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4: The Office of Revels

The Office of the Revels in St John’s Gate was more like a fairground than a branch of the royal household. Carpenters clutching plans and scale models of stage machinery were jostled by acrobats and jugglers. On one side of the chamber, a group of musicians endlessly rehearsed the opening bars of a dance tune, whilst on the other, a clown in antique motley was teaching a small grey dog in a ruff to leap through a hoop. The focus of all their impatience sat at a large desk at the far end: Sir Edmund Tilney, Master of the Revels for the last fifteen years, without whose say-so no company of players could perform in the city.

Coby found herself a place on one of the side-benches not far from the dais, squeezed in between a nervous young man who clutched a bundle of paper with ink-stained fingers and a fat, gaudily dressed woman stinking of garlic and tobacco smoke. As each petitioner was dismissed, one of the Master’s two secretaries would beckon another forward, in order of precedence rather than arrival time. At the moment the Master was conferring with a delegation of Smithfield merchants, who were trying to persuade him that Bartholomew Fair should be limited to its customary three days for the sake of their business. Judging by the men’s persistence, they were going to be there some time. Coby’s stomach growled. She had been waiting most of the afternoon, too lowly a supplicant to attract the secretaries’ attention, and had missed her dinner as a result.

For the hundredth time she read the sheet of paper that Master Naismith had given her. Hieronimo, James IV, A Looking Glass for London, Damon and Pythias… Once more she mentally tallied the dramatis personae against their stock of costumes, afraid she might have missed out a vital part or costume change.

Out of the corner of her eye she noticed the young man trying to read the list over her shoulder. She folded it hurriedly and gave him a pointed stare. He looked away, abashed. She glanced at the open page of his manuscript. It appeared to be a play but was written in Latin, a language she knew not at all. She could only make out the names at the top of each scene: Roxana, Bessus, Sisimithres, Ariaspe. It was probably all very clever, an entertainment fit for learned men, not the common people. No doubt the Master of the Revels would find it far superior to anything on her own list.

A disturbance around the open doors at the other end of the chamber drew her attention.  Three figures were making their way directly towards the dais. Three skraylings. An air of ceremony hung about them, a calm anticipation that drew the attention of all.

The foremost skrayling was middle-aged, with hair more silver than black. His simple white tunic fell to below his knees, his leggings were similarly plain and his feet were bare, revealing thick grey toenails like dogs’ claws. He carried a silk scroll wound tight around a roller of age-yellowed bone and tied with plaited cords of bright blue.

The leader’s companions were younger and wore the more familiar skrayling garb of short geometric-patterned tunic and breeches, but they likewise went unshod. They had not come barefoot all the way from Southwark, however; their feet were too clean to have been exposed to the filth of London.

They halted at the foot of the dais, and Sir Edmund looked up briefly from his paperwork. He nodded to one of the secretaries.

“Indeed, gentleman,” he said to the Smithfield merchants, “I agree that it is contrary to the peace of the city for the fair to linger as long as it does. I will give the matter my fullest consideration. Good day.”

At this curt dismissal the merchants withdrew, muttering to one another.

Coby shifted on the bench, curious to know what the skraylings wanted. There was a rumour that Master Naismith’s main rivals, Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn, were considering a partnership with a skrayling merchant in an effort to extend their business interests in Southwark. The foreigners were not allowed to own property in London, but there was nothing to stop them from investing in English businesses. They had plenty of money, and loved the theatre; it was inevitable that someone would take advantage of the opportunity sooner or later.

The chief skrayling knelt and placed the scroll on the floor at the foot of the dais then addressed Sir Edmund in Tradetalk, the mongrel language used between humans and skraylings in London.

“Gooday, honour sir. I high seller lord long Sky Stone Clan, Cutsnail.” He bowed deeply in the skrayling fashion, hands palm up before him.

“Good day to you, Master Cutsnail,” Sir Edmund replied, enunciating the words slowly and clearly. “What brings you to my office?”

Coby could not follow all the conversation that ensued; her knowledge of Tradetalk was limited to what was useful in the markets of Southwark and within the theatre business. Sir Edmund was clearly in no better case, for he soon resorted to having his words translated by one of his secretaries, and at this distance she could not make out the Master of the Revels’ murmured instructions. What she did understand, however, made her nerves thrill with anticipation.

The visitor was head of the skraylings’ richest company of merchant-adventurers, the Sky Stone Clan, and thus the most important of his race on English soil. That he spoke of the coming to London of one more senior than himself was news enough, but when he went on to discuss the appropriate entertainments for a personage of such exalted status, the Tradetalk word for theatre, ‘acting-house’, cropped up many times.

At length the audience was concluded, with much bowing and many courtesies on either side, and the skraylings departed. Whilst the waiting petitioners erupted into gossip and speculation, Coby slipped quietly out of the door and ran all the way back to Thames Street. Approval of the playlist would have to wait; Master Naismith would want to be the first to hear this news.