Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part twenty-five)
The Sword Decides!
I will have a warrant drawn for that man’s arrest, Andreas thought. His stare followed all the bright train to the illusion of their vanishing, from the glaring light of day, into the dark of the colonnade opposite. He thought at last that he might simply have said no. No, Queen, I won’t have Cabane. Your favourite is dismissed. And I swear to you, the first time hence he comes within my sight, I will…
Force him to vows, and the care of lepers.
Punishments ought to be apt, and Andreas had arrived at this. Dancing at the back of these ruminations was distraction, his fear before Giovanna, that question of when and how he would assert himself. He stepped outside the hedge of cypress. Like one who forgets a persistent beggar in his courtyard, he was dismayed to be reminded of Luigi.
The prince of a sudden was at his side, laying a hand on his arm. “My King.” He spoke with a twinkling humility. “I fear I may be the first to say it. A fine knight, as you have proved yourself indeed, should make a fine ruler.”
Taranto had considerable years to his advantage; he had also the authority of a resonant voice and a frank meeting of the eyes. “Let us step out of the sun.”
The hand quietly pressured the arm to retreat, and at a step towards the inner loggia from Luigi, Andreas moved in accord. He found himself guided through to the antechamber.
“It will not offend you if I offer this compliment, that your unhorsing of me yesterday was splendidly done. You pleased them! And I don’t grudge it. Never shall I curry love from hordes. The mob is fickle…they say it, don’t they!”
Andreas laughed. The laugh broke his reserve, his doubt of an Italian, and the whispered word flattery left his mind. He flushed somewhat. “I was fresh. You had gone daylong. Some saint’s day we will joust again, and—”
“But then, of course, the King of Naples must win his match.”
Before Andreas could think to deny what the prince in jest alleged, he found himself praised again.
“Why is it that northerners grow so tall? You would not fool me in disguise a second time.”
The prince mimed an adjustment to the tip of his lance; where he would place this mid-chest of his rival. That such a blow would be killing, and outside the rules, did not occur to Andreas, warmed by this friendliness.
“I am not so tall as my brother Ludovic.”
“Come,” said Luigi, crooking his elbow through that of Andreas, and ushering him to a sheltered bench. “Sit, my lord. I will sit next to you, and you will tell me how it stands between you and Giovanna.’’
Andreas, impressed by the notion Luigi hoped to know if he’d bedded her, turned scarlet. But they sat in shadow. “She wanted to win. And now, I think she hates me.”
“Winning, that is no way to speak of it. She is merely your wife, and you are King. I am near the throne myself, I have some interest. I say it, it cannot be concealed. Else, your friend Konrad would speak it in your ear, have no trust of Luigi, who would seat himself in your place.”
Andreas made to answer. Somehow it seemed he betrayed his friend Konrad, allowing words in Konrad’s mouth, yet this promise being dangled, palpably there, and in no way spoken, held him, the magician’s hand in the hat, not yet withdrawn.
“But… You are loyal.”
“God commands the Pope,” Luigi answered, cryptic. “Whom I serve may ever rely on me. Then, what task…?” He fingered his chin, musing. “Have you a list, Andreas?”
“Cabane. Terlizzi. Their households. Some others I know better by sight. I would welcome…”
“And what have you in that pouch? Instruction, I think, from Clement. Is it so?”
This made Andreas think of Konrad’s warning. “I would welcome…” He amended his remark’s direction. “Anyone sure of the Latin reading the Father’s words to me.”
A merry chuckle greeted this. “You needn’t say ‘anyone’. Of course, when you strode to me out of the loggia, it was with that in mind… I ought to have known. Giovanna, who finds me dull, blames that my father had me tutored, by the friar Stefano Vespari, a great terror to our province in his day. Yes, he was a mendicant, and he moved by the guiding of his angels, who advised him…though his word alone testified to it…to make camp and eat the grapes of this or that man’s vineyard, or to unburden another’s chicken-house of its eggs. Once he was caught by Otello Naldi himself, roasting one of his spring lambs on a spit. Stefano swung his stick about his head, and roared down the curse of Heaven on Naldi’s harvest, made him cuckold, made his best mares barren…and in the end, naturally, the two sat side by side and ate the lamb together…”
Further anecdotes of unknowns came, in a flow Andreas knew of no way to stem. He tugged loose the pouch and rooted inside; for some minutes he mutely extended the rolls of vellum. Luigi had embarked meanwhile on a summer outing, his boyhood self set by Vespari to a recitation of Pliny the Elder’s dying hour, as they sought from the vantage of a small sailboat, the very spot.
“He struggled to rise, then at once he fell down dead. Hmm… Let me think. La, la, la…ad surgendum coniti… La la, decidit exanimis… You see, it is not so difficult. Now, then, what has Clement to say?”
Some business then ensued, in which Andreas could not manage handing to Luigi the correct of the three, though more than three times he cycled through them. And from the long and chatty reading aloud, Andreas at length drew the unsettling reality (though conceding there was little hope of its being otherwise), that Clement spoke in tones firm of the accomplished match, and that he named Giovanna wife of Andreas, Queen in Naples.
Misery stretched unabated, for it must be the Pope’s mind to rule all these things ordained, therefore the marriage was not to be sundered, nor the woman put quietly aside.
In brief, as Luigi seemed to feel himself quipping: “He takes the legal view.”
They came to a silence, then Luigi said, “Have I served you, Andreas? Is there any errand you would have me do?”
Henryk entered in a rush, saw with whom Andreas was closeted, made to back away; then he pushed forth, resolute and frowning. “Carlo of Duras sends word he has seen Giovanna, with Maria, and a number of men, riding out of Naples!”
“Cabane? Cabane is escaped?” Andreas asked.
“I say what I know and only that.” Henryk, so saying, stared hard at Luigi.
Andreas looked too. “Did you plot with them…? Was all this…this long speech…to delay me here?”
Luigi returned his gaze. “Deal justly with me, I do beg it. What in this news suggests to you a plot, Your Sovereignty?”
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit, 2021, Stephanie Foster)