Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part twenty-one)
The Sword Decides!
A hand caught her arm. Giovanna shot a wrathful eye at her squire, who had allowed the impertinence, then heard her sister Maria speak. She turned her face, queenly in condemnation.
“Giovanna!” Maria urged. “Call him back! Show yourself better before the people! Or what can you want with such pageantry at all? Will you have the Pope hear gossip of this breach? Our friars of Naples, you know it well, make pilgrimage to Avignon…”
This, Giovanna knew well enough…but that Maria should argue as one of her advisors, when Maria’s heart was against her, that she also knew…
She mistrusted it. She whispered back in fury: “Remove your fingers from my sleeve. Do not lean so near me when you speak. No! And do not crease your brow, do not hiss your words, do not let tears stand in your eyes… And altogether, young sister, do not offer the people this poor pantomime, then dare say to me my own show is at fault! A queen may come and go; it is not for the contandini to question why she does! I’ll hang the man who looks me askance!” She went further, goaded by the disaster of Andreas. “If it is my husband you prefer, have him! It seems he fights well…he may rid you of Ludovic…
“Hark!” Stopping herself, she spoke aloud a thought she would not have shared. “How they cheer!”
Andreas had ridden from the lists; he had removed the cap from under his helm, and his fair hair bounced at his shoulders in pace with his mount. As Giovanna watched, her eyes grew cruel, for he was breaking her chain link from link, and flinging twists of gold among the crowd.
Cleopatra di Montalto came near to a rueful laugh. Almost, she had said, “Oh, ho!”
But a glance at the Queen…and only to herself did she remark it well the smith (under royal instruction) had employed a light mould, and poured thinly, it being Luigi of Taranto expected to win the prize.
“He buys them,” Giovanna said. She caught Giulia di Terlizzi’s arm and hurried her down the steps. “Shall I bear it in mind, do you think? Does your brother’s counsel spin me needless complications?”
Giulia, disguised by the sleeves of her dress, shrugged.
The queen’s soldiers, her gentlemen, and pages, moved to surround her. She demanded her white palfrey. The Prince Luigi, stripped of his armour, hastily covered in a wilting tunic of silk, stepped forward and knelt to hold her stirrup, his eyes moist with a deep-felt (and newly determined) loyalty. But Giovanna took no heed of Luigi or the others; her entourage must follow where she led.
In the absorbed silence of furious hate she swept through the streets of Naples.
The smallness of her stature, the mere physicality of the match between them, at times daunted her. If Andreas were to become too full of himself…
In the hall of the palace she met Carlo, and waved her attendants back.
“Carlo, darling.” She caught a pinch of his garment. “That friend of yours, the Hungarian. Can he be fetched for me?”
Carlo, standing with arms akimbo and legs well apart to show off his elegant figure, smiled…foolishly. “He says he will give a feast tonight, my cousin queen. No doubt he is about…”
Her rings flashed into points of light at the tighter clasp of her fingers, but she remembered those behind her. Ceasing to hear to him, she dropped Carlo with a careless backhand, beckoned to the Conte Raymond, and wrapped her arm in his.
The move was dismissal to the rest, and they scattered to the passageways behind the pillars, watching avidly from a distance. Only Maria followed, swinging her peacock fan against a tapestry, a nervous eye on the dust motes raised.
The Queen said to Raymond, tightly: “A feast?”
Then, not turning to look behind, she said louder: “Maria, what is that noise? Can it be you making it?”
Maria stilled herself, while the Queen said, again to Raymond: “I rely on you, as you are a man. I should call my husband very dull of wit…he has a dull, unlively face. But men have their ways. I suppose he conceals his intelligence. Is your own unequal to anticipating him?”
Circumspect, for he never bore insults from her, the count answered: “We cannot have him feed his Hungarians here, Madonna. There will be bloodshed.”
“His hopes of Avignon must be strong.” Giovanna spoke to exclude her sister’s hearing. “Or he would not dare.”
“My hopes also are strong.”
There was a little silence between them. The Conte looked covertly at his promised reward, Maria, sad and beautiful, wistfully waving her fan. Giovanna thought of the day when she would rule Naples alone.
Then, through the crowd came Andreas himself, freshened in blue and purple, hanging on to the arm of Henryk of Belgrade. The Queen, seconded by Raymond, and well surrounded by witnesses, felt only bold, and certain of her wits.
“You are dressed for a feast. Ah…! You, indeed, my lord.”
Andreas, who had tried manifesting ignorance of her presence, while hopeless at carrying it off, had started…and visibly…that she could divine his intentions.
“I give no feast tonight,” Giovanna told him. He peered at her, while his companion shifted weight from foot to foot, both out of their depth with royal protocols.
“And when the Queen does not, no others do.”
Andreas flushed. He made to speak aside, to Henryk, “What is this?”
Henryk stared ahead; Giovanna bared her teeth in a smile.
Unable then, to give her such a victory, Andreas demanded of his wife: “What rule is that? You are lying to me.”
“No, my lord. The Conte Raymond has my orders, and you will find none within the palace to serve you.”
“I can give orders of my own.”
“Well, do. I see no reason why you should not. But, be too generous with the public purse… Then pray the year brings peace and prosperity, that all ships come to harbour, that Heaven send no pestilence, that no enemy lay siege to the city, that you need flatter no ally, hire no mercenary…”
It was enough. His face had grown sullen over these realities he could not calculate. But she added: “Why, your living has cost me somewhat. I do not feed rabble such as follow you.”
Andreas stood rooted and silent; he looked at the man whose wrist she held, and was minded to stab him where he stood, but the dignity that tempered his uncouthness came to his aid. “Henryk,” he said. “We must dine even at taverns until I get my answer from Avignon.”
With a flutter of his finery, which Giovanna hoped abashed him now, he turned on his heel. He saw Maria and swept her an obeisance.
Maria responded in no wise to this, frozen as a statue.
It was correct in her…she could not acknowledge that sides existed, between her sister and new brother, much less be seen before the court to take one. Andreas, fortunately, had not stopped, but strode with Henryk of Belgrade, from the hall.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit, 2021, Stephanie Foster)