Authors: Gwyn Cready
Michael hurried toward the stage, bumping into his Romeo in the wings.
“Hang on, mate,” Michael said, catching him by the arm. “The tongue thingâit's against Equity rules, not to mention vulgar and abusive. Knock it off, or I'm filing a complaint with the union. Got it?”
The idiot looked as if someone had jerked his lolly away.
Buck up, my friend. A little tough love will do you well.
Juliet hit the “Go, Counselor” moment, insisting on her right to die rather than being married off to Paris. The lights went down, and Michael stepped onto the boards for the first time in fifteen years.
He had forgotten the thrum of the darkness, like a charge in the air, in those seconds before the lights rose, the shifting of a thousand bodies as they strained for the next sound. It was different in the wings, in the cyclone of cues and props and gin and whispers. The magic played like fireworks on a thirteen-inch TV there. But hereâ¦
“The potion,” a woman's voice whispered, stage left. “Is it strong enough?”
It wasn't Juliet. Was it Eve? It didn't sound like Eve either, but it had to be.
“What do you mean strong enough?” he said under his breath. He pulled the vial from his pocket. Was she standing near him? His eyes hadn't adjusted to the dark, and it was like trying to pull a void into focus.
“I don't know how to judge,” she said, desperate. “Not for this. And it must work.”
“Do you need me to check it?” It should be water. Had yet another screwup happened? Would Juliet be downing the infamous gin or something worse? They had seconds left. Eve, if that's who the voice belonged to, needed to get off the stage.
“Hurry,” the voice said urgently. “I need to be sure.”
He extracted the cork with a huff and lifted to the bottle to his lips.
Someone's getting their bloody arse kicked tonight.
The blinding lights were on, he thought, blinking, but he was no longer sure how long he'd been onstage. Seconds? The set had changedâhe'd have to speak to Eve, though he felt rather woozy, as if he'd left her a few hours ago and been drinking ever since. What was the stained glass doing in the back? Who'd authorized such an expense?
Someone cleared his throat, and Michael wheeled around, searching for his line.
But it wasn't Paris nor Romeo nor even Juliet or Eve. It was an actor in a tawny frock coat with a waterfall of lace at his neckâhe must speak to the costume manager as wellâand the theater was empty.
Well, another theater perhaps, not the National Rose. One with hand-carved pews and an enormous painting of Henry VIII beyond its door.
The spiking adrenaline of missed cues and forgotten lines had nothing on finding oneself sucked out of a play into an unknown room with an unknown man. Sweat began to form on Michael's back, and his mouth moved in an incoherent attempt to speak.
“I beg your pardon,” the man said, mildly incensed. “I asked you where Bishop Rothwell went.”
“I told you, John,” said a woman Michael hadn't noticed. “He was called away.”
She stood apart from the man, arms crossed, in a gown of ethereal pink. Her words had been accompanied by a laser look at Michael that would have reduced the Greenland ice cap to a large cup of steaming tea.
Why were these people dressed for Shakespeareâor Congreve, reallyâyet nothing from their mouths rung of any play he'd ever seen? His gut began to tighten.
“Called away?” the man she'd called John said. “For what?”
“An emergency in the bishopric.” The “-pric” lingered on the woman's tongue a second longer than necessary, though this time the look that accompanied it was for her companion.
She was beautifulâstunning, reallyâwith hair like wet gold and eyes that shone an emerald green, but everything about her carriage and voice carried the expectation of being obeyed. In the instant Michael could spare to process the players rather than his own uncertain circumstances, he could see John might be an overbearing prig but the woman was flat-out trouble.
“And thisâ¦cleric?” John looked at Michael's habit with poorly concealed distaste.
“The bishop's colleague,” she said. “An ascetic, it seems.”
The two clearly weren't actorsâthough they were nearly as irritatingâand this wasn't a set. Somehow, between stepping onstage and the lights going up, Michael had lost the National Rose. What had happened? The closest he'd ever gotten to feeling what he felt now was playing Jack in
The Importance of Being Earnest
, when the actor playing Algernon jumped twenty-seven pages ahead, leaving Michael thrust unexpectedly into Act Three's happy engagement to Gwendolen with all the play's loose ends resolved, hoping in earnest for the curtain. At least Michael had known what theater he'd been in thenâand what play.
“Is he capable of marrying us?” John asked, dubious.
“I should think so,” she said. “It's woven into the burlap.”
In a remote place in his head, at a distance from the panic that had seized control of his cerebellum, the amusement in her words cut him. He may not be the most rehearsed Friar Laurence who ever walked the stage, but that was certainly no reason to impugn the character's inner nobility.
“Then let him do it.” John's exasperation was growing. “You're still willing, aren't you, my love? Even without a proper bishop?”
“Most willing.” She smiled sweetly, but Michael saw the falsehood even if her fiancÃ© did not. “Are we not in need of witnesses, though?” she added.
John growled. “They were behind me a moment ago. Let me find them. I'll be but a moment.” He strode out.
Perhaps this was a dreamâa dream conflating all the Shakespeare and Farquhar and Marlowe that Michael had ever doneâwith a generous helping of
thrown in for good measure. Then it came to him.
He willed his fingers open and looked at his quaking palm.
A hand snatched the empty bottle away.
,” the woman said in a razor-sharp whisper, and
he realized the voice he'd heard had been hers. “Listen carefully. I called you here for one reason. Keep that blackguard from marrying me or I shall shrivel your man parts like dates in the Barbary sun.” She stashed the bottle in her bodice and turned, smiling, to greet her fiancÃ© as he returned with two footmen straight out of MoliÃ¨re.
Michael felt as if a blast furnace had scorched him from brows to sandals. He also felt his indignation grow.
threatened Michael's man parts, certainly not in a theaterâeven if this wasn't exactly a theater or a playâ¦or even a space he remotely recognized.
“Are you ready?” John said.
Michael held up a finger. “Actually, I'm not.”
He felt rather than heard the woman's exhale of relief.
“Your fiancÃ©e was just telling me how truly eager she is to begin life as your wife,” Michael said. “However, she has made me aware of a few, well, shall we say blemishes upon her conscience, and I know she wishes to unburden herself before the happy marriage is consummated.”
John blinked. “Undineâ¦my fiancÃ©eâ¦wishes to
Undine, was it? Like the water fairy in Giraudoux's play? More like Ursula in
The Little Mermaid
“I most certainly do not,” she said, eyes flashing.
“No?” Michael shrugged. “Well then, let us proceed apace with the ceremony. Good sir, do you have the Book of Common Prayer?”
“Wait,” Undine said.
Michael turned, triumphant. “Aye?”
“I might have something to confess after all,” she said with an iron glare.
“Ahh,” Michael said, hand over his heart, “the heart wishes to forget, but the soul demands its redemption. Aye, let us retreat to a private place, where you can unburden yourself of everythingâ
âthat I and the Lord need to know.”
I, and what the hell am I doing here?”
Undine stood arrow straight against the closed door, hands behind her on the knob, unmoved by his demand. “Keep your voice down,” she said in a heated whisper.
“Keep my voice down?! I'm trying to keep my lunch down.”
“He's just outside the door.”
“Good, because if you try anything else, I'll want help. What
this? Where am I?”
She sighed. “You're in the home of Colonel Lord Bridgewater.”
“Colonel Lord Bridgewater?” For an instant, a potential explanation appeared in his head. “So this is a costume party?”
“A masque?” She chuckled. “No, but the metaphor is apt. No one here is who they truly seem.”
“Do you mind telling me what I'm doing here?”
“I've told you,” she said. “You are here to prevent him from marrying me.”
“Have you considered just saying no?”
“Aye,” she said archly. “I have.”
The woman was infuriating. “
She shifted. “This is what needs to be done.”
“Oh, well, if this is what needs to be done, then by all means, make use of me however you see fit. Your wish is my command.”
“Sarcasm is not an attractive quality in a priest.”
“You have nothing to be angry about,” she said. “You'll perform your duty to me, which is to say
performing your duty at the altar, and you shall be returned unscathed.”
“I have already been âscathed,' madam. What was in the potion?”
“'Tis of no concern to you, and I warn you not to repeat the word.”
“You're quite the taskmaster. I think I like my odds with the cravat guy better.” He reached past her for the knob.
She jerked backward, trapping his hand against a captivating bottom.
They stood eye to eye. “I suggest,” she said, unblinking, “you move that.”
He considered several responsesâverbal and isometricâbefore tugging his arm free. He adjusted the burlap of his sleeve. “You do realize, I hope, I am entirely capable of moving you from the door.”
“The Barbary sun is a hot one.”
A knock sounded, and she started. If it was Bridgewater, she didn't just dislike the man. She was afraid of him.
“Undine,” a voice called. It was Bridgewater.
She looked at Michael, and neither replied.
“How long does he think a confession takes?” Michael said under his breath. “Sixty seconds?”
“I'm sure the only times he's confessed, it's been a lie.”
“Undine?” Bridgewater repeated. “Are you there? Undine?”
“Jesus,” Michael said, “
is his problem?”
Undine rolled her eyes. “Love.”
“Undine.” The knob rattled harder. “
“Oh, for Christ's sake.” Michael lifted her by the waist and placed her to the side. Then he opened the door, blocking Bridgewater's entry with his body. “The walls of the confessional may not be breached, sir,” he said hotly. “What do you want?”
Bridgewater looked as if he'd been slapped. Michael wished the man felt as if he'd been slapped as well.
“I beg your pardon.” Splotches of indignation appeared above his lordship's cravat.
“'Tis not my pardon you must beg but the Lord's! We are deep in the work of unblackening her soul. Pray give us the time we require.” Michael shut the door with a
“Well done,” she said when the footsteps faded. “Though âunblackening' was a bit much.”
“Says the woman threatening Barbary dehydration. I could have invited him in.”
“There's no need to be rude.”
being rude? I have no idea where I am or why I'm here.”
“Are you a bit slow?” she said. “We've covered this ground before.”
“Yes, I know I'm somehow supposed to keep you from your fiancÃ©, though why, I have no idea. And I know you drugged me with the”âshe gave him a piercing lookâ“liquid. But I don't know why you picked me for this or where we are orâmost importantâwhy I should put up with any of it.”
“Father, this will no doubt violate every belief you have about the world, but I offer no apology for upending those narrow-minded views. I am a naiadâto the simpleminded, a witchâthough if you repeat that to anyone, you'll regret it.”
Michael needed to sit, but his legs wouldn't bend. His only experience with witches was with the perennially overacted ones in
and the hay feverâsuffering Corelza in
Trevor Quince, Boy Wizard
, the movie franchise which had funded his early retirement. None of them looked like a Greek fury crossed with Grace Kelly.
He rubbed his forehead. “A
“Naiad, if you please. And you are in 1706.”
He felt as if he were standing on a spinning carousel with no pole to cling to. The world spun with stomach-churning speed, and no matter how he turned, he couldn't find a way to get his feet under him.
1706 was Congreve and Queen Anne, garters and frock coatsâ
Oh God, I am in 1706.
He looked at the burnished desk and gilded wallpaper and rococo plasterwork. The house meant nothing. There were homes that could pass for 1706 all over England. But not that gown. And not her in that gown. If twenty-five years in the theater had taught him anything, it was that, no matter how accomplished a costume designer was, it was impossible to fully capture the look of clothes from another period. The fabric was different, the thread was different, the trim was different, even the way seamstresses held needles was different. All of it added up to a costume that might be award winning but would never be mistaken for a real gown of the time.
He looked at Undine in that resplendent silkâthe intricate pleats, the tiny pearls, the understated colorânothing like the oversaturated synthetic dyes used today.
Not today. Todayâthe “today” he woke up inâwas three hundred and some years from the year in which he found himself now.
And even more than the gown was Undine herself. No one in any land would ever mistake that smoldering-eyed, alabaster-skinned, unyielding seraph for a woman of the twenty-first century. Was she even a woman of this earth?
“Then this is Londonâ¦in 1706?”
“Coldstream,” she corrected. “In a lodge house by the Tweed that straddles the bloody border.”
Home of black-faced sheep and palace guards? His eyes went to the horizon beyond the windows, where a band of azure water snaked through the patchwork fields. He'd gone from the National Rose in London to the borderlands in the blink of an eye. His father would have called it a step in the right direction.
“Where's your parish, Father?”
Still reeling, he gazed at her blankly. Then it dawned on him. The woman, the naiadâGood Lord, was he really saying that?âactually believed he
a priest. She'd brought him here with the potion but apparently didn't know the specifics of the time or place he'd come fromâor really anything about him if she thought he was a priest. Had she simply tossed a line into the sea of time and reeled in whatever bit? Not the most flattering way to snare an acting gig.
“Oh, yes, erâ¦Bankside. My parish is in Bankside.” Well, the National Rose was, and that was about as close to a parish as he was going to get.
She screwed up her face. “'Tis rather a tawdry place, isn't it? Full of cutpurses and actors, isn't it?”
“You get used to the cutpurses.”
“Well, you needn't worry about your bishop. I promise you, he'll be fine.”
“You have a pretty high regard for clerics, madam, if you think we spend much time worrying about our bishops.”
A curve rose at the corner of her mouth. “I'm heartened to see you becoming acclimated to your circumstances. Shall I explain what you need to do for me in order to earn your return to Bankside?”
He brushed his palms as if removing the detritus of his situation. “No.”
She cocked her head. “No?”
“No. I have no interest in serving as your unwitting slave. If you'd like my help, you may convince me to do it, as a reasonable person might.”
“I'm not sure what you mean.”
“Two words: beg me! Otherwise, you canâand I hope you'll excuse my languageâpound salt.”
Her mouth fell open. “Have you forgotten the Barbary sun?”
“You threatened me at the door a moment ago. I picked you up.” He made a magician's flourish in the area of his midsection. “Balls still here.” There were a few things he'd learned playing Orlando Brashnettle, senior wizard, in the
movies, and a convincing flourish was one of them.
Her eyes narrowed into gamma-ray slits.
He began to sway his hips, humming and doing a hula as he turned in a circle. “Not a care in the world. Like a pair of monkeys swinging through the jungle.”
“I can't hear youâ¦”
He wheeled around.
Bridgewater was standing in the open doorway, lips white with anger. “I see the confession is over. Perhaps we can adjourn to the chapel now.”