My Rightwise Home

by Esther Saxey

I am Prince Elwin of Norland. I have been Prince for fifteen years.  My land from sea to mountain owes obeisance to its rightful Lord.

So I’m furious to be deposed by a back-stabbing bastard in the stable-yard of an inn. I’ve been travelling with my retinue, making our slow Autumn loop round the North of my Kingdom. Now my treacherous Uncle Harlow sips his beer, and hems and haws.

“Fact is, we’ve got a new Prince.”

What now, what now? No kin of mine, false greybeard… “Why?”

“We need the money, Elwin. We can’t go any further North this year, the mist’s come South too soon.” He’s right–despite the stink of horses, I can smell the grey mist settling around us in the yard. “If we company turn back now, we cut six towns off our tour–we could halve our profits. So we need a real crowd-pleaser.”

“I’m a crowd-pleaser. I’m the best Prince there is, you know it.” My voice is resonant, my movements elegant. I’ve studied my rivals, stolen whatever worked, ditched whatever   jarred.

Harlow shrugs. “That youngster we saw last night, from Kenn’s company–he wants to travel.”

Oh venomous and venal snake. The youngster is a dew-faced curly-haired moppet who doesn’t know the speeches. Fine for the small towns on a county circuit. But we’re better than that.

“I wouldn’t pay to piss on him.”

“Come back South with us,” says Harlow. “You could be a good King Nicholas.”

I’ll stop your mouth. My sickle knife will make your throat sing out…”King Nick’s an old man!”

His eyes slide sideways to my temples. There’s grey hair showing there because I’ve run out of walnut powder. I’m Prince Elwin, I’m nineteen at most. I’ve made the Prince as subtle as I can, but the essence of Elwin is youth: promise, vitality, headstrong arrogance.

My Uncle concedes an inch. “Well, a youngish King Nick? Perhaps?”

“With you?” Our company doesn’t perform that cycle.”

“You could come South with us, find another company at the Winter meet at Elmsbury.” So I must depose some lesser ruler to regain a crown.

Like a newt’s tail sloughed when the foul perch grips, your Gods-sent Lord you cast aside. But I can’t speak those lines. I’m not Prince Elwin any more.

#

The next morning, I don’t leave with them to go South. How could I watch the wonder-boy fumble his lines every night?

“Where will you sleep?” asks Harlow.

“I have friends.”

Harlow’s travelled with me for years. He knows I have no friends. But I speak with authority (my land from sea to mountain) and he doesn’t press me, because it lessens his guilt. The company push off down the coast road, disappearing into the mist, scarves over their faces and wrapped round the horses’ noses.

It’s a bleak region. The thin grass anchors some poor soil to the black rocks, while the sea wind tries to sweep it all away.

On the horizon, closer to the cliffs, is a castle. We pass it twice a year. When I play the attack on Castle Wistan (my rightwise home I’ll claim or cleave) I picture its squat towers.

I don’t have any other home, so I set off walking towards it.

There is no view out to sea, only a pearly wall, the waves invisible. If I stay outdoors much longer, clammy grey rime will grow on my clothes. Which would be a waste–I’ve stolen some of my costume tunics and I’m wearing them all for warmth, prince-in-waiting blue over coronation crimson.

I tire quickly. I drank a lake last night, and I’m not a young man.

The smell of the sea steals me back to my early life. I was a fisherman’s daughter and a net-mender, but neither of those stuck. I could learn a speech by hearing it twice, and I was tall and handsome, so I was taken on by a local company at fourteen. The best Princes aren’t boys. Why train up a new lad then watch him grow bearded, croaky, spotty in three years? When folk like me could play the Prince for fifteen years, improving every season.

I won’t go back to mending nets.

The castle is dark rock but less fortified than I thought. I walk the wall until I reach an orchard, where a woman saws a dead branch from an apple tree. Her grey dress tells me this is a Sisterhouse. Not a Castle, but a cold place full of old women, singing.

I call: “Peace to you, Sister.” She lays down her saw and approaches. She isn’t old. She isn’t young. Her hair is covered, letting her face jut out from the scarf, as sharp-angled as a gardening tool.

“I know you,” she says. “I saw you yesterday, on the common. You’re the Prince.”

#

“You can’t walk South,” says Sister Annys.

We’re in the guest hall, eating stew at a long table. We have a half-dozen morose companions, with blanket bundles on their knees. Sister Annys tells me they’re refugees from further North; The mist’s taken their farms and they can’t bring in their harvest.

“Some of these folk will be walking South, surely?”

“Probably. But I’ve told them what I’m telling you: you need a horse, and a house to sleep in each night. Do you have friends between here and the South?”

“But my company never has trouble. We walk, with a wagon.”

“It’s worse this year. Go and look at the carts outside–their covers are all corroded.”

“It can’t kill you.”

“It has killed.”

“In other lands.”

“On the North coast of this land, this year.”

The Sisters have good messengers. Players like me carry the news from town to town, but we’re like beetles, proud to know more than the worms, while the crow sees everything. So I ask: “Why is this year so bad?”

She doesn’t know.

Maybe some cold thing in the far North growing colder, or moving closer. Or some great heat in the South that has protected us is damping down, and mist is the natural state of the whole world. “Can I stay here, if I can’t leave?”

“All Winter? Could you pay for it?”

“You shock me! What of mercy?”

“The merciful must eat, too. And you’re not an invalid. You could help to bring the vegetables in before they rot.” She eyes my shoulders. I have muscles–I grew them for show, but I could turn them to digging. “You don’t have any books?”

“Books?”

“This Sisterhouse collects them. That’s why the scholars are here.” At the far end of the long table, three men in good heavy robes hold a muttered argument.

I tap my forehead. “Do you want plays? I have the Elwin cycle, entire…”

“…and we would have only to provide the vellum and the ink and the hours of writing. Or do you write?”

I write badly.

“Besides, we own Elwin. Several versions.”

Other versions? That draws my curiosity. Then I remember my forced abdication.

“The Duke’s Downfall? Sweet May?”

“Yes, we have those too.” She not unfriendly, but she’s impatient. She reminds me of someone, and that reminds me of something I might trade.

“I’ve been to Laeverland. Four years ago.” I boast it casually, though I heaved on the sea trip and they hooted at our shows.

“You have books from there?”

“I know the Princess Rovena cycle by heart.”

She takes a berry from the bowl and chews it. She wants it but she doesn’t want me to know it.

“Could you dig the vegetables, as well?”

#

The House forms a C around a cloister; one side for the visitors, one side for the library, one side for the Sisters with a heavy oak door. No men beyond that door. So Annys and I meet in the library the following night.

My body aches; digging asks more of me than sword-fighting. I’ve worked from the moment the mist was burnt off in the morning to its insidious return at nightfall. More farmers, haunted and hungry, have stumbled up to the House; most of the vegetables I unearthed were cooked for dinner (if they weren’t rotten with mould from the mist).

I wear my gold and red tunic, looking very fetching by lamplight. The Sisters have leant me a grey one to wear while I’m digging, but I’ve changed back into my finery so I don’t muddy the library.

We sit with a table between us.

I start to recite.

I’m not used to speaking aloud into silence, and getting no reaction. I’m not used to switching character every other line. I don’t know whether to throw myself into every mood, or drone through it quickly.

Sometimes I’m interrupted by shouts–profanities–from the visitor’s wing of the house. The scholars are in disagreement.

Annys doesn’t take my words down in pen. Perhaps she doesn’t trust me, or perhaps she needs to hear it all to judge how to set it out on the page. She writes with black-lead, whispering across scraps of vellum.

When we stop the first night, Sister Annys says, “Your memory’s excellent–do you eat sennage?”

“Grief, no. Only poor players need it.”

“I eat it. We grow it in the gardens.” She’s prickly. “It helps my work in the library.”

Over the next few nights, I recite the early parts of the cycle: the Princess abducted, the sorrow of the queen. Would that my breath had been robbed from me, too. The princess raised by wolves, found in the fur of the forest beasts. The Princess discovered by a hunter: see, how the bald beast pipes back to me!

The words take me back to Laeverland. The sunlight was sharper. Few of the audience knew our plays. We over-exaggerated, mimed, bellowed in the thin bright air to try to move them. But when we saw the local companies, we understood: the whole style of show was different, over there. More elaborate in some ways, very lax in others. Trying to understand, I’d watched the Princess cycle three times through.

The Princess vows revenge on her enemies. An alliance, a betrayal, a parade of suitors…

“What are you doing?” asks Sister Annys.

I was making the hand gestures. I translate them to Annys: the turning fist for anger controlled, the flutter that shows confusion, and the behind-the-back flicking that showed a lie believed to be believed. “The players’ hands were painted white.”

“I see. Now, should I note the gestures down with the speeches? Or are they more like the backcloth, or the clothes–oh, I shall have to read other books to see how it’s done. You’re smiling.”

“You’re very open. You don’t need hand gestures.”

“Am I?”

“For a Sister. You’re supposed to be calm.”

“You don’t know many Sisters.”

She’s right. I see them dragging around, but I don’t talk to them. Why would I?

“We’re not all born to the life. Some take the vows that suit them,” she says. “Some the vows they need. It’s difficult for me to be calm, to be obedient, to stay in one place. But it’s a useful struggle.”

It doesn’t seem useful to me, always to be flapping against your nature like a fish in a net. But I envy her in one regard, and tell her so: “You’re lucky to have found your place.”

She frowns. “We may have to leave this House, if the mist keeps moving. We own land here, but if nobody can grow food, it’s little use.”

The shelves of books run as low as the floor and as high as my head. “How would you move all this?”

“Oh, we would lose the library. Perhaps we could rescue some of it, next Summer, but…” She waves her calloused hand: despair that does not want comfort.

“Things can be moved,” I say, to cheer her. “Today at noon, I saw white fluff bobbing along the horizon–a whole herd of sheep, passing down the coast road.”

“The mist is killing animals, further North.”

I will need to leave, myself. I can’t stay the whole Winter. While I dig, in borrowed clothes, I’m nobody; each night, in the library, I’m half a dozen people all at once. It’s been a week since my arrival. Were I still Prince, I’d have been ten times crowned in that week, and ten times to bed with a woman.

#

I tell Annys the speeches of the suitors. Woman your worth far out-paces me. One each night. Show me what labours would honour you. Two who fail, one victorious. Can there be unfallen fruit so ripe? Let your arms prison me

Annys’ black-lead stick never stops moving. By the triumph of the third suitor, I am raging with lust.

I’m not locked into my room above the guest hall. I could creep across the fields to town. I see myself in an inn, smiling, wooing…

Am I wearing my gold tunic? Or the grey?

When I walk into an inn after a performance, my clothes announce me. I’m the Prince, and there will be women who’ve watched me who want to know me. They’ll want to hear me speak the words.

I imagine myself in a grey tunic, wordless, and my lust is numb.

#

“What is the Princess like?” Annys asks.

“Glorious. She had clouds of dark hair and she was taller than I–she made herself seem small in the early plays, I don’t know how. They have the opposite tradition to us, there; the Princesses are rarely drawn from girl-players. She was forthright, not patient. Long fingers, good for the gestures. Her voice was so rich–I envied it…”

The room is silent, still, but Annys is laughing at me, biting her lips.

“I meant the character,” she says. Sometimes while I recite Annys has asked for pieces of context: where is this city, what is this food. I should have understood. “I meant her clothes, and so forth. Goodness.” She is mocking my misunderstanding and my affection.

“Is love very amusing, for Sisters?”

She stares me down. “Are Princes usually so spoiled?”

But I haven’t been a Prince for weeks, now. “Forgive me. I probably chose the life that suited me, not the life I needed.”

“Well. You might choose again–your life’s hardly over.”

I’ve not told her why I’m here, and I wonder if she’s guessed, or if she gives that advice to every stray.

“So did the Princess player impress you, then?” she asks.

She is trying too hard to sound light-hearted. I know what she wants to know; it roughens her voice.

“She helped me to learn the speeches.” My memory hadn’t been as good as when I’d learned Elwin. “She was very clever–knew a lot of history.”

“You were close to her.”

Why does she care, being a Sister? “When you leave here, will you go to another House?”

“I may.”

Now I understand. She wants to know what it would be like, if she left the House to be a common woman. She wants to know about common love. But she’s asking the wrong person. I’ve been a Prince.

But her openness moves me. I owe her honesty.

“Yes, we were close.” My throat closes, and I tilt my head back to open it, a players’ trick. “But what could we do? With a woman from the crowd, I know what to say–Elwin’s words. That’s what women want. They want to entertain a Prince. And the same for her, she told me: with a man from the crowd, she was the Princess.”

“So?”

“Prince Elwin and Princess Rovena–they had never met. They played no scenes together.”

It seemed foolish now. It had seemed impassable, then.

“But a Prince would have things to say to a Princess.”

“We were from different places. No–different tales. I fight my uncles with my sword. She battles the sea gods with incantations, to stop Laeverland sinking into the waves.”

“That’s quite a lot to talk about.” Annys is laughing again.

I manage a smile. “Let me alone! It was hopeless. Our metre was different.”

“Your metre?”

“This is me.” I beat it out on the table with my fingertips. “My uncles damned the throne have cozened, courting the awful wrath of Heaven… You see? Double beats. Heartbeats.”

“I see.”

“This was the Princess: Suitor, your speaking is serpent-like; Whither your efforts to worry me?” I pull my hands back into my lap. “Triples, you see. It runs off your tongue.”

Annys doesn’t reply. A grey silence thickens between us.

Then shouting erupts from the scholars’ rooms. “Such a disturbance, those men,” Annys says. “At least most of my Sisters have left, and don’t have to hear it.”

“I thought there weren’t many of you, for such a large House.”

“They’ve gone South.” She looks out of the library window. “I’m on my own, on the first floor.”

She points across the dark cloister.

#

It’s too cold to sleep that night.

The Princess changed her costume in front of me, a few times. Such an expanse of warm skin.

If I went through the great oak door to Sister Annys’ cell, would she welcome me? Would she be wearing her grey robe, still?

I walk into the cloister, grey rime making the flagstones slippery.

I turn to the garden, first. I can smell the sennage, sweet and musky, like a fox in a flower patch. I pick a handful of it, chew it (it tastes rank, like cat’s piss), and wonder how soon it takes effect.

I want to remember every detail of this night.

And I will, indeed, always remember it: how the mist in the garden got into my mouth and eyes and numbed them. How the oak door of the Sister’s hall faced me down.

What could she and I say to one another? Some people don’t need words. I do.

So I will always remember how my own door creaked with scorn when I returned to my room. And, as I lay cowardly and alone, each increment of dawn’s arrival. This is a dismal tricksy light, a candle hid behind a hand–I cannot tell my friends from foes

#

I ask the scholars if I can go South with them, when they leave. They’re wealthy, and can rent rooms in each of the towns. I will memorise certain texts for them before we leave, which they’ll transcribe while we travel. I may have to ride a donkey.

“But the Princess cycle’s not finished,” Annys says.

“They’re my last chance.”

“But where will you go?” I’m following her advice, but she’s angry.

“I’ll find another company at the Elmsbury fair. Can I use the library to learn King Nicholas before I go?”

As I read, I find that Uncle Harlow complimented me, when he said I could play King Nick. Nick’s a deep man, with a lot to say, not an advisor or a courtier. A grown man, not an old man.

Nick doesn’t do too much wooing, though. I wonder if the women in the inns wait for the King, wanting him to say certain words to them.

The last night, Annys makes me recite until midnight, and the cycle is still unfinished.

“If it doesn’t suit you, you could come back here.” She stares at her black-lead stick. “At least until the House closes. Your memory would be useful, for the library.”

“I’ll think on it.”

“It could be a home for you.”

“A home where I could never enter the door?”

She raises her eyes. “You could live either side. It is the vows that count: obedience and stability. Nothing else. Many of us have not had straight paths to our Houses.”

She is giving me honest words and I try to return them.

“Annys, I wanted to be a Prince, and I did it. I want to be a King, and must attempt it.”

I had meant to conclude by saying: if I find I would rather be a Sister, I will return here. But I can’t say it, I can’t see it, I would rather live as a fisherman. Whatever happens, I am going South to the sun. I want to get away from this grey place, this grey-robed raw-hearted woman.

I’m wondering if a King would have something to say to a Princess. I am dazzled by a crown, and cannot see beyond it.

 

More stories like this by topic: , , , , ,