Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part forty-seven)
The Sword Decides!
Giovanna, in an excess of gaiety, her sister thought, wore a gown of black velvet, a black mask, her hair woven high on a Spanish comb, a mantilla of red lace falling to her waist.
“I am not in costume. I know well what propriety is.”
So she had said.
But the red medallions of the lace were quite suggestive of the black widow’s pattern. Maria knew this to be her sister’s humour, that all eyes would see a Queen flout gossip, and no mouth dare speak.
Maria straddled a garden bench, at rest in a fairyland, if lanterns nestled along paths, sooty lights that popped from the cover of statuary and tangled vines, could seem magic. She had made herself a cloud. Her blue sheath was wreathed in billows of netting, stiff with starch.
Before the glow of the arches, players washed melody upon the revel, dressed in the rags of the boneyard, their faces painted skulls. Death-in-life was a tradition of the season; it was her fancy, she was sure, that the music was shrill this year, the flutes and strings discordant.
Yet not many inclined themselves to dance.
“It hasn’t occurred to you, how deadly fancy can be?”
“Raymond. Are you playing watchman?”
She had no goblet of wine to coolly drink from. And why should this dire man not read minds?
He footed a clay vessel nearer, its antic glow settling on his chin and smile. “Of course, I watch you. What is the name of your chamber woman?”
“Lisa. What could you want with her?”
“To admonish her, for keeping silent in the face of idiocy. She must look after you better.”
He sat next to Maria, and at last explained. “What if you had brushed against a candle?”
She found that her husband-to-be had thought of wine, and downed his offering. Well, what if she had? She would be free. But jest…bitter, and in the heart, regardless…was sin, for a young duchess had died only last year when her gown caught flame.
“I thank you, signor,” she said instead.
“Signor. That’s no good. We were closer a moment ago.”
“I have seen so many comings and goings, when I sit on my balcony. I am reminded of San Severino’s time, when Andreas was expected, and the village spies arrived one after another.”
“And from this you draw what conclusion?”
“None, signor, I am ignorant…”
He was laughing, and so Maria closed her lips on further protests.
“I know what you hope. That our marriage will be prevented, that the Hungarians will return, having sanction of the Pope. I can report that he has sought it, the brother of Andreas. His petition will be taken up some year hence. And after we are married, he may petition again, and wait for that answer.”
“Oh, I have no hopes of my fate.”
“I have one.” He leaned to her. She allowed his mouth to press hers; he did not force greater intimacy. “That you will cease this mordant way you have, this gloom. I call it unhealthy.”
He stood, took a hand of Maria’s and kissed that too.
Unhealthy ruminations crowded her mind, with no words to them. She felt she was awake at some point, hearing the rustle of Giovanna’s guests.
“Do you think he lets me have money? He knows what he charges, and counts what I bring. He tells me what gown I will wear, and duns me any tear or smudge. He…”
“But, Simona, I can’t know these things.”
“Say, two hundred. That is two years, if it costs me to live…one or two a week… Perhaps it costs less.”
“And travel, have you thought of travel?”
Sancia’s, the known voice, cut in: “If I am able to raise the money, you must not say a word of it to Pio. Hide it in the hems of your skirts. Do you know how to sew a coin, so it touches no other?”
Maria heard faint shushes of fabric, and supposed Sancia demonstrated. She imagined basting stitches, set to fix each piece of gold; imagined vividly making such a cache in the hem of her own skirt…
“But I think you’re very foolish. Why have you taken up with him?”
“He has a patron there.” A freight of censure came with this remark.
“Simona. Who is Pio spying for in Sicily?”
A flat, sudden noise, and a cry.
“Yes, of course, Madonna. Of course I will be quiet. I don’t know Pio’s business. If I did, would you carry it to the Queen?”
“Understand.” The voice came through gritted teeth. “What I give is not to save your life. If you are so lucky, Simona, that Pio has no grand ideas about brokering your story, which will certainly get you killed, then still Guido, you know it…will value himself…”
“Oh, you guess as much? Why did I come to you, Sancia?”
“Hush! Stay with Pio, as you go on the road. But when you are in Catania, leave him.”
“I can’t manage it.”
“You will. I will give you a medal with the royal seal. You will have been nursemaid, to the Princess Maria, when her mind was gone. By that, you’ll find work easily, in any good house.”
A laugh. “They will say I’ve stolen it.”
After a prolonged space, Sancia said: “Do you believe that I am Sancia di Renato, that I am companion to the Queen, that I am of noble blood, and that I know many secrets of the palace?”
Simona made an uncertain noise.
Sancia’s voice grew sly. “Why? Why believe it? What proof? I have the manner, and that persuades you. What were you to Andreas…a wretched street creature? No, I suppose you played the Contessa da Sienna for him—as for a knight who has the lobe of his left ear missing, you played the role of a stableboy.”
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2021, Stephanie Foster)