Word Count 1086
The awakening boy came, while morning was still leached of color. His hand on Kit's shoulder was gentle, but it was implacable.
“Wake up, Marlowe. Time to get up.” Shaking his arm now. The boy was light on his feet, some scholars hit.
“Nnngh.” Kit twitched his arm away.
The whisper was piercing. The shaking went on. Kit sat up, scrubbing at his eyes with the back of his hand.
“Aye, leave off. I'm awake.”
This boy was a pale thin creature with a persistent sniffle. He had had ringworm some weeks back, and had had his hair shaved to the skull. It was growing in again, whitish blond. It made him look like a hopeful starving piglet.
“You have a letter.” The piglet held it out.
Kit sat up in bed, still burrowed in his warm blankets, but fully awake now. His heart was pounding. He had never had a letter before. It could not have come from home.
Father could not read but he could sign his name, Kit had seen his signature in the baptismal book, and Father had also signed, Kit knew, at the leatherman's guild. Hard to imagine. His hands looked wrong for writing anyway. They were wide and the fingers red and hard. Father's nails were black and ragged even right after he washed them.
Mother could not read or write. She was clever though. She could add a string of numbers fast as anyone. (She flicked her fingers down by her apron as she did so, which you were not supposed to do, but it was not as if anyone was going to beat her for it.) She knew what to get for the house, and the shoe shop too. She had taught Kit to cast accounts. He had asked her once, long ago, why she never learned to read. She had laughed and said she was right busy enough without the trouble of that too. And she said that book learning was not so important for girls. But Kit had taught Jane. Having a book was a comfort for Jane, she could not run and play much at all, because of the wheezing. Jane was clever, like mother, like Kit. She had learned easily. Soon they put away Kit's horn-book, and Jane could read aloud from the Bible. And that day mother had kissed Kit and Jane both.
So no, this was not from home. It was fine paper, heavy and pale. It was sealed with wax.
He broke the seal with his thumb, quiet as he could. He did not want to share even the sound of this.
The ink was black, and straight. The letters small and fine formed. The letter was short. His heart was shaking under the thin cage of his bones. He put his tongue out, before he could think better of it, and touched it to the letters at the bottom. 'TW' tasted of iron and gall-- of ink.
He knew this could not be a dream. His dreams had never included the piglet boy, and the letter was heavy and real in his hand. His dreams were jumpy things, anyway. They were jumbles of sensation. He tried sometimes to make sensible stories of them, but they resisted. They burned him. He dreamed of the soft fine boots, the sweep of golden hair to the lawn collar, the voice, light and amused. Since last week they had a name now, too. In the dark of his bed he mouthed it silently, 'Thomas,'
He followed the instructions in the letter exactly. The clock sang four as he left by the gate. His Masters had nodded, and let him go.
He found the place, and a place to wait where he could see the door. That was in the letter too. It was quite specific. He had obeyed every detail but one. He had not burned the letter. He had put it under his shirt. It burned there anyway-- in the last fires of boyhood, against his leaping heart.
He asked for small beer, it was musty and thin. He buried his nose in the cup. He faced the door-- not because that was in the instructions--it had been. He faced the door because Thomas would come through it, as an angel takes the stage, with the light behind, all glory. Kit wanted to see that.
But, after all, when the door opened, Thomas came in behind a group of men carrying mattocks. There was quite a lot of mud involved. They seemed not to notice him at all. They seemed not to notice a stray nobleman behind them, though they would have had their hats off in the street. He was dressed in black today, rich man's black, soft and fine. It was a world away from the cloth that scratched Kit's skin.
Thomas smiled and swung his leg over the bench, to sit across from Kit. He signaled for wine.
Kit drank slowly, as they talked of small things. This was, perhaps, what life would be, when the learning was done. He finished his cup, set it down.
“Would you like another?” Thomas still had wine.
Kit shook his head. He had enough coin for the one, ready in his hand. He could drink water the rest of the week. But Thomas raised his cup, drank the wine down quick, all at once. He took out enough money for two, for three, and tossed it onto the table. They went out to the street. Dusky clouds stacked the west, the sun was almost gone and the shadows were cold now.
Kit had thought that they would go indoors to talk, where no one could hear. But Thomas led him to an open field beyond the inn. They stood, open to all sides, in the empty air. Only a goat was near them. It looked with those odd goat-eyes, and found them harmless and dull. It went back to chewing.
“Have you thought, upon my offer?” He asked. “Come along with me today, and see how 'tis done?”
“Yes-- but why me?”
“I was sent to Cambridge, to find someone. Someone to serve my uncle, and the Queen. Why not you?”
“I would like to-- yes.”
“Good.” Thomas smiled. “I had hoped that you would say yes. It pays good money too.”
Kit smiled then, and the laugh burbled up inside him. Of course, it would pay. He had not thought of that.