Edmund Blackadder gave the thing on his plate a hard look. The question, he thought, was whether it was looking back.
“Well, Mrs Miggins, you’ve outdone yourself,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the whiskers poking through the pastry I wouldn’t even know it was cat.”
“Oh, Lord B, you are a card!” The pie-woman slopped two tankards of ale onto the table and bustled back to the counter, clucking good-naturedly to herself. “With the price of cat what it is these days? It’s been ages since I’ve had a nice piece of moggy to go in the pies.”
Blackadder pushed his plate to Percy, who was tucking into his own meal with gusto.
“What you need, my lord,” Percy paused to extract something — Blackadder tried not to examine it closely — from his mouth, “is something to cheer you up. And I rather think I know just the thing.”
“Percy, if your next sentence involves the words ‘new’, ‘play’ and ‘Shakespeare’ this salt cellar is going to be put in a place where even Mrs Miggins won’t want to use it again.”
Percy mumbled something about rather good reviews.
“Of course it’s got good reviews. It’s a Shakespeare comedy,” Blackadder said, with all the venom such a prospect demanded. “It’ll be cross-dressing, willy jokes and hilarious misunderstandings between identical twins. All of which the general public eats up like one of Mrs Miggins’s Wednesday Surprises. Will ‘Predictable’ Shakespeare must have one of the cushiest jobs in England: write the same thing over and over and wait for the girls and cash to come rolling in.”
For a moment Percy thought about suggesting that if it was so easy perhaps Edmund should give it a try himself, but some tiny spark of self-preservation made him start onto his second pie and change the subject. “We might take a stroll to Hampton Court and watch the jousting,” he suggested.
“Fat bores on horseback with delusions of being King Arthur. Next.”
“Between you and Baldrick I’m surrounded by birdbrains as it is.”
Percy found the bottom of the metaphorical barrel of social delights and started scraping. “Perhaps,” he said delicately, “a young lady could be... employed...”
“Our Trina’s started down the docks just this week,” Mrs Miggins boomed across the shop. “She’s a good, clean girl, very reasonable prices.”
Blackadder pushed his chair back. “Isn’t that a shame, I’ve just this second remembered I’ve got a terribly important engagement this afternoon. I’m taking Percy to have his brain cleaned.”
“But Edmund...” Percy dropped some coins on the table and hurried after his cousin.
“Anything new and exciting out here, Baldrick?”
Baldrick, who Mrs Miggins had sent outside with a pointed look at her ‘Noe Dogges’ sign, blinked up at them. “There was a box, my lord.”
“Was there really.”
Irony and the Detection Thereof didn’t feature prominently in Baldrick’s life. “Yeah. In the alley over there.”
“Did this box by any chance have a sign hanging on it saying ‘Large bags of gold, free to good home’?”
“No, my lord.”
“Or ‘This way to nubile young ladies, special discount rates for rakish courtiers with a fashionable line in facial hair’?”
“Not that I noticed,” Baldrick said. “It was blue,” he added. “It appeared from out of nowhere with a wheezing, groaning noise like a huge wheezing, groaning thing.”
Percy sneered. “For heaven’s sake, that is just...”
“Oh, God, if you’re going to try to think of a witty putdown we’ll be here for the rest of our natural lives. Just call him a cretin and have done with it; you’d think you’d recognise your own species.”
“I did see my cousin Baldrick what works in the palace kitchens,” Baldrick offered, as Percy tried, a shade too hard, to titter off the insult. “He says it’s all go there today.”
“Enthralling,” Blackadder sighed. “The Queen’s probably throwing one of her aren’t I so bloody marvellous parties. Well, it’s better than jousting. I’ll go home and throw on a clean pair of tights.”
“Yes, my lord. I suppose you’ll be getting toffed up for the wedding, anyway.”
“The Queen’s wedding,” Baldrick said. “My cousin said she’s just got engaged to some rich foreign bloke. The wedding’s tomorrow.”
“What?” Blackadder roared.
“What?” Percy echoed, wanting to feel included.
“What?” said a voice from the alley, but only Baldrick heard it, and since everyone knew mysterious blue boxes that appeared from out of thin air couldn’t talk, he decided it must be one of them mirage things he’d heard tell of and ignored it.
Rushing straight to the palace and demanding an explanation from the Queen was a fine plan, if you didn’t mind the possibility that your head might make an irrevocable split from the rest of you as a result. Blackadder was quite attached to his head — he’d only just got the beard right — so he made sure he was well turned out, supplied with a wedding present, and sufficiently calmed down to present a congratulatory face to the world.
There was a scuffle going on outside the Queen’s chambers when he arrived, sans Percy and Baldrick. A lanky man — cleanshaven, wild-haired, and wearing some sort of ridiculous brown breeches that went to his ankles — was struggling with three of the beefier guards, who were trying to divide four flailing limbs between them.
“Listen, just listen to me for five seconds, please, you’ve got to let me see the Queen! The whole future history of this planet might be at stake! I’m a personal friend of Doctor John Dee’s, there’s a piece of paper in my top pocket, leather holder, you can’t miss it, it’ll tell you...”
Blackadder had long lived by the principle that any friend of John Dee’s was probably an insufferable git and no fun at parties, so he was relieved when a fourth guard hurried over, solving their mathematical quandary and letting them bundle the badly-dressed lunatic off down the corridor.
“I believe congratulations are in order, Majesty.”
The Queen pouted, but he was fairly sure it was an attempt at coquetry rather than sincere offence and imminent searching for the spare death warrant. “Oh, Edmund, someone’s already told you. It was going to be my lovely surprise.”
“The streets are abuzz with news of your engagement, ma’am; why, on the way here I had to wend my way through the bodies of those subjects who were prostrate with joy in the streets.”
The Queen clapped her hands. Nursie beamed vacantly, pleased that her poppet was enjoying herself. Lord Melchett, standing at the right-hand side of the throne, managed to convey the words overdoing it a bit, aren’t you? using only his eyebrows.
“And who might this very luckiest of men be, ma’am? Philip of Spain, perhaps, having been hit on the head and suffered some form of amnesia over your last engagement?”
“Yuck! Not after the things he called me after that silly little tiff about his boats.”
Well, if you were going to discount all the heads of state she’d mortally offended in some way, it only left the ones who were mad, permanently bedridden or dead. Any of the three was possible, given how annoyed Melchett was looking.
“He’s completely divine,” the Queen sighed. “He’s called William Shakespeare.”
Blackadder, who’d been ready to come out with some smarmy compliment whoever the groom-to-be was, was poleaxed.
“Not the one who writes plays,” she said. “Just the same name. Isn’t that unusual?”
“The man claims to be some sort of merchant traveller, Blackadder,” Melchett added. “He brought her Majesty tribute the likes of which we’ve never seen before.”
That explained it. The Queen was, when all was said and done, an enormous ginger magpie in a ruff. There was no faster way to her heart than via a stack of presents. Blackadder saw his own ambitions to kinghood vanishing into the distance. “But surely ma’am already has diamonds galore, more crowns than could be worn by a woman with seven hundred heads and enough gold to pave the whole of Wales — which would be a vast improvement.”
“Oh, yes,” the Queen said, “I’ve got all those boring old things. But look at this super present Willy gave me. The dangly bits go in your ears.”
Some sort of snuff box? No, only the back was silver, the other side was... not metal or wood, maybe some sort of pink lacquer... Blackadder held the thing in the palm of his hand and put the dangly bits, as instructed, in his ears.
He was dimly aware, through the curtain of noise, that the Queen and the other two were guffawing at the look on his face.
The Queen’s dungeons were an egalitarian society, of sorts. It didn’t matter how old you were, how much cash you’d got or whether you were gorgeous or scrofulous; if you annoyed the Queen enough then a spot in the cells and a date in the axeman’s appointment calendar awaited you.
Pocketing his tuppenny bribe, Jailer Ploppy took him to the prisoner with the happy shuffling gait of a man with very little to do and all day to do it in.
“He’s a feisty one, my lord. Almost escaped, but Mrs Ploppy manhandled him back to the cells. She’s making up one of her sausage casseroles; says he needs feeding up.”
“Well, tell her to hold off lunch until I’ve spoken to him. He’s no good to me if he’s writhing in culinary agony.”
“Right you are, sir. We did take this off him...”
‘This’ was a greyish cylinder of about a thumb’s thickness with a piece of blue glass on the end. Blackadder wrapped it in a handkerchief. The man was purportedly a chum of John Dee’s; God only knew what he’d been using it for.
“Right,” he said, when Ploppy had let him into the visiting cell and shut the door, “three questions. Who the hell are you, what do you know about this so-called Shakespeare who’s marrying the Queen, and how did he make that box play music? And none of your mumbo-jumbo about communing with angels; I’ve met Dee, and he’s as magical as a dung beetle. This is a trick to get the Queen up the aisle and I,” wish I’d thought of it first, “I’m not going to let it happen,” he finished nobly.
“A box playing music - could be a boombox, an ipod, a subsonic etheriser...”
“Yes, that middle one. Ipod, it said that on the back.”
“Then he’s definitely from the future.” The prisoner pushed his hands back through that quite remarkably unfashionable haircut. “Shakespeare? He’s calling himself Shakespeare? You sure it wasn’t an anagram - ‘Mr Tsea’, maybe, he hasn’t used that one yet... Unless it’s Jack, before he met me. Best case scenario, it’s a Time Agent messing about...”
“If you’re just going to spout drivel at me, I’ll leave you to the tender mercies of Mrs Ploppy and the sausage casserole.”
“Who threatens someone with a casserole? I’m in here waiting to have my head chopped off!”
“Interesting,” Blackadder said. “So you’re not from around here. Anyone local would pick the block every time.”
“Let’s just say I’m from a really long way away.”
“The land of extraordinary outfits, in fact.”
“My suit’s timeless,” he protested. “You try walking around London in tights in any other century — well, maybe the 1980s...”
“And back to drivel.” He raised his voice: “Extra sausages, Mrs Ploppy!”
“I’m the Doctor,” Dee’s friend said, suddenly intense, “and it’s vitally, crucially important that the man calling himself Shakespeare doesn’t marry the Queen. I’ve already met Elizabeth the First — her future, my past - and this must be why I’m her enemy, because I stopped her wedding. Except I can’t do that if I’m going to have my head cut off or be casseroled to death, so you’ve got to help me. Please.”
“Excuse me a moment,” Blackadder said, and called for the jailer to let him upstairs to the kitchens.
“Has my servant been hanging around here today?”
A worried-looking Baldrick peered around the side of the cooking pot. Blackadder grabbed him by the collar. “I have a sudden dire need of a cretin-to-English translator.”
The second attempt at the explanation was, if possible, even less coherent.
Baldrick scratched the back of his head. “I reckon,” he said slowly, “that he’s saying that we think time’s a straight line, right, whereas actually it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.”
The Doctor said, “Oh, I like you.”
Mad, Blackadder thought. Madder than Hamish ‘Mad’ McMadden who spent twenty years telling people he was a small, mad cream sponge.
But he’s all we’ve got, and he’ll have to do.
The jail break wasn’t difficult.
“...and the Venetian ambassador — who goes by the name ‘the Doctor’ — was simply overcome with grief at the news that you were to marry, having long harboured a love for your majesty from afar...”
“What? Oh, all right.” The Queen took the quill and scrawled her signature left-handed at the bottom of the official pardon. She did it without taking her eyes off the moving picture in her hand, where a tiny man in a red cap was massacring a succession of turtles as she mashed buttons.
“Whatever will they think of next,” Nursie burbled.
“Coo,” said Baldrick.
“Urk,” said Percy, who was turning gently green.
“It’s only a hand, Perce.” Blackadder nudged the glass container with his foot. “You’ve seen worse strung up in Traitor’s Cloister.”
“But... it’s...” Percy spread his hands, indicating the cavernous space, the walls that looked more like something living than rock or wood. “Edmund, it’s bigger on the inside!”
“Yes, well spotted. All prizes for observation to Lord Percy Percy.” There was a chair, and Blackadder sat on it with every ounce of nonchalance he could dredge up. The box that opened into a massive room was, he admitted to himself, a lot more impressive than anything he’d seen Dee and the rest of the court occultists attempt, but that was no reason to let the Doctor think he believed this rubbish about time travel and creatures from other worlds.
“Anybody said it’s bigger on the inside yet?” The Doctor weaved past them and scooped up the pickled hand. “See? Hand. Bubbling hand, bubbling away like anything. Oh, that’s bad. There’s another Time Lord close by.”
“Oh, don’t shudder, for God’s sake,” Blackadder told Percy, who stopped. “He’s only being portentous.”
“Got to be pre-Time War,” the Doctor said, apparently to himself. “They’re too faint in my head, like they’re far away. This isn’t supposed to happen. It shouldn’t be possible.”
“Rubber room on stand-by,” Blackadder muttered.
“Not the Rani, she didn’t have any male regenerations — did she? — no, can’t be, no-one’s walking around acting like they’ve had their brains drained...”
“I’m sorry, how rude of me, I was sure I’d introduced Percy and Baldrick.”
“Drax would sell her machine guns, not give her iPods and computer games.” He sighed. “And everyone else would be too scared of the High Council to risk fiddling with history. It’s the Master. Must be.”
In Blackadder’s experience, people who went around calling themselves ‘the Master’ were Masonic idiots, self-important alchemists or dangerous unhinged maniacs, and the Doctor’s expression implied that options A and B were off the table. “That’s bad?”
“Bad as pretty much anything in the history of badness.”
“And you can’t actually go and deal with him yourself because...”
“From his point of view Gallifrey’s still there. From mine, it’s gone to dust. We can’t meet. It’d put the universe into a state of quantum uncertainty.”
Blackadder would rather have lost a kidney than admit that he had no idea what he was talking about.
“Destruction of everything,” the Doctor added. “That’s what I mean by ‘bad’.”
And more importantly, if this Master Shakespeare, or whoever he was, married the Queen, he’d be King. And Edmund never would. And he could lose his position at court. That was what he meant by bad.
“This evil must be stopped,” he announced. Percy and Baldrick blinked dumbly at him — no change there. “How do we find this Master?”
“Even if you find him, he can control minds...” He cut himself off and looked at Blackadder. For the first time, they found themselves on the same page.
“So what we need,” Blackadder said, “is someone with no mind. Tell me, do your people have the phrase ‘spoiled for choice?’”
Percy was in a quandary. He yearned for responsibility. He ached for the chance to prove to Edmund that he was clever, dynamic, heroic.
The problem was that he suspected he wasn’t any of those things, and being told to go forth into the city with only Baldrick for company and find a dangerous hypnotic maniac made him feel in desperate need of the nearest privy.
“How did the Doctor describe this man?” he asked, peering at every face that passed them.
“He said ’Probably with a beard but possibly not, not that tall but he might be, and he’ll probably be in a cunning disguise anyway so he could look like anyone, and his ship can look like anything as well, although if we see any Ionic columns around the place that’ll be it.’”
Percy had only been flinching away from the men, but now everyone and everything terrified him.
“We could go to the palace,” Baldrick suggested. “The wedding’s tomorrow, maybe he’ll go and woo the Queen with more presents.”
Percy turned this over in his head. It wasn’t a bad idea. Really, it was the only sensible thing to do; they couldn’t comb all of London. But it was Baldrick’s idea, and Baldrick was just a servant and not Edmund’s best friend like he was, and he had to sneer at it. “What we’re going to do is go to Mrs Miggins’ pie shop. Because...” he improvised, “because everybody goes there and she hears all the news in the city and it’s a much cleverer idea than just going to the palace.”
“Fair enough. Will she make me stand outside again?”
But she didn’t. She seemed agitated; one of the pies she was putting mechanically together even had meat in it.
“What’s wrong, Mrs M?”
“Oh, it’s you, Lord Percy. I don’t know; probably I’m making something of nothing. But there’s something very strange in my cellar.”
“A rat?” It was a stupid guess — no rat would live for long in Mrs Miggins’ establishment, although it would enjoy a brief afterlife in a Wednesday surprise.
She pulled off her apron and hung it over the counter. “You come downstairs and see if you can see it.”
It was a few minutes before he could be persuaded to open his eyes, and then he stared around in relief. “But everything looks fine.”
“What do you see?”
“Well — just the sacks of flour, and the mousetraps, and the ovens...”
“The ovens!” she whispered. “That’s what I meant!”
He strode over to them and rapped first one, then the other with his knuckles. “Both seem fine to me,” he said. “Fine ovens for making fine pies.” He risked a bold chuckle, pleased with himself for having reassured the little woman.
Her face was agonised. “But there’s only meant to be one of them!”
Blackadder had his feet up on the long chair in the Doctor’s ship. The problem with sending Percy and Baldrick off into mortal danger — an action that didn’t seem as if it should have a downside at all — was that he had to wait for them. Which meant making chitchat with the Doctor.
He’d thought “must be fun, travelling around like this” would be a safe comment. The Doctor had only adopted a far-off expression like a warning siren: danger, boring emotional introspection ahead.
“What was it,” Blackadder said, bored, “a girl?”
“A boy, then.” He’d been on too many pub crawls with Kit Marlowe to be either outraged or titillated.
“Well, it was sort of a girl.”
“And she left you. Imagine that.”
“No, Astrid — that was her name, Astrid - she died,” he said. “Well, when I say ‘died’... no, let’s just say she died.”
There was a silence, where Edmund might have been expected to prompt for more details, or express his sorrow. He didn’t.
“The one before her left me,” the Doctor added.
Blackadder gave a very long sigh.
Someone out in the alley was singing. Two someones; they didn’t seem to be on the same words, or the same tune, although at least one of them was belting out a filthy folk song with plenty of ‘whoops’s in the chorus.
Blackadder sat up.
Baldrick stopped singing and pulled himself into some sort of order when they opened the door. Percy, who’d been propped against it, just fell inside in a giggling heap.
“Where the hell have you two been?” Blackadder raged.
“Stag party, my... wossname. Lord. In an oven.”
Blackadder pulled Baldrick’s hat off. He hadn’t been wearing it before. It was bright orange; it had a rounded visor that Baldrick had been wearing, nonsensically, at the back of his head. He couldn’t have said why this offended him, but it did.
“Present from Mr Shakespeare,” Baldrick said.
“Such a nice man,” Percy slurred. “He’ll be a lovely king.”
“Well, thank God we had you two on the case. The entire universe at stake — not to mention my position at court — and you go out on the razzle with a psychotic, scheming... what?”
The Doctor had pulled a flat square of something from Percy’s hand and was staring at it. “It’s not the Master,” he said. He turned the thing around.
It was a jolly, chubby man with his arm around Percy, who was quaffing a tankard of ale. A portrait, Blackadder thought at first, but it was too perfect; no-one could be so detailed in such a small picture.
“I took that,” Baldrick said proudly. “With his magic box. He let me.”
The Doctor said, “That’s not the Master. That’s the Monk.”
Percy said, “I’m going to be bleurgh...” The other three moved to the other side of the room.
“I’m thick, I should have guessed it was him. I mean, it’s in his name. The Meddling Monk. He meddles. It’s what he does.”
“You’re called ‘the Doctor’ and I haven’t seen you drain anyone’s blood or pass around a plate of leeches. Look, I don’t care what his name is, I want him to go away.”
“I do have a cunning plan, my lord.”
“Shut up, Baldrick.”
“No, hang on.” The Doctor looked up from the picture. “Baldrick, on a scale of one to ten — one being not cunning at all, ten being as cunning as the Cunning Cartherites of Cunnington VI on the last day of their annual cunning Olympics — how cunning is your plan?”
Baldrick thought about it, swaying a bit on his feet. “Seven and a half.”
“Better than mine. What is it?”
“We tell Mr Shakespeare The Monk that we’re taking him to the wedding, but actually we take him to the wrong church where we’ve got another Queen waiting, so he marries the wrong one.”
“And by seven he meant ‘zero’, and by half he meant ‘also zero’,” Blackadder said. “Once again, shut up, Baldrick.”
“No,” the Doctor said, beginning to nod slowly, “no, that could work. I’d be surprised if the Monk can tell one human from another — no offence, you do all look basically the same. This could actually work. And once he missed the wedding the Queen’d be so angry she’d send him packing. You said she was... difficult.”
“I said she was a monomaniacal overgrown schoolgirl who’d eventually work her way around to beheading everyone in the kingdom if Melchett and Nursie didn’t keep her entertained.”
The Doctor looked at him. “But you’d still marry her if you had the chance.”
“I’d Morris-dance barefoot down an aisle of broken glass to the altar. Of course I would. ‘King Edmund’ has a nice ring to it.”
“Maybe. But it doesn’t happen. I told you, she never marries. Famous for it. All through history she’s known as the Virgin Queen.”
And that, Blackadder thought, told you everything you needed to know about the accuracy of recorded history. Stuff you anyway, Time Lord. I could be King yet.
“Do you, William Shakespeare, take this woman, Elizabeth Regina...” The bishop faltered, but Blackadder had been very insistent that this wedding take place, and very graphic in his description of what was going to happen if anything went wrong. “Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?”
“I do,” the Monk said happily.
“And do you...”
“Edmund, I’m going to be sick again,” Percy whispered in the back pew. The Doctor handed him a paper bag.
“I certainly do,” said Baldrick.
His new husband beamed.
“You know,” said the Doctor, “I think they make a nice couple.”
The Queen stamped her foot one last time and sat down on the throne. Everyone took their fingers gingerly from their ears. She brushed a speck from her dress, humming a tune to herself.
Blackadder chanced a “Ma’am?”
She graced him with a smile. “Yes, Lord Blackadder?”
“My condolences on your wedding not coming to pass, ma’am. To think that the generous Mr Shakespeare would elope with a pie shop waitress on the very morning he was to marry you...”
“All my fault,” the Doctor put in. “Sorry. I introduced them. I expect you want to swear bloody vengeance against me, and who could blame you?”
“Oh, that,” she said. “Yes, I was rather cross. But now that I’ve had time to think about things, I don’t think I wanted to marry William Shakespeare anyway. I mean, he wasn’t exactly gorgeously handsome, was he?”
“That’s true,” said Nursie. “And fancying the other person’s very important in a marriage. Look at all that trouble your father had with Anne of Cleves.”
“Was she the one who went to the block? No, that was Mummy, wasn’t it. Anyway,” she dimpled, “I get to keep all the presents, and you’ve brought me that scrummy Venetian ambassador who’s madly in love with me. I’ll just have to marry him instead.”
The Doctor blanched. “What?”
Ruining two weddings in as many days was unforgiveable. The Queen signed the Doctor’s death warrant with even more vigour than usual. Sometimes she thought she was never going to get married. All she wanted was a man who was handsome and rich and exciting and gorgeous and preferably royal and who utterly adored her; it wasn’t so much to ask, was it?
Of course, since the Doctor had run off, she didn’t have the satisfaction of seeing him lose his stupid smug head, but she kept the warrant close at hand, just in case he ever showed his face again.
“Well, about time. I wondered when you’d come slinking back.”
“The Meddling Monk took me on a whirlwind tour of the universe, showing me wonders such as have never been seen by human eyes,” Baldrick said, adding a belated, “my lord.”
All of that, the Doctor and the Monk and the rest of it, was weeks in the past, and therefore ancient history. “I’m not interested in what you did on your holidays. I need three hundred quid or I’m going to have my knees removed by some very large men. Percy’s already at the pawn shop; help me find something among this lot.” It was a box of trinkets that had been in his room for years. Worthless, most of it, but Baldrick pointed to a flash of silver.
“The watch might be worth something, my lord.”
“That one. There.”
His master’s eyes seemed to pass right over it. “No, that belonged to my grandfather. Find something else. And get lunch started while you’re about it.”
Baldrick, his mind newly opened by the wonders of the universe, might have said: but how could it belong to your grandfather when pocket-watches like that one were only invented ten or fifteen years ago? Besides which, your grandmother belonged to your grandfather and you’d pawn her quick enough if you needed three hundred quid badly.
But the long Baldrick line hadn’t survived by asking awkward questions, so he said “Right you are, my lord”, and went to see about that lunch.