Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part nine)
The Sword Decides!
“Her sister! Was it you…?” Thinking late of traps, Andreas fell silent.
Maria said: “Hush!” She raised a hand before the window’s light; a hand that trembled. “I sent warning, yes. Never mind, I should not have. I see you now. You are not the manner of man to be politic.”
“Politic!” The word was scarcely in his vocabulary, but Andreas had intelligence enough to know it apt, a word that meant what it meant to each who used it. “You’d have me keep away and surrender my claim?”
Maria d’Anjou lifted grave, troubled eyes. “But, yes.”
Andreas moved to her, his mailed tread grating the quiet floor.
“Oh, hush!” she whispered. “The King is dying.” Her thin pearl-decked hand pointed to a closed chamber opposite. “Presently we will go to him, but just now he’ll have none, save the priests and Giovanna.”
Andreas stared at this door, feeling vaguely that a doom lay within. “Giovanna?”
“Yes. The King’s favourite. She recites with him the prayers of penitence and salvation.”
“Madonna…” In caution, he probed a mental maze, half-illuminated. “You say the favourite. You are a younger sister. I am a younger brother. I do not always love my brother. We may have words here, in private. What is there, of Giovanna, to warn me?”
Maria sank onto the chair and rested her head in her hands. “Naples hates this marriage. Because Giovanna hates it. Do you not understand?”
“So my reception tells me.”
“Your coming makes for war, and misery, and woe.”
“But why should it? I’ll have none of it!”
She raised her head, at this and looked at him mournfully. Her jewelled hands sank glittering to her velvet lap, and the sunlight played in her burnished hair.
Andreas looked on her beauty, and being unused to women, grew abashed and stepped away. But he recalled that she was to be his brother’s wife, and looked at her anew with jealousy, to judge if she were worthy.
He recalled, too, San Severino’s letter. “You are to marry Ludovic?”
“God knows!” Her eyes went to the closed door. “They talk of it.”
“This should be pride to you, such a match!”
“I am unhappy,” she said. “I cannot be proud when my heart aches.”
Her sigh, and her confidences, induced Andreas to abandon… What was his brother’s pride, after all. “Why are you sad, Madonna?”
“Oh, so many things!” Tears came to her eyes. “If you have a heart and live long in the court of Naples, you will know. I have no one to talk with…I see horrors.”
She rose to her feet. At the window, her back to Andreas, she said: “Yesterday the Conte Raymond flogged his footboy to death out there in the courtyard, for stealing from him. He was a little boy, and he cried bitterly. I could not sleep for the thought of it, and I am very tired today.”
“That was a vile deed!” said Andreas.
Maria leant her brow against the mullions. “Such deeds are common. Last week they burnt a woman in the Palazzo… From my chamber I could see the smoke and the people hurrying. What can I do? Prayers take so long to reach heaven. I think God is very far away. I wish I were dead.”
She said this so quietly and simply, so much as if it were a commonplace, the expression of a common thought, that Andreas blinked, and peered at her.
“How old are you?”
“Eighteen,” said Maria d’Anjou. “And in all my life I have had no pleasure.”
“I will rule well in Naples. They shall not do these things.”
“You?” she said. “You will have no power. Interfere with them, and they’ll see you don’t.”
“Who? Which of them?”
“Giovanna.” She whispered: “Giovanna, and the Conte Raymond, and Carlo, and Luigi of Taranto.” Her blue eyes turned to his with a widening of fear. “I live in terror of them.”
“Terror?” echoed Andreas.
Her gaze measured the chamber. “I want to die,” she told him. And, slowly: “But I do not wish to be murdered…can you understand? I have no courage, I cannot face dying in the dark or being mangled.” With fingers still trembling, she crossed herself. “Jesus save me from murder!”
Andreas stared. This girl, so regal, her attire and gems so proud, herself so young, so soft and fair…the hideous incongruity of her words made him wonder if she were mad, known to be.
But if so, he must reject her warnings. “God preserve us!” he cried. “It is a vile place where maids live in dread of murder!”
Her laugh seemed infinitely sad. “Oh, murder! Worse than that.”
Hauntings, he might have thought, so strange were Maria d’Anjou’s tales. “What… What thing worse than murder?”
“No…you are not me. A woman. For me, there is Raymond de Cabane.” Weary loathing crossed her face. “I pray God give me to Ludovic of Hungary, that I may be free of Signor de Cabane.” She made a passionate movement of her hand to her bosom. “Oh, my heart! My tired heart!”
The inner door glided open and a tall Franciscan appeared. Maria rose with a pale, composed face.
“The King’s soul passes,” said the monk., “He would see you.”
In silence Andreas of Hungary and Maria d’Anjou crossed the threshold of the King’s chamber.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit, 2020, Stephanie Foster)