Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part twenty-two)
The Sword Decides!
The King Moves
Andreas woke to find himself lying on his gold and crimson bed, sunlight glaring a long rectangle on the floor beside him. For a while he lay still and waited for the scene to resolve. He took in a watery view of trees; he blinked at the blue sky. He turned on his side and watched a breeze play at the threads of a tassel. He noticed a trail of wax over the floor, and clothes lying bunched near an open chest. They seemed not his own; he was dressed still. Flailing an arm after purchase, he saw that his sleeve was torn. His hand found the bed curtain and he hauled himself sitting.
He saw his hose were at his ankles, the feet of them stained.
He spotted a shoe. He would hate to learn the other had gone…
Andreas had not much idea how shoes were acquired. But asking any service or help, in this palace under his wife’s management, was an odium.
The weight of his head—inclined towards rolling, and aching as it rolled—was forced onto his shoulders by his attempt to keep upright. He noticed his squire asleep on the window-seat.
Carobert failed to stir, and Andreas, looking round, found his sword fixed in the mattress. Vaguely, he recalled a curse uttered against Raymond de Cabane. He tugged, released the blade, leant from the bed, and prodded the splayed figure.
“Pox-bit runtling! Sack of turnips!” These names the squire might better be acquainted with than his own. “Wake, sloth!”
His forearm touched by cold metal, Carobert gasped, sat too suddenly, and slid to the floor. Andreas dropped the sword, sinking, feeling surreptitiously for the rent fabric. He remembered Giovanna’s rebuke of him, her itemization of expenses…
“Carobert, give me a good recital. What sport, last night?”
The squire climbed to his feet and stretched. “None much.”
“None much, hero! You were out of your wits with wine, and fought home by error, then.”
Not trusting his lord to jest, Carobert said: “We met the Conte Raymond and his men.”
“When we were returning from the tavern.”
“And they set on us.” Stating so with a certain indignation, the squire added: “And they put us to the chase.”
“And,” Andreas said, “they boxed us in a lane. They, knowing the ways hereabouts, as I do not. They prisoned us with carts. They had on carnival masks…mark me, Cabane will deny everything to my face. And then, some whores from a window called me to climb, lowered a rope tied from their stockings. Andreo, those women called me. Their king.”
“But when the Angelus rang, the men went off.”
Gloomily watching a moth flit at the canopy, Andreas told himself that this was the climax to all insults, wrongs, and indignities he had borne at the court of Naples—that a king should be driven to taverns to entertain his friends, that he must brawl with the Conte Raymond’s henchmen, before in false piety, they allowed his return to the Palace.
Carobert stood puzzling over this and that, which he lifted from the floor; in a clumsy way, he next blocked view of the chest, where even Andreas, ignorant of housekeeping, supposed him tossing them in a heap. It was hot now…the air grown miserably moist. Lying abed was worse than rising. Andreas rose, and as enemies will, first to his mind came Giovanna. To overthrow Luigi of Taranto had given him great pleasure; he had dared think that she, with her haughty women, her toadying courtiers, at finding him a man and a warrior, would be moved to respect.
On her face he had seen calculation, only that. He hated her.
Yet in his head time and wine had lodged a truth, one Andreas had not, for his years, suspected. Court life was calculation, and jousting, pageantry. By axiom, he had of course known it, but the phrase “mere pageantry” had carried for him no special weight. He had sat at his brother’s side and watched feats of arms; he had followed the hounds and the huntsmen and been granted, by his brother, the privilege of fitting arrow to bow, delivering the coup de grâce to the boar or stag at bay.
He hated Giovanna now very bitterly. She could not be won. She could not be comprehended. She took counsel from Raymond de Cabane on means to humiliate and degrade her unwanted lord…but the degradation itself was form, not passion. Giovanna had no heart to change, and only by force would he be King in Naples. He rose from the bed, and moved to a little table under the window’s light.
Here, chessmen were arranged…
Andreas had named them and situated them, and he told these things over to himself, lest Carobert displace them. But chiefly it was for joy he repeated his plans. On the day of his coronation, this black bishop who was Raymond de Cabane, this white queen…
He examined the knight he had named for Carlo di Durazzo. Henryk and Konrad said beware, be rid of that one. But he liked Carlo. He might make him prisoner for a six-month. He would behead the others. This bishop soonest of all, who was to win his brother’s betrothed as payment. Would Maria like it, as a gift, to signal with her own hand the executioner’s axe…?
He feared…he knew himself to fear….that given such power she would grant mercy.
Thoughts too troubling for idling by a window came to Andreas. He moved to the balcony, stepped out, held himself back. He then padded, foot by foot, and when he saw that no crowd thronged the courtyard, sat, tattered and untidy, on the bench. He half-turned to rest his chin on his arms.
He felt stifled and unwell. “Any word from Avignon…” he muttered.
Any certainty, even that of exile; even, harried home in disgrace, that of begging his brother’s pardon. The city in its shimmer of morning haze seemed beautiful to him. At home, from the castle, Andreas had descended, on hunts, on pilgrimages, riding escort to a noble visitor, through tall rampart walls, that divided his world from that of the town. It seemed in Naples that the nobles, the churchmen, and the people, all mingled in the open squares.
He thought there was no life he would not endure, embrace…in change for this present, vile existence.
The Sword Decides! (part one)
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit, 2021, Stephanie Foster)