Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part twenty-three)
The Sword Decides!
Brooding over his wrongs, he grew sullen and out of humour with them all…
With his brother, with the old dead King, who both, Andreas believed, had entered this affair with their wits out of hand. Roberto the more so, for his long years, and for knowing Giovanna—but Ludovic, too. Having no pressing business to excuse it, he had held himself aloof; and yet he had suspected trouble, or he would not have recruited Konrad and Henryk.
But into the viper’s nest itself, Giovanna’s lair, he had dispatched Andreas alone.
And then were doubts of his envoys to Avignon, so late returning. Cabane might have waylaid them, for what was to stop him? Or he had bribed them…or they had made a holiday of the journey…
The imagination of Andreas faltered at the pleasures of Avignon, or at any picture of Avignon soever. But it was a papal court, and must be grand.
The only thought that roused him now, was to mount his horse, call for his huntsmen, and furnished with spear, arrow, and sling, ride to the great woods of Aversa, hunting such prey as he found. To leave behind these people, their piping, plinking musicians, their rouged faces and silken costumes, their idle talk of peninsular intrigues, their covert insults on narrow distinctions…between Salerno and Sorrento, as it might be…
And even such talk was a nuanced game, communicating to Andreas that he was a stranger. But on the hunt, he could revel in uncleanliness, be vulgar, lack culture, ride reckless at speed… Yes, once or twice he’d ridden afoul of the small farms, vaulting a wall to trouble a vineyard, giving his Hungarians permission to raid the olives, steal the chestnuts. Yet this wasn’t theft, it was tribute, a king’s due.
Once, he had ridden as far as Baia.
“What sort of place is this?” he had asked of a groom called Roderigo.
He had meant to ask it, but his question, che posto è questo? lacked, brought him a near shrug, thought better of, and the name he knew, Baia.
Then: “Abitavano i romani…”
The ruins were eerie, heathenish. They seemed still to have the power to summon pagan gods. Andreas had climbed a passage through walls of stacked stones, and looked at the hard sun on the sea; on a pair of islands crowned, so the illusion suggested, with thin purple clouds.
Over grasses a whistling wind had played, fanning up at moments the scent of wild rose. The ruins were not deserted. Goats were being grazed here, and a woman, indifferent to a band of men and horses—dwelling perhaps in bliss with no notion of kings and courts—gathered stones into a basket. Smoke from a fire dispelled the floral sweetness.
Andreas remembered that haunted feeling, the faint envy, at a goatherd’s lot of simplicity, a sea a man might sail free on. The cry of gulls came to him…everywhere on this coast were gulls…
Their song, come away, come away, was not the song of his native birds. Their wings that day had flashed in the bewitched sky, with the light only three things give forth: a sea-bird’s flight, a ship’s sails, and a drawn sword.
Thinking of Baia, Andreas wished to test himself. “Carobert,” he said. “We will go hunting, that place we saw the ruins.”
He left the bench and entered his rooms, looking here and there for his missing squire. Then from the antechamber Carobert bustled, chivvied ahead of Konrad. Konrad breathed heavily, fell to his knees and caught the King’s hands.
Andreas exclaimed: “Avignon!”
To this, in a voice unsteady, came the answer: “The Pope has recognised you. The legate, with the bull of coronation, waits at Capua. At last, you are master over this proud woman!”
Andreas, dashing sudden tears, turned away. His throat felt full, and he said nothing. Panting, Konrad eased to his feet. “The legate’s messenger I have brought in secretly, and he is just here, my lord…” He gestured beyond the bedchamber. “The letters are of this import… That the Pope will place his authority against any attempt to put up the Queen. And that any such will be held treason against the Holy See.”
“But can she raise rebellion?”
“I wager she hasn’t the strength. Her claim is a fresh matter now. The houses of Naples must bear anathema, if they love her so much. And why suppose they do?”
Andreas laughed. “Some would surrender the half of their estates, to undo their insults against me.”
“Now.” Konrad held up a hand. “I warn you. Blandishments from these Italians will disguise treachery. But yet, you must command your dukes and counts to your throne, each, to do homage. That is the way.”
“No. Konrad… What is the best place to display their heads…above the gate? But then, I’ve a mind to chain them in the galley, have the ship rowed into the bay and set alight to grace my coronation supper…”
“In time, in time. Yes, in time, we will show how Hungary may be avenged. But learn, mark with care, the very words of Clement. He was a man before he was Pope.”
By which Andreas, though hot for action, understood… Clement was of a house himself. The newest king of Europe might not be first to have his ear. “Giovanna, does she know?”
“That,” said Konrad, “I cannot say. Only that I have long arranged for this messenger to be intercepted at Capua. If her gold is on the street, the whisper may have come to her.”
On the verge of some further advice, Konrad shook his head. “Yes, why not? Face her. I know of no harm she can do.”
In his rooms hung only one mirror, niched in the antechamber, where its convex shape encompassed approaches from the hall. Andreas looked at himself, his poor state of dress, and knew that his odour would offend her as well. He smoothed his hair. The legate’s messenger idled near the door, with his pouch of scrolls.
This, Andreas snatched, discomfiting the cleric. What the fellow did with himself after, he did not stay to observe. She would read these signs at once: the pouch, its insignia, her husband’s hands proffering this news. Far off among the columns he spotted Sancia, Giovanna’s woman, turn her back and make to hurry.
“Hail, madame!” He shouted, to cow this sly servant he disliked. “Halt yourself. You will lead me to the Queen.”
The Sword Decides! (part twenty-four)
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit, 2021, Stephanie Foster)