Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part thirty-four)
The Sword Decides!
A light bobbed through the window. Andreas turned onto his stomach, and slipped to the floor. But outdoors he saw only a dark shape, glimpses of earth and a robed man’s midsection, as the lantern was raised and lowered.
It was necessary to kneel, with no chair or trunk in the room.
He almost disbelieved this, holy vows or no, that a man could bide in such austerity. The bed was given only a sheet, and Andreas had elected not to undress but for his boots. Against his stockinged knees the stone floor was chill. He felt leery, puzzled, tutored by circumstance…late to recite a lesson. He wished, not letting himself doze, to find his bearings.
His mother’s ring. If he had remembered better, or felt unrushed, he would have chosen some other token. The ring had been on Giovanna’s thumb, too large for her fingers. She hadn’t said, though…
She would not have said. And in company, Andreas could not say. Give that back. You know it was not a gift. If he saw Brother Matteo on the morrow, he might ask: What have I agreed to? What are these things written down? Why, when I was sent here to be King, and the Pope would have me King, am I placed supplicant to Giovanna, called harmer of Giovanna, who was never to be Queen?
Not as she would like it.
Who can proclaim these, or any terms, as settled upon, if not I, Andreas? Why do I feel a prisoner, then, uncharged?
Andreas returned to lie on the bed, bundled as much of the sheet around his neck as would budge, curled himself for warmth. Begin from the other end. I arrive in Naples…
And I am ignored, insulted, stared at. One greets me with civility; that is my cousin Carlo. I am not at first admitted to my dying grandfather’s chamber, but my sister, as she will be, Maria, shares her room, cries to me that Naples is an evil place. You should not have come.
Yet the marriage, before the death, is…
A bitter single laugh. Accomplished. Then I am King, but Giovanna speaks to her courtiers, her ministers, and barely can I follow their words. I wake in the mornings, and I have my breakfast laid me, and thus I sit to it, not leaving my rooms. Merriment, hers and her ladies’, and the gentlemen’s voices coming and going, I hear from my balcony.
My own servant Carobert is ordered about, by the steward of her house, or by someone…
Carobert is so harried he has little time to explain. Then again, I am shown this or that, often by Carlo. Come admire the palace gardens. There, do you see that ship in the harbour? She flies the fair flag of Naples, she is yours. You must command a cruise of the coast. You have not visited each of your holdings. You must ride the decumana in state…
Here is a fine horse, drawing a gilt carriage, seated within…
Are painted comic faces, man and wife, dressed in stiff finery… They are butts of wine, a gift from the vintners’ guild.
A gift from the moneylenders, who may not enter. Gold.
Will you make a day for the armourer? You must have a helm with the new insignia, of the joined houses.
You enjoy hunting. The chief of huntsmen can tell you stories…and does. Here is a man caught poaching, he begs pardon. His trials have been many, he tells them all. Henryk says hang him.
Hang the miscreants. But Henryk is wrong. There are thieves, traitors, dark strangers with lanterns, monks on pilgrimage, climbing to the crater of Vesuvio…
A soft knock woke him.
He had shed in sleep the discomforts of the Bishop’s bed. But at once Andreas felt them again. The walls were dank; dew beaded them. The knock repeated. He supposed it some musty-flavoured gruel, that must be eaten. An early mass, that must be attended. He was King and would show himself forbearing. And in the chapel find Matteo, perhaps, say: “It is I you answer to.”
Thinking these things, Andreas got himself peeled free of the sheet, and took the few steps needed. The door began to open.
“Yes, that’s fine,” he began, and grasped the handle, eyes placed to look down at the small figure of the servant girl. He lifted them, from the velvet of a gentleman’s tunic, to the smile of Raymond de Cabane.
“I arrive, Andreas. It was your own request.”
With Cabane were Terlizzi the younger, and a man known to Andreas as Nicolo di Malazzo. Andreas found himself backed into the room, his steps not yet unwilling. Bertrand d’Artois came last, followed by two in the plain dress of the foresters, all for the narrow landing filing up from the stairs. Malazzo drew a knife.
Andreas, driven to the window, said voiceless: “You won’t…you can’t. You are not here to kill me.”
“I am,” said Cabane. “As you must go. But Nicolo,” he spoke aside. “Put that away. We are not to shed blood in this room.”
The words implied a hand directing Cabane. The foresters dropped loops of rope from their shoulders, drawing out the leads. Terlizzi moved, as Andreas pushed his rump over the sill, and raised a foot, perched to jump.
Terlizzi took a snatch of his shirt.
“Sebastiano. Is your father a wicked man as well?”
“You know he is a holy man.”
“Is this that woman, Crispina’s, vengeance?”
Cabane stepped close. “Why profane the name of a cloistered nun?” His manner was toying, all promise in his smile, that he would prolong this conceit. His lips parted.
But the motion had been of help to Andreas. His awareness of each moment, each grain in the plaster of his walls, each in the stone under his fingertips, had grown supernatural. He envisioned a means…
He knew he could shake Terlizzi, whose eyes had shifted.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2021, Stephanie Foster)