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An Epic Journey | Friday, September 16th, early morning


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The Royal Library

 

The Royal Library was located in the Upper Ward, on the first floor.

The joy of a Baroque Library is in its white plaster decorations and delicate carvings in corners, grand trompe l'oeuil designs, as well as the books that fill shelves right up to the ceiling. The newly decorated library had been expanded from its Elizabethan design, incorporating part of the old hall. It looked out over the Horn Court on one side, accessible from the same hallways as the Kings apartment.

Even at night this was a busy place. The many spirits, ghosts and apparitions that an ancient place like Windsor Castle contained by virtue of all that had passed, took particular pleasure in this dome of spiritual wellness, called perhaps by happier memories. The form of the old Queen Elisabeth, dressed in black, her stomacher stiff, her collar wide, and her white face wrinkled, was often seen moving about, in particular from the hearth to the old dark wooden table that nobody dared move. It was said many a meeting of the Privy Council had taken place here, rather than in the Queen's Closet. Another more recent visitation was seen behind the windows of the library, looking out with worry and a great sadness. It was Charles I whose grave was down in the Lower Ward, resting next to Henry VIII and Jane Seymour in St. George's Chapel. Before his untimely demise he had spend some time as prisoner in Windsor Castle.

 

 

Who, Anne-Elisabeth wondered, had come up with the bright idea to put the books of epic poetry on the top of the shelf? Perhaps they’d had a sense of humor and decided that it was the place for such lofty works or maybe they were just plain stupid. She supposed that the books could have been stuck up there because not many people asked for them. In her opinion, the typical courtier was too shallow and self-absorbed to enjoy the adventures of mythical heroes. They liked to imagine themselves as the hero instead.

 

In truth, she was no different. She had never read an epic herself and wouldn’t start now if it wasn’t for the challenge that Rochester had issued at the reception yesterday. The dark-haired Countess had considered writing one completely in limericks but her first attempt last night had been deplorable. And so she must learn how to compose a real one by reading a few.

 

She actually looked forward to expanding her literary horizons, and maybe reading epics would help her with her play as well. Its progress had stalled and she wasn’t certain whether to scrap it and start over or to put it away for a month or two and then reread it with a fresh outlook.

 

Her neck was beginning to ache from staring up at the top shelf. Anne-Elisabeth couldn’t even read the titles from this distance. The only thing stopping her from asking the librarian to get a couple of them down for her was that she didn’t know which ones to ask for. Maybe I could ask for a ladder instead.

 

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From near a table halfway between the hearth and where Lady Cambray was now standing, James O’Neill – under whose eyes were bags nigh as dark as his hair – could be heard muttering as his quill scratched away at parchment, the lady being obscured from his sight by a shelf of books and his own focus. “Egads, I cannot take the heroic couplet seriously. At the very-bloody-least, enjambment would make it more bearable, but…”

But he could not. For Rochester’s challenge was not just one he took up as a means to impress the Merry Gang, but as a way to challenge himself. That meant self-imposed rules, such as sticking to a meter he disliked: the quintessential heroic couplet preferred by Dryden, with its simple rhyme scheme, was supposed to be a self-contained one. His verse, even when it rhymed, did not match those rules, as People do not fucking think in closed phrases.

Or so went the young poet’s current thought process, anyways.

At any rate, it was another of those long periods in which he neither needed nor desired much in the way of sleep, made possible by some temperamental quirk that he did not give overmuch thought to in the moment. A few hours the night prior had been enough to see him through to the morning, where he might write before reporting to Ormonde. Physically, he may very well have been tired, but his mind had pushed that all aside, finally inspired to write again after a season of doing very little of it.

Electing to stretch his legs rather than be distracted by the desire to pen another attack on the poet laureate, James grinned as he rounded a corner and saw his fellow aspiring poet-libertine, the aforementioned Anne-Elisabeth, and proclaimed with a laugh, “How serendipitous!” The day before, he had not encouraged her to leave with Dorset out of malice, but out of a desire for a natural pause in Rochester’s mockery during which he might solicit support for his own career, and hoped she did not hold it against him.

She seemed to be gazing upwards at the top shelf, prompting James to add in rhyme and brogue, “Not to neglect ambitious, hm?” The poet bowed, words already tumbling out of his mouth. “Good morning, my lady. I do not think it much of a surprise to see you here.”

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Hearing footsteps approaching in the quietness of the library, Anne-Elisabeth turned in the direction of the sound, hoping it was the librarian so she could ask for a ladder. Yet it was Master O’Neill who appeared from behind a the corner of a bookshelf. Was he here for the same reason she was? Even though he was not tall enough to reach the shelf closest to the ceiling either, he could at least tell her what she was looking for, as he knew much more about epics than she did.

 

She smiled at his rhyme, turning her gaze to the elusive books. “And rather inauspicious in my search for the fictitious,” she added. “Nor am I surprised to see you, Master O’Neill, considering that challenge we accepted yesterday. Are you here to study epics as well? If so, they’re up on the top shelf. I was about to look for the librarian so he could get a few down for me. Why they put them way up there, I have no idea.”

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Lady Cambray was quick to return his rhyme with one of her own, continuing on the theme. James answered her first with a dimpled smirk, then with an approving murmur, “Brava, my lady.” Then, she revealed her reason for being in the library – not dissimilar to his own – and his eyes drifted upward, green following brown to the summit of the library.

“Research?” He let out an amused laugh before the thought of stifling it fired from one side of his brain to the other, let alone make it to his mouth. “Hardly. I’m here to compose mine,” the Irishman added, attempting to balance his usual bravado with the next admission, “But I’ve no great love of the meter and form I assigned myself, and so little headway has yet been made.”

“But such restraints are how I hone my craft,” the Irishman explained, brushing a strand of hair away from his face. His cockiness was not meant unkindly, nor the swiftness of his tongue at the mention of research – studying subject matter was one thing, to be sure, but he had studied the arts in Florence for some time and poetic theory on his own for as long as he could understand it.

The realization that Lady Cambray either hadn’t been afforded or didn’t choose to pursue such opportunities dawned on him more slowly than it ought to have, but now that it did, he gave the countess a sympathetic smile. “I doubt they’d be much amused if we used a chair,” he mused. “But I could fetch the librarian quickly enough. What, pray tell, did you have in mind for your…research? I may have suggestions of my own.”

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For some reason, Anne-Elisabeth was quite pleased that Master O’Neill approved of her impromptu rhyme. Maybe I should try other poetic forms instead of sticking to the familiar limerick. Limericks were so easy for her to come up with. She had been composing them since she was a little girl. I am a child no longer. If this epic experiment goes well, then there will be nothing that I can’t do.

 

The Irishman was composing his only a day after receiving the assignment? Why should I be surprised? He has written them before. She was fairly certain that his poem would outshine her own. He had experience while she had never even read one. At least this wasn’t a competition between them. As she understood it, there would be no winner, only a loser … Pembroke. And I know next to nothing about him either, other than he beat Dorset to within an inch of his life.

 

Anne-Elisabeth didn’t see Master O'Neill as cocky at all. “An intriguing method,” she replied. “Perhaps I shall try it myself.” She did know a bit about meter. One reason she wanted to study epics was to figure out what meter was traditionally used.

 

“No chair then,” she chuckled, “unless we want to attract the wrong kind of attention.” He asked what epics she had in mind and she smiled wryly. “I confess I have never read an epic. Books aren’t easy to come by on Barbados. Our library is small and contains only what comes with the supplies from England. Most of the poetry books are disappointing.  Love poems, mostly. I guess that’s what they think we like. Maybe most people do.

 

“I will greatly appreciate your suggestions. I have no idea what I am looking for.”

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“I do recommend it,” James asserted when Lady Cambray declared that she found his method of practicing intriguing. “For example, I’m not particularly fond of the heroic couplet – it makes a stanza seem excessively sing-song – which means the challenge is to undo that. It is experimentation, but with a methodology...”

As amiable as James was, on matters poetic he spoke with a seriousness that seldom belonged to him otherwise - although his merry, often rapid-fire manner of speech did not subside. The theory, the rules, the little ways in which one could break them but achieve success…components of the art were what he lived and breathed. "Almost a science, yes. A science unto itself, but one that reveals the human soul."

Ah, but he was finding himself lost in thought, and had to turn back to their present predicament before his mind sprinted ahead of itself further still. “I rather enjoy writing in this library, I do,” he agreed, smiling slightly. “And I think we both have enough of a knack for trouble that we could find a juicier target to antagonize than a poor librarian.”

He frowned as she explained that Barbadians had inadequate access to literature, finding such an upbringing horrid. “Truly, not a single epic?” Were young ladies not instructed in the classics? It was surprising, for Lady Cambray certainly had the intelligence for it. “No Iliad or Aeneid, even?”

James continued to purse his lips for a moment, considering, before breaking out into a brief grin. “I don’t mean this as a slight, my lady, but come, let us sit where I can be of assistance. Consider it a step towards the both of us defeating Rochester.” Laughing, James beckoned her forward, to the chairs where he had been sitting before. “I have named the classics, but you shan’t find my personal favorite in this castle, I do not think.” Milton was as seditious as he was [glorious, and Paradise Lost was unlikely to be found here.

“Perhaps…no, hm.” He turned, and set off for the chairs and table, but shot Lady Cambray a glance, green eyes seeing if she followed. “Tell me: what is it you believe you need to study most? The theory, the structure…content?”

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“I can hardly wait to try it now. I’ve always stuck to the traditional forms because that’s the way it has always been done.” Anne-Elisabeth laughed. “When we first met, I described myself as an uninhibited woman, but I suppose when it comes to poetry, I am rather tame. I am actually at the beginning of my poetic journey, which might be why I have never attempted to experiment before. You have definitely given me something to think about.”

 

Her gaze swept the room. “We should definitely stay on the librarian’s good side. This is the first time I’ve been here, but I will probably write here too. The room I am staying it is smaller than my closet at home, and it’s depressing rather than inspiring.” She planned on checking out the Orangery later. If it was warm and smelled of the tropics, it might be the best place for a lady from the Caribbean to write.

 

Anne-Elisabeth shook her head. “Not that I know of. If they do have them, they hide them well. And if they are written in their original language, I don’t read either Latin or Greek. I have always meant to read them, and I’m sure the library in London has them, but I didn’t know then that I would be tasked with writing an epic myself.”

 

She smiled when James agreed to assist her. “No slight detected. I asked for your help, after all. My knowledge of poetry is dismal, except for limericks, which I know you despise.” The young Countess winked. “Turn my literary aspirations in another direction and maybe you won’t hear them again.” Anne-Elisabeth had no intention of giving up her limericks, but she could refrain from spouting them in the Irishman’s presence.

 

“I’m glad we are not competing against each other. I don’t know if I will be able to defeat Rochester, but I’m sure you will. Though that is still my goal, I also want Pembroke to pay for what he did to Dorset.”

 

Following him over to a table flanked by a couple of chairs, she inquired, “What is your favorite epic and why would this library not have it?” Was it scandalous, she wondered? If so, she would probably find it interesting.

 

“At this point, I think the structure is most important, but I am sadly lacking in knowledge of theory as well. I know that they are generally about a hero achieving great things through a series of adventures and quests. How I can make that apply to Pembroke, I have no clue. He is certainly no hero.”

 

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James – fully capable of being attentive on subjects of importance to him, be they matters Irish, literary, or libertine – let Anne-Elisabeth speak, taking in what could be her strengths and weaknesses without having seen any of her poetry. This was his craft, his reason for being, the only thing that made sense – and so it was not difficult to immerse himself in what another poet would need to develop her talents.

It may, however, been somewhat arrogant.

“It might be unsporting to aggravate the librarian, besides,” he pointed out, with a quiet little laugh. “Surely the two of us could scandalize a loftier, entertaining target, hm?”

The question was presented more fully when the two of them took to where he had been sitting prior, and James’ green eyes bore down briefly on his attempted couplets before pushing them to the side. “Defending Dorset is a worthy goal,” the Irishman appraised, albeit uncertainly. “Worthier than mine, to be sure, although I have but recently been informed that self-promotion is indeed the essence of court.”

James cocked his head to the side, considering the matter more fully before realizing some of her concerns could be answered at once. “Why, Milton’s Paradise Lost, my lady. It is…he was…a revolutionary. As an artist and-“ He lowered his voice. “As an individual, which is why I presupposed we will not find him here.” Unbidden, he laughed, although the comment was not especially funny. “I care not for that, I don’t, but instead…ah, to use blank verse in order to marry drama and poetry? The acrostics which one may find only on a careful rereading?”

His features animate, the poet continued for a few moments more, hardly stopping to breathe: “Dryden, fu- bloody Dryden has been one of the first to voice recognition for his gift. And the audacity within him, the sheer vitality to portray the Lord and Lucifer in the image of the other?”

James let out a sigh, self-satisfied as he wound down the rant. “I must send you a copy. There is so much to learn from his example.” His eyes sought out Lady Cambray’s, instantly snapping back to the planet Earth, and explained further, “Some argue that Satan is Milton’s protagonist, did you know? The ultimate villain in the history of humanity, in all existence…and the most charming figure in all ten books…” He paused, finally, waiting to see if she grasped his point with regards to Pembroke.

Edited by James O`Neill
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Unlike James, Anne-Elisabeth did not live and breathe poetry. To her, it had always been a hobby and a means to express her wit. However, she was beginning to take it more seriously after meeting the talented Irishman. She truly wanted to improve her skills and step out of her comfort zone and explore other forms. As Rochester had demanded she write an epic, that seemed to be a good place to start. She wouldn’t be surprised if it was also the most challenging to master. By starting at the top, the rest should be easy.

 

She grinned at him wickedly. “Do you have another target in mind?” she asked as she sat down, observing the way he pushed his papers to the side as if he was not pleased with them.

 

Anne-Elisabeth shook her head when Master O’Neill claimed that her goal was worthier than his. “Promoting oneself is the best way to rise at court. A good dose of arrogance and the willingness to take chances doesn’t hurt either. It was quite bold of me to enter Dorset’s poetry competition as a complete unknown, but the risk paid off.  As did yours when you approached the Merry Gang last night.  If you are good at something, show it off."

 

The way he went on about Milton made her feel guilty that she had never heard of him. James was certainly passionate about his works and she liked watching him sing the poet’s praises. Anne-Elisabeth assumed that Milton must have lived a life of scandal if his books were not housed in the palace library. If so, she liked him already. Perhaps it was because of that comparison the Irishman mentioned, though she believed there were certain traits shared by both God and Satan.

 

“Don’t tell anyone I said this, but there are similarities between the two. I am quite intrigued by what you have told me of Milton and I would appreciate a copy of his works. I may be able to find them in the bookstore in town, unless they choose not to sell them.”

 

She understood Master O’Neill’s purpose in telling her that Satan was Milton’s protagonist. “So a villain can be the hero of an epic. Do you plan on making Pembroke your protagonist? I doubt I could pull that off, but I think you would do it admirably."

 

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“Not yet,” James admitted with a laugh, when Lady Cambray inquired after a target. “Although Sedley suggested that caddish Lord Langdon, who I find both boring and boorish. The two greatest sins, in my estimation.” He faked a sigh, expression impish. “I am, however, open to suggestions.” He had professed his willingness for a dare and meant it.

It would have likely came as no surprise to the countess that James was not shy about these things, when caught in the right mood.

Nor was he about showing off, obviously. “In truth? It was impulse, it was, although you make an excellent point.” Idly, he tapped the table with his fingers, drumming out an uneven beat. “Our court is not one that particularly rewards shyness, hm?” He asked rhetorically, chuckling. “Although I daresay self-promotion still lacks the valiant, yet controversial, narrative of the young lady riding to the defense of the wounded lord.”

“Perhaps she’ll enter a tourney once, and score some great victories on the field wearing a token of his choosing,” James jested, accenting this point with a dimpled smile he hoped would be warm and genuine enough to know he was not targeting either of them with the malice that Rochester had pursued the pair.

On Milton, he nodded enthusiastically as Anne-Elisabeth expressed her understanding, dismissing the idea of the bookstore with a wave of his hands, “No need, no need. I brought a small stack of old favorites and new discoveries with me from London, for quieter times. Furthermore, I may have something of a, hm, shopping list for my lady’s needs by the time I return to my quarters,” the poet declared with a wink.

Proving this point by ripping a page out from his notebook and adding the first title which he thought Lady Cambray should read, Aristotle’s Poetics, James contemplated, “I would hear more of these supposed similarities, my lady. Suitably scandalous!” As he scribbled in a note (must have underlined twice), he also added, “As to my own piece, I’m considering a tragicomedy. A protagonist needn’t be a hero, but this one is…in his own mind. It is somewhat influenced by the Spanish El Quijote, save that this protagonist is more nakedly wicked.”

And was also a cat based on an Italian folktale, but one needn’t divulge every trade secret.

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Anne-Elisabeth remembered what Sedley had said about Lord Langdon right before she and Dorset had left the group to talk alone. She wrinkled her nose. “I don’t like him either. I offered to assist him with something once and he brushed me off, as if he believed that all ladies are silly creatures with the intelligence of plant life. If the Merry Gang wish to annoy him, I’m in.

 

“I cannot think of a better target at the moment, but since I often rub people the wrong way with my outspokenness and disdain for propriety, I will probably make an enemy or two this season.” By the anticipation in her tone of voice, it was clear that she was looking forward to irritating courtiers. It was quite an intriguing pastime.

 

“At court, impulses often pay off, as long as one is skilled and confident enough to accomplish what one sets out to do. You and I definitely fall into that category.”

 

The dark-haired Countess laughed at James’ analogy. She was not offended at all. “’Controversial’ is my middle name. I doubt I will make that much of an impact, but your words paint an image in my mind that I will try my best to bring to life. In fact, perhaps a medieval take on the Dorset and Pembroke story might be an interesting option for my epic. Maybe even something Arthurian, with Dorset as the once and future King and Pembroke as one of the many villains in the legends, but with a humorous twist. Tragedy, as you know, is not my strong point.”

 

The more time she spent with Master O’Neill, the more Anne-Elisabeth liked him. Interrupting his writing in the palace garden last season was one of the more fortunate things that she had done. They would have met yesterday anyway, but they might have seen each other as rivals if that had been the first time. She grinned when he winked at her, idly wondering if he was as passionate in bed as he was about poetry.

 

The ripping of the page from his notebook seemed to echo through the quietness of the library. “You are very generous to lend me your favorite epic. I warn you … I brought my cat with me … but I will keep anything you send me well away from her. To my knowledge, she has not yet learned how to open a cupboard. I shall also study all of your recommendations diligently until I eat, sleep and breathe in epic verse.”

 

As to the similarities between God and Satan: “Well, for one, they both covet our souls. Unfortunately, this is not the right place for further discussion on that subject, though I am willing to continue in a more private setting. It’s too easy to be overheard here, and if rumors spread that we are heretics, we’ll be pitched out of court on our arses … or worse.”

 

She watched James write while he explained how he planned to approach the assignment Rochester had given them. “Ah, yes. I read that one and quite enjoyed it. And that is a very intriguing concept, and probably close to the truth. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Pembroke does believe he is a hero in his own mind.”

 

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“That is utterly unsurprising,” James uttered with a hoarse chuckle at Lady Cambray’s recounting of her experience with Langdon. “Curious, to be a snob without anything to be proud of beyond one’s title.” He shook his head, dark curls swaying. “I’ve mentioned the day I helped entertain His Majesty with verse, correct?”

“The other part of that story is a game of sorts we improvised for him. It was nearly cut short when Lightning Langdon,” the nickname was emphasized with James’s attempt at a posh English accent and a heavy dose of derision, “attempted to arrest me when a lady and I pretended she was in distress. Boorish and boring, as I said.”

The poet laughed alongside the lady’s description of herself as controversial and prone to making enemies, seeing that as a sign that the two of them might have been kindred spirits. “Arthurian, hm?” He could see the appeal there, although the idea to him seemed to pander overmuch to her lover. Of course, every poet elevated their lovers to a pedestal or dragged them down into the mud, so he could not judge. “ ‘twould be a classic allusion, it would. One might even make it something of a satire of the entire court, given the Round Table, or at least reference Pembroke’s other victims.”

Their discussion on God and Satan was indeed best left for elsewhere; one never knew who else was listening at court, although it was interesting that the lady held such beliefs to begin with. Her intellect is strong, but untampered. Some like Rochester were vocal enough in their heterodoxy, but neither he nor Anne-Elisabeth had the fame or closeness to His Majesty to get away with loudly proclaiming their freethinking tendencies.

For his part, James held a curious, if unorthodox piety. His understanding of God was of the creator of Beauty and the redeemer of Man through His only Son, but he was less convinced of the clergy. As with politics, however, he knew it was not truly his place to fight for such beliefs.

 “Another time, then,” he agreed with a smirk. “As to the matter at hand, I can certainly believe that Pembroke thinks he is the hero. No individual with a firm grasp of reality could commit such crimes without being wracked by guilt.” The poet paused, putting the Iliad and Odyssey on his list with a scribble of his quill. “You were speaking of a twist to your Arthurian tale, though?”

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Anne-Elisabeth clapped a hand over her mouth to keep herself from guffawing at Jame’s impression of Lord Langdon.  "That was a stupid thing to do.  Was His Majesty amused?"  She wondered why he was called  'Lightening Langdon?’  Maybe he was a minute man when it came to sex.

 

She was pleased that James liked her idea. It was a spur of the moment notion, but as she was quite familiar with the legends, she might just be able to do it. “That is a great idea for a future project, but I don’t want to satirize important personages before I am known as a court wit. It might be taken the wrong way and that could mean the end of my poetry career before it even begins. I do, however, adore your suggestion for including the Round Table in my tale.”

 

The Countess didn’t know why, but his opinion mattered to her. They were kindred spirits when it came to poetry, and they were both confident, bold, and arrogant to a fault. Master O’Neil was intelligent and clever and he had much more experience in the creative realm than she did. Anne-Elisabeth had once planned to show him her half-finished play, but she had changed her mind. She only wanted to present her best to him, and that play was far from her best. It was most likely her worst.

 

“I look forward to it,” she replied. She was not the least bit pious and doubted that either God or Satan actually existed. They were fictional characters made up by people who needed something to believe in and a set of rules to live by. She went to church because it was expected of her and it was a good place to be seen and make connections, not from any desire to praise the lord. Priests were charlatans who preyed upon the vulnerable, filling their heads with ideas that only benefited the priests in the end.

 

“Oh, Pembroke is definitely mad. He has to be to do such monstrous things.” Her eyes followed James' quill as he added more items to his list. “I’m not sure what the twist will be, but the Siege Perilous will fit into the story somehow, though it’s purpose will have nothing to do with the Holy Grail.”

 

Anne-Elisabeth propped her elbow on the table and cupped her chin in the palm of that hand. “I not only need to do research on epics, but on Pembroke as well. I need details on the things he has done and to whom, for example. Do you know much about him?  Since we’re not competing against each other, perhaps we can share our information to better arm ourselves against Rochester."

 

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