Marjorie Bowen: The Sword Decides! (part fifty)
The Sword Decides!
Ludovic had laid his sword across the table, hilt at his right hand. Montferrat on his side had done the same. A translator stood ready, a priest in service to Cardinal Chalus. Chalus on the order of Clement had performed the coronation of Andreas; he had sent missives to Hungary, telling what Andreas could not, and had made himself close to Erzébet during her travels. The cardinal was a conduit to Avignon; he was one of the world’s humble servants…
An easy sort to be over-relied on. Ludovic felt his brother had needed his autonomy checked, but that he would himself extract his rule from the influence of Chalus.
No, Andreas could not write of matters unavailable to hand. What was not before the eyes of Andreas had slipped from his notice. By his mother’s report and from Chalus, Ludovic had learned how rumour stood in Naples, that nobles loyal to Giovanna were said, and had been from the earliest days of the marriage, to plot against the life of Andreas.
Henryk, returning, had told that Giovanna now wore the ring Erzébet had given her son, blessed by the Cardinal, and meant for a talisman.
With such helpful services in mind, Ludovic tried direct speech, the Naples dialect as he remembered it. “What occurred that night at the convent? Who was there?”
Montferrat smiled, in the amiable way of a courtier who shelters his monarch from error by allowing him to restate a command. Ludovic nodded aside, and the priest repeated the words…with better accent, with alacrity, but with, Ludovic thought, little changed.
Yet Montferrat woke to their meaning. “Signor, I have never been to that place. I cannot say.”
“My brother was murdered.”
“So, very sadly, we understand. He had fallen in with evil strangers, with heretics, as by the order of the marshal Mastracchio we learn, gathered in the wake of that friar of Sorrento who preaches proofs that the mother church herself does not regard the Three as One.”
Montferrat’s half-smile invited, but Ludovic knew heresies must be treated stone-faced.
“But nowhere can this man hide, he will soon be caught.”
The priest nodded emphatic accord; the two men turned from Ludovic to converse with each other.
“And the friar,” Ludovic broke in, “is in the pay of Cabane. Or one of the others, Durazzo, Taranto…”
“That flea-bitten ascetic, who beds with his Maddalena in haylofts? Pardon, signor, I must not make myself disrespectful, but Brother Paolo could scarcely gain audience with the kitchen cat. Do you suppose the excellent Durazzo would closet with him?”
Excellent, Ludovic had thought at the time, was meant to convey something. Cabane’s involvement had not been denied, while Taranto’s was elided altogether.
And the time wasted at reading Montferrat might be Montferrat’s aim, among others.
Ludovic sat now facing Konrad, wishing to think of a device, a trap that knotted its victim tighter, the more he struggled to escape. He could not recall what story told him in childhood…possibly at his grandfather’s court of Naples…had contained it.
To leave Hungary poorly defended were to leave a ripe scent for the Turks, or for any Magyar baron, discontent (so they advised one another) to be a vassal of France. To lay siege to Montferrat’s stolen cities was to spread the ranks thin, in territory unknown… Montferrat might have a labyrinth under his castle, to ferry foodstuffs from the stubborn peasantry…
Stubborn to the Hungarians. The siege could be sped with war-engines, with men enough to surround every smallholding, seize every cow and chicken, the fruit of every orchard. But here Ludovic could see…himself hated on the peninsula, schemed against at home, unable to reward his soldiers, working them to rebellion, the trap springing apart suddenly, to reveal a greater trap.
Yet to ignore Montferrat and make onwards, well…here too the tangle had got him by the leg.
“Will you return these cities to the rule of Naples?”
“You ask, signor. That is noble and becoming in a king. But no.”
“Because you think I am powerless…”
“Let me propose to you instead. You cannot send your Hungarians behind the walls of Naples to learn what Giovanna does. They will be killed, maybe. Or returned to you with falsehoods. But, some spies of my own… For one example only, the princess Maria.”
A cold eye produced more, a revelation that stunned, though only Konrad had drawn breath.
“Who is now Duchess of Durazzo.” Montferrat shrugged. “Why or how has not come to me, but it was done in secret, I know. She was pledged to Cabane, who might have been Duke of Calabria. But she is the wife of Carlo, and bearing his child…so, impossible, hmm? For Cabane.”
I don’t want her. There was no time when I wanted her. Durazzo is most welcome, and when I marry, I will…
Ludovic suppressed this, saying none of what must amuse his friendly nemesis. The boast, besides, was empty. So long as his mother lived, he would not choose for himself. But he must make himself the winner, not the loser, to strengthen his kingdom and marry well.
“Then allow me to bring you intelligence, and you will know how she arrays her army, Giovanna, and who she makes her pacts with. Sicily, they say, will agree at least not to side with Hungary.”
(The Sword Decides!, 1908, Marjorie Bowen; edit and original material, 2022, Stephanie Foster)