Despite these obstacles, some women did secure licenses, especially licenses for alehouse-keeping. … Yet the women licensed to keep alehouses in the sixteenth century and later constituted not only a small minority of licensees but also a small minority of a particular sort: they were almost invariably widows.

Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England

Judith Bennett

The sun was was straight overhead and it shone red and yellow through the murk like a rotten cracked egg above London. Poley was in his element, on the move and surrounded by people, all jostling and talking at the top of their lungs. Ralph walked slightly in front of him, breaking his way through the crowd, giving Poley enough space to speak into Ralph’s ear with a certain degree of privacy.

“Find Ollie the Straight and give him this.” He handed Ralph a folded and sealed piece of paper. “I’ll be at Alewife Harvey’s and it says for him to forward any news he receives to me there with the most pressing urgency. ”

Ralph looked back at Poley and stumbled a bit. “Harvey’s? Why there?” He reached out and took the piece of paper.

“Because she knows me and won’t object to me doing business from her tap room. And she’s smart enough to keep her mouth shut. I can also play her along with hints of her suit making progress at Court.”

Ralph went down Fenchurch, towards the center of the city, and Poley continued towards Kate’s. Now, he barely saw the people around him, his steps taken by instinct, while he spun the jewel of his plan in his mind, carefully inspecting each of its facets.

One of the facets pleased him well.

Yesterday, after Meg had given her permission, he had gone to Whitehall as he had intended before the bloody business that Meg had done to Edward Abbott. Expensive in that he had purchased for himself a fine new doublet, cut in the latest fashion, necessary in order to be taken seriously by the Court magpies. He wore it even now, slightly more wrinkled and stained. The offices of Whitehall and the playing fields of Westminster had given him a profitable afternoon. A lengthy conversation on a bowling green, the sun turning the sward emerald and making the fine jewels flash, had given Poley the opportunity to pour words into several highly placed ears. Among the gossip, he had left them with the impression that it was the opinion of the intelligencers that something was awry and close attention was being paid to those who worked for Secretary Waad, Denby’s superior in the workings of the Privy Council.

Another conversation, this one only lit by the light slanting through the window at the end of the hallway was more direct. He dropped coins into the hand of someone high up in the offices of the Archbishop of Canterbury, here in London attending on his master’s business. To the clinking accompaniment of coins, he said that there were clear signs of Catholic sympathizers close to the Privy Council. Not the Councilors themselves, no, of course not, not even the Secretaries who were there for every meeting, their loyalty beyond question. But certain of their servants? Well, among them, there was the clear odor of Romish incense.

He was able to combine business and pleasure with the last encounter of the day. He managed to get a note to a maid who was in the service of one of the Queen’s ladies. He could scarce believe the price of bribes these days but the message reached who it was supposed to. She and Poley met in a secluded side chapel to the Queen’s apartments where ensued a most pleasurable tumble amidst a pile of priestly vestments. After their first urgency was spent, they cuddled and passed the latest gossip. Poley learned that Essex was as ardent as ever in his wooing of the Queen. She learned that pursuivants were close to capturing a Catholic spy who had stupidly tried get secrets from the Privy Council. And then they both learned that the other was ready for another pass in the tilt yard of fucking.

Revisiting further memories, Poley approached Kate Harvey’s public house. The mid-day meal crowd was starting to leave by the time he got there. He headed to an empty table by the far wall and, when seated, motioned to Jacob. “Inform your mistress that I’ll be conducting some business here this afternoon. And start me a slate. I’ll begin with a mug of whatever’s on tap.“

The boy bobbed a bow and went off to where Kate was tending to a customer at the bar. He talked to her briefly. She looked over at Poley with a questioning look on her face. He pasted a confident smile on his face and nodded at her. She smiled back and motioned to Jacob to carry on.

He surveyed the people remaining in the tavern. Several tables sported prosperous merchants, finishing their meals and talking together before heading back to their businesses. Scattered among them were apprentices enjoying the penny ale and bread. There were only one or two who showed signs of being habitual drunkards, hunched over their mugs and showing no interest in anything or anyone else. Poley judged that all were who they seemed to be; no covert glances or overly studied inattention, the signs of inferior pursuivants, the kind that Denby would employ.

One by one, the tables emptied, people went back to their work and Poley began his. Sunlight, coming through the open front door, began its slow track across the floor. Poley’s thoughts moved much quicker.

Men will be a problem. I’ll need to have a good number at my back when finally bringing Denby down. Meg can certainly supply bravos but I have to avoid any whiff of impropriety. Men with authority.

I’ll rely on Meg for intelligence only. I have no wish to be in her debt for anything grand. She’s crazier than a scalded cat but a most valuable ally. I don’t like that Ralph brought her into the game on his own, but her involvement will make this easier than it was looking to be.

Denby’s an amateur, both dangerous and more easily rattled than a professional. He doesn’t know when to cut his losses. Probably a fanatic.

He looked over and saw Kate bringing him a mug.

Thanks to Kate, money won’t be a problem in this operation. After Denby, Meg is my greatest worry. But if all goes right, I will have both place and position far from her and both of us can forget this madness of her patronage.

Kate placed the mug in front of Poley. “So. How goes the quest to make me Brewer for the Court?”

His smile was broad and loving. “A most promising beginning, I swear to you. I’ve approached the Compter of the Table and he’s promised to get me an audience with the Chamberlain. But I must be plain with you, dear Kate. These things take time. I have placed the first of many bribes and now await on the favor of men who have no real interest in helping me. But, I have no doubt that in time your suit will be successful and you will have the position that you so richly deserve”

She smiled back at him and brushed her fingers alongside his face. “With a champion such as yourself fighting for me, I have no doubts either. I must go and deal with other customers. Jacob will keep an eye on you.”

Poley kissed her fingers and watched her go. Once she was occupied with her business, the smile slid off his face and his mind returned to inspecting all the angles of the operation.

So lost in thought he was, it was a minute or two before he realized that Ralph was standing in front of his table. “Shit. Back already? Did Meg have any news?”

The big man shrugged “She said that she had word from some of her people. She said to give this to you.” He reached inside his doublet and pulled out a packet of sealed paper, dropped it on the table in front of Poley. “Fuck, I’m parched. Be back in a moment.” He sloped off to the bar and got a mug of beer from Kate. The two of them talked for a bit.

Something about the way the two of them talked to each other niggled at Poley’s brain, but he paid it no heed as he cracked the seal and unfolded the papers. He was in the midst of reading them when Ralph returned to the table and sat down.

“What does she say?”

Poley finished one side, flipped it over, hurriedly scanned the rest. “Damn my eyes, her network is first rate. Moody’s been spotted in Vlissengen. As well as Nick. And Moody seems to be helping Nick, at least paying for his passage on a smuggling vessel heading here. And rumors of one of Hugh Owen’s dogs close on their trail.”

“So this is good news, then? Moody’s found your spy and they’re headed back to England.”

“Good news indeed. Damn good news.”

Ralph took a long pull from his mug, then took a seat at table against the far wall, where he could keep eyes on both Poley and the door. Poley returned to his plotting, changing his plans to accommodate the intelligence discovered by Meg. He knew that events and circumstances would destroy any hard set plan, so he only laid down the broadest outlines, trusting to his experience and instincts to make the right decision when the time came.

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