A Guest Post from WOCA Author Amber Green
“Exit, Horatio” is one of the stories in the WOCA anthology JS Wayne was on this blog to discuss yesterday.
Horatio, a young stage apprentice, discovers that prostitution is the price of glory on the Elizabethan stage. But his new patron is a blood-drinker, and Horatio’s corpse is dumped into the Thames. His murderers expect him to be forgotten, a book closed forever. But the boy who clung so fiercely to his dreams has become a ghost who clings just as fiercely to his new goal: stopping the murders.
EXIT HORATIO | excerpt
“Please this gent, Horatio, and never be hungry again.”
I studied the wardrobe master’s scowl, the way he fingered the three-guinea ruby in his ear, and knew refusal would mean I would lose my warm nest among the theater’s props, my place at the singers’ table, and my chance of a future at center stage. Anger and dread twisted together in my bowels.
What had the gent paid him, a shilling? Half that, perhaps?
I carefully scrolled the ancient laces I’d been airing, shed my protective gloves, and made my bows to Master Jerome and to the gentleman. The stranger wore thick face-paint and a sweeping fur-lined cloak that was salted with the sheddings of his powdered wig. Bulging eyes and a low, thin mouth gave him the look of a red-lipped, famine-struck toad.
Nor did the hunger in his face present a puzzle. Not since Bonfire Night, when I’d gone in laughable innocence to play the role of a Sabine woman at an earl’s masque.
Afterward, when the singing master tended my hurts and explained the price of patronage, I’d sworn to succeed without it.
He’d smiled sadly. “Words are bitter forage, Horatio.”
So I swallowed my bitterness and summoned a smile for the gentleman. An actor can present any face his role requires.
He unclasped the frog of his cloak, and threw ample folds of it about me. “This one will suit, Master Jerome. Come, my Ganymede.”
Blind under his cloak, choking on the scents of violets and dust, I clutched his sleeve with both hands. His coat skirts blocked view of my feet. Mustn’t trip. Mustn’t trip.
Outside, with the night wind lifting the heavy furs like a sail and the ice slick underfoot, I changed my inner chant—I mustn’t slip.
He whispered as we walked. “Thou shalt never again shiver through a cold night. Never again sleep with an empty belly.”
Some fool part of me yearned to believe him. Even when he led me into a house smelling of cabbage, muttered to someone I wasn’t privileged to see, and uncloaked me with my toes against the steps of one of those anonymous bed-cabinets one might rent for a farthing an hour, or a penny the night.
“Undress, my beauty.”
I hesitated. A muffled whimper came from one of the other cabinets, but no one else had trusted his clothes to any of the cabinet-side racks. More, my livery was new, assigned to me as payment or apology for the earl’s party.
But my patron had hung his cloak and coat already, and was unbuttoning his waistcoat. I watched his smooth-flowing shadow; as quickly as he moved, the flame of the oil lamp flickered scarcely at all.
I broke into a sweat, and at the same time shivered helplessly.
He was down to his small-clothes, and crawling into the shadowed bed. “Come, Master Shyness. Freezing one’s clothing at night keeps the lice out.”
My mother had said the same, when I was a small boy. Mind them not, Horatio. When the winter comes, they will freeze out.
Still, I hesitated. “Should my outfit be stolen, m’lord, what would I wear?”
His hand caught me by the throat. Pale eyes stared into mine.
For a moment, my breath scraped past the stricture, and my pulse pounded against it. The fingers I pried at might as well be stone.
Then he let me go. “Undress, fool, or do not. But come to bed before thy blood chills overmuch!”
I had little enough to strip away. Even with my hands shaking so, I fumbled my way out of it and threw the bundled cloth at the foot of the bed.
“Stop by the lamp, Ganymede. I wish to see.”
No one survives without a patron, Horatio. I dragged a breath through my bruised throat, struck a heroic pose with one fist up, then flushed hot. What of my choices had ever been heroic? I peeked sidelong at him, unballed my fist and dropped it to caress my shoulder, and forced a smile. Better my role be beauty seduced, than captive sick with fear.
* * *
One of my favorite movies is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, based on a play by Tom Stoppard. Here’s a quote: For a handful of coin I happen to have a private and uncut performance of “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” or rather Woman, or rather Alfred. And for eight you can participate.
Alfred in the movie is an adult, but in the play he was a resigned eleven-year-old struggling into a woman’s dress. That disturbed me. Knowing how true-to-life that portrayal might have been disturbed me more. After letting the images roll around in the back of my head for a few years, I realized I had to write a better future for him.
So maybe I cheated by adding the paranormal. Maybe someday I can write it straight. But for now, we have Horatio, the ghost, confronting his pimp and his murderer. I hope you like the result.
Visit www.shapeshiftersinlust.com tonight!