I was pretty nervous. But I sat myself down at the table in the sparsely decorated room and watched the door anxiously. Never mind how this whole thing was arranged. Never mind that it was rare and not likely to occur again. I wanted this. And he did, too.
Finally, the door opened. He stepped in and stood there a moment, assessing. He was taller than I thought he would be. Funny. And thinner, too. Cheeks slightly sunken, a five o’clock shadow on his long face. But I recognized that sharp nose and strong chin. His black hair seemed recently washed and shined blue in the dim light. And his gray eyes. Intense as they studied me.
He walked toward the chair, grabbed it by its back, and pulled it away from the table. He sat and folded his arms over his chest. I was no psychologist, but even I could tell that’s a guarded posture.
I tried a smile. “I’m glad you could come,” I offered.
He spoke. His voice was deep, but gravelly. I hadn’t expected that. His accent was posh—as I had expected—but melodious, too. He spoke in Middle English, and, remarkably, I was able to understand him perfectly. The language flowed, and on his tongue with his tones, it sounded florid.
“How could I turn down such a gracious invitation?” he said.
It was Crispin Guest in the flesh. He, fresh from the fourteenth century, and me, right there in the twenty-first century. Character and author in a room. It was an opportunity neither of us wanted to miss.
I couldn’t help but stare at his face—so worn by circumstances and, let’s face it, from a poor diet—and at his clothes. The homespun of his cotehardie, the hand-stitching that was as even and as small as any machine could do. The hand-made buttons. The leather belt with its scabbard. It was so cool! But when I looked up, he had raised a brow.
“Forgive me,” I said. “I didn’t mean to stare. It’s just…very strange, you know? Seeing you. Seeing…your clothes…” It was lame. He seemed to think so, too, but he was too polite to say.
“I, too, find all this…unusual,” he said. He eyed my clothes. I tried to dress conservatively, eschewing my usual t-shirt and jeans for a long dress that covered most of me, as he would be used to. I wanted him to be comfortable. But my hair was uncovered and is cut short and spikey and he probably wondered about that.
I leaned forward. “So, can I call you Crispin?”
“It is my name,” he said, offering no more.
“I see, okay. And…I’m Jeri.”
He bowed his head. “Madam.”
Well, that caused a shiver. I cleared my throat. “I just wondered if…well, if I could ask you questions and if you had questions for me.” I laughed nervously. “Actually, I’m sure you have more questions for me than I have for you!”
His eyes, a light grey, were constantly moving, watching me, looking around covertly, though the room could offer nothing to give away much of my time period.
“I do have a query or two.” He looked me right in the eye. “For one, why? Why was it strictly necessary to degrade me? To force me to lose my place in the world?” His fingers tightened on his arms and his jaw clenched.
I knew he’d ask this. And I tried ahead of time to prepare an answer, though I suppose none would really be adequate enough. “I am so sorry about that.” And I meant it. “But you see, it gave you a new purpose in life. Sort of like holy orders, if you will. I think it gave you a more noble cause to fight for and a new perspective in which to look at yourself.”
He didn’t seem convinced, but he looked away for the first time, considering it. “That may well be. I suppose it is futile at this point begrudging my past.”
“I am sorry.”
He sniffed and turned back. “Who are you exactly? Are you a queen? An…angel?”
“Oh God no! Neither of those things. Just…an author. Much like your friend Geoffrey Chaucer.”
He smirked. “That explains much.”
“I know you two have not always gotten along…”
“An understatement, Madam. But…he is my friend and will always remain so.”
“I hope to be a friend, too.”
The smile faded. “You and I have a different relationship.”
“I suppose that’s true. Can I ask you something?” He nodded. I couldn’t help but notice his gracious movements that bespoke of early training in courtesy. It was part of him now.
“What’s it like every day for you on the Shambles?” I went on. “When you don’t have anything to investigate, what are you doing?” For those who don’t know, Crispin lost his knighthood, wealth, and status. I’m sorry to say that this was my fault, being his author and all. But he reinvented himself as a fourteenth century private detective, which he’s quite good at.
He lifted his chin. I recognized it instantly as his stubborn look. “Don’t you know?”
I smiled. “Well, I’d like to hear it from you.”
“Very well. I suppose, under the circumstances, I should indulge you. I am not idle. I cultivate contacts in London. I cannot rely purely on the few you mention. I spend time teaching Jack what he needs to know, not merely reading and languages, but mathematics and rhetoric. And other skills. Stealth, for one. For a thief, he is a noisy lad. Also, there are small repairs to our lodgings to be made, the constant search for fuel and food and the preparing thereof, for though Jack does the majority, I still keep my hand in. I did it for myself for years before he pushed his way into my life, and he needed to be taught the proper preparation techniques and what was acceptable for the table.”
“It sounds like Jack takes a lot of your time. Are you glad he, as you say, pushed his way into your life?” Again, for the uninitiated, Jack was a thief and orphaned street urchin, eleven years old when he met Crispin. He did push his way into Crispin’s life but Crispin seemed to be a willing mentor, too.
He shrugged. It seemed he didn’t like giving anything away. “He has proved useful.”
“I mean…to stem the loneliness. He…seems to really like you.”
I could see his facial expressions move, change his face. Soften the rough edges of it. “He is good company. He’s a clever lad. So many of his ilk are not. I do not doubt that had he not proved half so clever, I would have ridded myself of him long ago.”
I nodded. He wouldn’t say more than that, but just the look on his face when he talked about Jack spoke volumes. “Can I ask you something else?”
He made a hand gesture, unfolding his arms momentarily before closing them over his chest again. “Of course.”
“What do you really think of these religious relics? Do you think they really do have some special mystical power?” Each investigation Crispin was working on seemed to involve a religious relic or venerated object. They seemed to possess some sort of power, but Crispin remained a skeptic.
He rolled his shoulders. “I do not know. I do not like to speculate.”
“But why? It seems that time and again you come across these things and then odd stuff happens, but you simply shrug it off. You seem to have a spiritual side. Don’t you believe that God could endow these things with special powers?”
“You seem to be speaking of several different aspects of the same thing. Of course I am a man of faith. God controls our lives…” He looked at me speculatively. I knew what he was thinking but was glad he didn’t say it. “Our Lord can do whatever He wishes. He is almighty. But…such things as relics. They so easily fall into the hands of sinners and are used most foully for greed and to trick the unwary. How can they be endowed with God’s grace?”
“But you’ve seen their power, haven’t you?”
I put up my hands in surrender. “Okay. I give. Take from them what you can.”
“Another query.” He moved closer to the table, finally unfolding his arms. “Perhaps it is foolish to ask, as foolish as asking the Almighty Himself. But…what can I expect to happen in my life? Is…is this all there is?”
It was my turn to look away. “Well, that is the Big Question, isn’t it? Even Aristotle and his contemporaries have asked those questions. ‘Why am I here? What is my future?’” I forced myself to look at him again. He intimidated me just a bit, but I could also see that vulnerability in his eyes. It was a strange dichotomy I felt for him then, a little like a parent to a child, but he was also a man in his own right, and in many ways I did not feel as in charge of his destiny as I should be. “You know I can’t tell you that. Or even hint at it.”
He nodded solemnly. “As I suspected.”
“Crispin, can I ask you this? Are you…happy?”
Both his brows rose at that. He clasped his hands loosely over his stomach. He seemed more comfortable than when he first arrived. “Let us just say, I am not unhappy.”
We talked some more. Of small things. About the taste of the wine he liked best, his favorite meals, small personal things that he shared freely. It was harder for him to open up about his childhood and the family estates that he left behind, about his years being raised in the duke of Lancaster’s household. He asked me about my background, and I told him how I was raised also in an urban environment and how we never had much money growing up and made do, how much I always enjoyed reading and creating stories, about my life as an artist—abbreviated, since it would have been too complicated describing just what a graphic artist did—and a little about my own childhood and my life now. I had to steer clear of any subject concerning modern conveniences, but he wasn’t put off about me being a woman who took charge of her life. He seemed quite comfortable with that, not condescending at all. And I didn’t get the impression it was about not pissing me off, either, and making his circumstances worse. He had gone beyond that sort of thinking, as had I. We both forgot, in fact, who we were to each other, and talked for a long time, exchanging thoughts and memories.
But finally, it was time for him to go. He sensed it before I did. Maybe he was anxious to leave and get on with it. I, on the other hand, was reluctant to let him go. Silly, really. I’d be seeing him again in a few minutes, though in quite a different context.
He stood and then I stood. He looked me over and gave me a bow. It was so formal, a formality I wasn’t used to but that was obviously second nature to him. “Madam, I appreciate your inviting me here—wherever ‘here’ is. And your taking the time to talk with me. It was most…illuminating.”
“For me, too. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
He bowed again, gave me that half-smile I had become so fond of, and turned to go. He reached the door and suddenly stopped. Turning toward me, his face opened. Something seemed to have lifted from his shoulders and his whole being lightened. “You should know,” he said slowly, “that I do enjoy these adventures.”
“I hoped you’d say that.” And for the first time, I realized that this was why I wanted to meet him face to face. I really had hoped he felt that way. “I guarantee you that they’ll be a lot of them.”
He smiled then, a full-on beam of even teeth. “I look forward to it.” And with that, he was gone.
See the Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series here.