen a book burning before, and the mass hysteria of the violent rabble terrified him. Forgive them, he reasoned, for they know not what they do.
He was running late, too late perhaps to help Lord Oxford prepare for the joust or to quietly rehearse the lines he had been asked to present to the Queen. As he entered the tilt-yard, Shaxper was stunned by the fairytale pageantry before him. Trumpets blared as spectators climbed the nearest hillside to watch the tournament. Powerful horses richly caparisoned with heraldic symbols pawed at the ground, anxious for the contest. Banners rippled in the breeze as lords and ladies dined on the fresh delicacies for which he had only recently acquired a taste.
For several years, Shaxper’s recent employer had been England’s most celebrated tournament champion. At this, his final joust, he would face a number of challengers, including Sir Henry Lee, who had taken Lady Vavasor, Oxford’s former mistress, as his newest lover. With all of the animosity between the two men, Shaxper was concerned for his master’s safety – if he were to die on the field as jousters sometimes did, their partnership would come to an abrupt end and Shaxper would be thrust back into his bucolic obscurity. He would lose his income as the Earl’s scribe and front man, and never find his place as a player in the company.
During the past year, he had become Oxford’s most dependable servant. He had eased himself into the Earl’s good graces, replacing Lyly as his trusted secretary. The best boon was that Oxford had begun teaching him the art of oratory, a subject never taught in the simple country school in Stratford. Shaxper learned how to stand and emote with proper diction, how to pitch his voice and avoid distracting movements and facial expressions. He practiced often, thrilled at the new sensations he felt when reciting ancient speeches or epic poetry. It was a feeling beyond religious ecstasy, taking on the essence of other men’s thoughts and feelings and making them his own.
In the meantime, Shaxper earned his living by supervising other writers in what he called the play factory, copying out Oxford’s roles and manuscripts. Normally, he handed them over to the official censor before passing them on to the playhouses, but sometimes he was advised to skip that step. He was delighted when the theater managers also paid him for his deliveries, and he kept these gratuities without a word to anyone. Oxford had no interest in such fees; his concerns over the content of the history propaganda plays were more complex. He often defied the Queen’s explicit laws concerning publication, but time and again Her Majesty looked the other way, which saved him from arrest.
Shaxper sometimes quailed at his master’s lack of discretion and the risks he was asked to take as the middleman. The Earl’s latest piece of roguery, a play called Edmund Ironside, had Shaxper’s secretarial hand all over it. Unwilling to disobey his master, he had delivered it to the censor with Oxford’s name affixed as author and he hadn’t had a peaceful night since. The Queen’s command for anonymity was clear, but Oxford had simply ignored it.
To appease her, His Lordship had prepared a dazzling entertainment for the interval in today’s tournament. He had granted Shaxper the privilege of delivering the accompanying oration. With the bearing of a showman, Shaxper assured himself that he was impeccably well dressed and barbered. He hoped to make a good impression on the Queen and the other denizens seated on the royal dais. He had practiced classical rhetoric for weeks, but had been forced to rest his voice before he strained it.
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