The Prodigal Hour, Chapter Two

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Southwark, England. 1606.

The first public performance of Shakespeare’s
The Tragedy of Macbeth


 

The Globe Theater was exactly as Leonard Kensington had expected: an open-air amphitheatre with three levels of gallery seats looming up and over him. Crushed hazelnut shells on the ground didn’t quite mask the body odor of 2,000 people who lived in a society that hadn’t yet discovered underarm deodorant.

Onstage, Richard Burbage, as Macbeth, began the fifth act to conclude the play. “Hang out our banners on the outward walls,” he pointed out over the audience as if he were seeing Inverness, and so the Globe pretended it was a centuries-old castle in Scotland, the river Thames pretended it was Ness. “The cry is still, ‘They come.’ Our castle’s strength will laugh a siege to scorn. Here let them lie till famine and the ague eat them up. Were they not forced with those that should be ours, we might have met them dareful, beard to beard, and beat them backward home.”

The quantum implant in Leonard’s temporal lobe began to buzz. He squeezed his earlobe, quietly cleared his throat, which meant: wait. He looked around at the people standing beside him, all of whom were enthralled by that big man on the stage and his words.

Backstage, and so in the bowels of Castle Inverness, several women screamed. Macbeth turned toward the sound. “What is that noise?”

“It is the cry of women, my good lord,” Will Shakespeare, playing Macbeth’s attendant, Seyton, answered. Shakespeare was a small, pale man with fine features and quick, lively eyes. He hurried offstage to investigate.

As Macbeth turned again to survey his home, Leonard began to ease backward through the yard. Theatergoers glared at him.

The call crackled as it disconnected, but then the implant began to vibrate again. This time he didn’t squeeze his ear to answer the call, just continued to strafe and sidestep around the audience members.

Onstage: Seyton reappeared, faltering as if halting from a sprint. Leonard turned, again, to watch. Leonard had enough handwriting samples and discarded play pages, but he thought Will’s acting ability better evidence that he had written those plays; the man knew what audiences wanted and how to play to it. Burbage, as Macbeth, was the star of the show, but Will Shakespeare stole every damned scene he was in.

Macbeth turned when Seyton reappeared. “Wherefore was that cry?”

Seyton looked down at his hands, which he’d begun to wring. “The queen, my lord,” then, looking again at Macbeth like he expected he might be struck, “is dead.”

Leonard had made it to the back of the crowd, almost to the door, and his implant had begun to buzz at a higher frequency, indicating greater urgency, but still he paused. He hadn’t ventured back nearly four hundred years to determine whether Shakespeare had written the plays attributed to his hand to miss Burbage’s big speech.

Macbeth’s eyes widened, his body starting, but then it passed and the mania that had possessed him a moment before returned, and he looked toward the walls of his castle, beyond which the woods were rapidly approaching. “She should have died hereafter. There would have been time for such a word,” he said. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps at this petty pace from day to day until the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the ways to dusty death—.”

Leonard ducked through the door. What had smelled bad in the Globe nearly made Leonard gag outside it: tanning hides and sizzling meat, horse manure and body odor.

He tugged his earlobe. “Okay, okay, Race, I’m here,” he said in a British accent he’d thought was thick until he’d visited Southwark. Its streets and byways bustled with shoppers and merchants, priests and parishioners, pickpockets and thugs. Leonard hurried to find less populated areas. The leather soles of his boots scritch-scratched over the sand of the path and around the detritus of 17th century life: animal droppings, rotted fruit, cats and dead rats, feathers like mad.

“Why didn’t you answer?” Grand Marshall Horatio Atropos—whom everyone called “Race”—asked him. Race oversaw the Operations Center at CIRTN and was the only person who could contact Leonard when Leonard was on a mission.

“I couldn’t very well answer a call in the middle of Macbeth.”

Macbeth?”

Macbeth. Double bubble toil and trouble, out, out damned spot, I’m a crazy king who’s going to murder everyone? Macbeth.”

“The Shakespeare project.”

“Yes, the Shakespeare project,” Leonard said. He dodged as someone on a floor above him emptied a bedpan, spilling an evil-smelling, bio-hazard orange onto the street.

“I need you back.”

“Is there a problem?” he asked, stepping around a man carting a carcass of unidentifiable origin down the path. Flies buzzed around what hadn’t yet been carved for food.

“There’s going to be,” Race’s voice boomed through his cranium. “We’ve already coordinated the Safe for your return.”

Leonard realized that, in his effort to find less populated areas, he had also found less safe areas; several men had paused to give him more attention than he felt comfortable receiving. “I might be detained,” Leonard said, even as three men started moving, not approaching him, yet, but following. They wore heavy grey smocks that looked not just lived in but also slept in. One man, his stringy brown hair matted down, his face dirty, his eyes sunken, smiled to reveal a mouth full of rotted teeth.

“If you must,” Race said, and then the call disconnected.

Leonard broke into a jog, difficult in his leather and wool clothing, bulky in all the places he’d want tight and constricting in all the places he’d want loose. Three sets of footsteps followed, but Leonard didn’t look back as he cut left and right around buildings, struggling to keep footing on simple boots that didn’t have much tread. Labyrinthine grey-stone passages and corridors intersected and looped back around each other, and then Leonard skidded around another corner, right into a dead-end alley. The only way out was the way he’d just entered, and he turned just as the three men walked around the corner of the alley.

Leonard abhorred violence. “One chance to turn around and forget you ever saw me.”

“Now why would we do that, sir?” One man, his accent thick as tar and smoke, advanced. Scars criss-crossed his cheek, and he licked his cracked lips. “You look a wealthy man burdened by a heavy purse, and we hoped to relieve yo—.”

Quick, precise movements—grasp, twist, leverage, chop, stomp—Leonard crumpled the man—who never finished his sentence—to the ground.

Leonard looked at the other two men, who looked uncertainly at each other, then back at Leonard. “Go on,” Leonard said. “Run.”

They did, leaving Leonard alone in the alley save for the man unconscious on the ground. Leonard pulled his sleeve up.

Around his wrist, Leonard wore a simple watch, silver with a black dial. Because it was anachronistic to the Elizabethan era, Leonard was wearing it with the face on the inside of his wrist to make it less conspicuous. On one side of the face was the dial by which he could adjust the time, which he did frequently, but on the other side was a small button.

Leonard closed his eyes and pressed the button with his thumb.

The hairs on the back of his neck stood prickled as if anticipating being struck by lightning. The muscles in his abdomen clenched, involuntarily, as they always did. Even with his eyes closed he sensed the brilliant, purple flash. It had no heat, but his body still felt the energy crackle—

—and then it was gone, and Leonard opened his eyes.

Perfect dark.

Elizabethan Southwark, Globe Theater and all, was gone. Everything, in fact, seemed gone; he couldn’t make out the brushed metal walls he knew surrounded him.

Blazing blue light above him. It swept down his body, pausing briefly at his eyes and fingertips.

Then: a crack in the darkness. A seam slid away, a section of wall whisped aside, and Leonard stepped into the brilliant whiteness it had revealed.

 
Yeah, Leonard is pretty badass, right? I mean, delivering a martial arts takedown just after sticking around Macbeth long enough to catch Burbage’s “Tomorrow” speech? And the Shakespeare Project? How cool does that sound? Click here and you can get the whole novel. Right now.


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