Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part thirty-eight)
The Sword Decides!
Sleeping was difficult.
At the same time, Maria knew she spent too many hours at it.
Long ago, Giovanna had taken her arm, weakened by shock… The shock of losing her throne to Andreas. This was truth, and Maria’s anchor. She held to it—Andreas was King. He cared for her. He would deliver her from this chamber of imprisonment, at the convent of Santo Pietro a Maiello.
Maria, clung to by her sister, had supported her physically, walked at her side. They had descended stairs that carried down, and down, and further down. But taking care not to tread her own skirt, or Giovanna’s, Maria had not marked the company’s path.
Cabane was there, ordering soldiers into ranks. They were outside the palace, crossing a sward that looked to the sea. After this, more stairs, then an entourage of mounted men, Terlizzi, Squillace, Malazzo, d’Artois…
Maria had feared to count, among the fifteen loyal to Giovanna, dear Carlo…
But her cousin did not go; he stayed with Andreas.
Giovanna had fainted, into Maria and Sancia’s arms. She had seemed to. Cabane swooped her up bodily, laying her in a wagon, its bed canopied against the dust of the road.
“Maria,” he had said, only that. His face very sober, proper. He gave an elbow, and Maria knew she could do no other but clasp this. The man who wished to be her husband had taken her by the waist; and as she could not climb alone, she had borne it.
The wheels of the wagon turned at a jogging pace, while Giovanna dozed on her cushions. After a time, Sancia, fluttering a fan under the royal nose until the Queen was roused, opened a basket. She handed buns, and spiced wine, of which Giovanna drank long, crouched low.
Sancia knelt, steadying the jug, her back all Maria could see, before Giovanna sighed and lay languid, fingering a silken curtain. Maria recalled herself parched. Allowed her turn, she had swallowed the dregs, and soon fell…
Out of consciousness, she wanted to say now.
Suspicions were heavy things; and Maria felt inclined to confess them. But Brother Adamo was here her confessor, and she disliked to tell him what was in her heart. She had been admonished, each day—and of days, she could not count her confinement—that she must lie abed, for she was ill. She must not tax her strength, but keep still and say her prayers, enduring only short walks with Sister Apollonia.
The thought had come late to Maria, on a listless morning one week past (for in stealth with her needlework, she now crafted a calendar), that the air was cool, the dew thick on the grass…
Summer was passing.
Summer was passing… She had been a month and more at this place. Why were her nights waking, restless; why was she overtaken with lethargy only when the sun had risen, and she had been served her breakfast?
Because Apollonia retired, after dark, and did not ply her charge with food and drink; because Giovanna was in her bed, Sancia in hers…
By that evening of the first commotion, Maria could no longer doubt. They were drugging her. The wooziness, when she had known of no reason for it, had seemed convincing enough.
I feel ill; they tell me I am ill…
But no more.
This visit of Andreas, uplifting to her hopes, proved also straining to Mother Crispina’s resources. She hadn’t servants to guard everything. Maria was left by Apollonia in the little herb bed next the niche where the spring bubbled.
“Stay quiet, Madonna. I will be away a short time.”
Yesterday, all this had been. Maria, spotting him approach, a ewer in his grip, had ushered a boy to her knee.
“Can you fill a flask from this spring, can you hand it to me through my window, when there is no one to notice? My window is there, the patch of red…the drapery, you can tell it…do you see? And will you do the same every morning?”
The boy nodded, tried a bow…possibly a curtsy. “Principessa.”
“Ah. Your own place…can you imagine? is higher than mine. But I am sorry they gossip so in this godly house. You see too there is a vine, I think it won’t be any trouble to you…”
The age the child was, he had sprung away at once, scaled the vine one-handed, leapt back to earth. Her window was on the second storey, her chamber across from Giovanna’s. That morning she had drunk the sweet water, not the wine. Sceptical, after all, that bread would seem an easier vehicle for poison, she had eaten, her appetite improved.
The tray arrived in the hands of a hasty girl, Apollonia again at some errand. Maria felt the dawn stirrings of the convent showed the time out of kilter…while only her turnkey’s absence offered proof.
Last night lamps had burned below; Maria had seen them carried in procession, a corner turned, one, the next, a third, eclipsed. Then Apollonia had been away at Mother Crispina’s biddings, and Maria, gaining liberty by this, had tiptoed from her chamber…no window she could dare placed to show where they met…
She could hardly, bearing Sancia in mind, make her way further to eavesdrop. But this day’s buzzing in the air meant altered plans for Giovanna.
The sun was at its first strength, when the noises came.
A chorus of shouts, somehow dismayed.
A scrabbling, harsh breathing. A heavy fall that resolved itself to running feet, moving from what sounded the tower, to the open yard. The breathing was his. She would not have sworn anyone could tell the exhalations of a friend—
But Maria knew. The noises had evil in them, and evil, did it portend destruction to Andreas, must also to herself.
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2021, Stephanie Foster)