Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part forty-two)
The Sword Decides!
Raymond, deliberate effort in his rising, said on a sigh: “To whom have they asked to speak?”
“To the Queen.”
“Then, Matteo, tell them she is a widow in mourning.”
Matteo glanced at Giovanna. “They have twenty mounted men, forty afoot. Henryk of Belgrade stays at the palace, in the name of Andreas conducting court affairs. Konrad is said to march with a company of one hundred. I believe they mean to surround us, until…”
Matteo, this time, glanced to the heavens.
“…we yield to some demand. I doubt they have decided what.”
“That is good to know, Matteo. Tell them the Queen will not meet with them.”
“And that in Italy, no one would think of such an imposition,” Giovanna said. But she shook her head, negating this.
“The Cavaliere Mastracchio has ridden out to escort them. He will explain what he has himself, as marshal here, taken in hand. The questioning of witnesses,” Matteo gave a meaning nod to Giovanna, “and the search for those evil men among whose company the unfortunate had placed himself. But there is an old woman…”
“At the tavern? Who will give testimony?”
“No, signor. They call her grandmother, Nagyanya, the soldiers. She travels in their train, and oversees a troop of women who cook and wash. By the Hungarians, she is much revered. And I count it well if she is permitted to dress the body, as she seeks to do. She will see the wounds. That will put a stop to any talk of poison.”
“Better, however,” Giovanna said, “if the Cavaliere finds those men.”
“He has pledged to me…and will to you, Madonna, when you receive him…that no stone shall go unturned.” Matteo made to leave. “But I forget, and I must say this, that the old woman desires the Queen grant her audience.”
Those things she and Raymond said to each other, and those counsels shared with Brother Matteo; other confidings, needing Sancia’s voice, at times even Maria’s—all lived, each behind its own door, in the private chambers of her mind. Between two advisors, men of differing temper, Giovanna could rely only on herself.
“What will she say to me? She does not speak French, surely not Italian?”
“I believe only Hungarian. She is a peasant woman. I have the impression she had known Andreas from the nursery, and that her words for you will be her thought of courtesy. There is a German fellow who translates. And, for what it’s worth, they bring the groom Roderigo, who will collect the King’s horse and tackle.”
“Matteo!” said Raymond with a thin smile. “Have we the last drop from the cup, or is there more?”
“I am done, signor.” Brother Matteo bowed himself out.
The woman, not this Nagyanya…whom, Giovanna hoped, had been welcomed and given refreshment by Crispina…
But the Queen, she whose choices were few, and whose path was a furrow at the edge of a cliff…must act in the ways of an innocent, slandered woman; she must encourage a new story to write itself in the minds of her subjects.
Her subjects, as Raymond said, knew little enough. Their news freshened as blown upon by the latest breeze of gossip. They knew what was proclaimed, but of proclamations, only what was shared by the literate. All Naples would soon resonate with the tragedy of Andreas, their brave young King of half a year, their yellow-haired King who had sported the skin of a spotted cat, the reckless Hungarian boy who had not the wisdom of an elder; was poorly counselled, alas, and would not heed his fond wife’s pleas—to be circumspect, to be on guard for himself.
The course the Queen must stay asked the most sensitive, cautious, of footfalls, one before the next. Giovanna felt plagued by fears. She feared Konrad, for Konrad feared Henryk. It must be so…that ferocious man… He made them all afraid. If Konrad could not for decency protect her, but cowed, could only obey the mad Hungarian who had seized the throne—
How would she reenter the city? As beloved Queen, or as prisoner?
Crispina rounded the gatehouse corner, Apollonia at her side.
Giovanna, relieved by an object of rebuke, said: “Maria does not lie alone, able to do herself an injury?”
“No, my Lady Queen.” Apollonia spoke. She curtsied then, and fell abashed behind Crispina, whose answer should come first.
“The Hungarian woman wishes to dress the body,” Crispina said, low.
“So I understand. Why may she not?”
“Is it your will, Giovanna?”
“They have him below, in the cellars, Giuditta?”
The sister of Octavio San Severino had guided Giovanna, in girlhood, through the catechism of Europe’s crowned heads, and whom the heiress of Anjou might one day be forced to marry, what uncouthness to despise in this man, what family taint to dread in that…
They understood each other, when using their old form of address.
“She would like you to go to her, there.”
“That, I don’t know. I expect she wishes to see you in company of the body. She cannot ask you any questions. The German will not go.”
Giovanna had not set foot in the convent cellars. Nor in any cellars, not since her time of childhood dares. She felt a reluctance in the soles of her feet, as though walking onto a balcony, a thing she hated. But the choice was plain.
A murderer has such fears. A mourning wife does not.
“Raymond, I will go now. Alone.”
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2021, Stephanie Foster)