14 On the topic of raw fish - 1211
1211 - Gaeta
I stepped out of my cabin and made my way up to the quarterdeck. Before me, the crew was hustling about the ship, maintaining the sails, swabbing the deck, and tying off lines. Within close vicinity of our own ship, two other galleys sailed with us, holding a total of two hundred soldiers to ensure my safety.
The captain greeted me in a deferential manner and informed me of our progress. He seemed rather content as he pointed out our destination. I followed his lead and discovered that indeed, on the northern horizon, the region of Lazio had become notable.
It had taken us two days to reach Gaeta. With me was but a small following, splitting the remnants of my army into two, each taking a different route over land. One was under the command of Phillip of Palearia. Another under that of Louis I, Duke of Bavaria, whom had joined my cause one year ago. I had come to know him as a man of fine character - though he perhaps thought too highly of his own wit, he was an engaging man with the ability to adapt quickly and make sharp-witted decisions in time of need - thus capable of handling a post of prestige.
I would meet both again in but a week's time, in Rome, after my negotiations with Pope Innocent III.
Accompanying me on this diplomatic mission was Julius Alcamo, who had been with me for as long as I could remember. As the middle son of one of the court advisers in Palermo, we had the luck to meet one another during our early childhood years. We weren't strangers to any enmity or dispute, but devotion was victorious in our relationship, and the diversity and contrast that subsisted in our characters drew us nearer.
I had Alessandro, the priest, board one of the other vessels. My affiliation with the old man was purely out of need, considering that he had a personal relationship with Innocent III.
As I perpended over the upcoming negotiations with the pope, I saw Julius make his way towards me from the forecastle deck. The rising sun lit up his face halfway and set his blonde hair ablaze. He sped up the last few steps of the stairs and slammed his hands on my shoulders from behind.
"There's a face I have been missing these days," he said as he rested his elbows against the railing.
I joined him and grimaced, rather uneasy. I knew the pallidness and nausea from the day before to have disappeared, "I'll survive."
Julius started playing with the lace finishes of his sleeve as he nodded towards the captain's previous update, "alas, your hardships are almost over."
"It's about time."
"You know, a guy in the port of Palermo once told me the best way to prevent seasickness is eating raw fish in vinegar."
"You're taking advice from random fishermen now?"
"I don't know, worth a try, don't you think?"
I took a step closer to him, squinting my eyes against the sun, "the day I eat a raw fish just because you told me to, is the day I should be locked up."
A broad grin pulled at the corners of his mouth, "you wrong me, am I not trustworthy?"
"On the topic of raw fish," I said, "you bet."
"Captain!" He called out, "on the subject of preventatives for seasickness; raw fish. Yes or no?"
"No, my good sir," the man answered without turning around, "I would advise against it."
I raised both my eyebrows as Julius shrugged in defeat, "I shall heed the captain's advice."
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"You're no fun."
Julius Alcamo had led an easy life. Generally, he was idle and mischievous, and therefore his education had suffered under his relentless pursuit of roguiry. And so with his dissipated style of life, his naive nature, and his comparative youth, he occupied a lucrative position at the Sicilian court. A position he had received through his association with me. But if I had not gotten my childhood friend this station, then through a hundred other relatives, Julius Alcamo would have received a similar post.
Half the aristocracy of Sicily and Italy were friends and relations of Julius. One-third of the people were friends of his father, and had known him since childhood; another third were his intimate friends, among which he could count me, the heir to the empire, and the remainder were friendly acquaintances.
Julius Alcamo was not merely liked by all who knew him for his good humor, but for his bright disposition, and his unquestionable honesty. In him, in his handsome, radiant figure, his sparkling eyes, blond hair and eyebrows, and the fairness of his face, there was something which produced a physical effect of kindliness and good humor on the people who met him. And I recall him to treat all people perfectly equally and exactly the same, whatever their fortune or calling might have been.
We remained on the quarterdeck as our cog advanced on the port of Gaeta. It took the crew a while to unload our cargo, seeing that all horses had to properly be taken care of after the journey overseas. During the process of unloading the animals, there had gathered quite a lot of onlookers on the dock.
Further towards the pubs, on the corner of a sunlit ally, two young girls stood under the flower baskets hanging from a balcony and regarded the soldiers mounting their horses.
"He's a king," one said with certainty.
"No he isn't, just some lord," the second said.
"The blonde guy' handsome."
"Which one?" The second said.
"There, on the black horse."
"Oh my, he looks angelic!"
"No," the boy accompanying them said, "he's a good-for-nothing pretty boy."
"You're just jealous."
"No, I'm sure," the boy said with a hopeful glance towards the second girl, "but I'm not a good-for-nothing."
"You also aren't pretty," she replied.
The girls continued giggling, swaying their skirts.
"My mom told me to look for someone rich," the first girl said, with a tone that radiated confidence in her own statement, "you always have to pick the man with the most exquisite clothes and the heaviest purse."
"That's because your mother does that every night on the stree-" The boy got cut off by a slap.
While I heard the youngsters quarrel, I descended the plank and stepped onto the stone pavement of the dock, where said young blond soldier dismounted and handed me the reins of my horse.
"Thank you Julius."
"We'll be ready to leave in two," he said.
"Good, I mean to be in Rome before sundown."
I rose atop my steed and watched Alessandro struggle to do the same, the man had no class or style whatsoever. I sighed. Having anticipated that the old priest' restrictments would manifest themselves as a problem, I wasn't surprised, but seeing him wrestle his leg over the rear of his white mare was rather disheartening. This was supposed to be the man leading the negotiations.
While I was aware I shouldn't presume that his riding capabilities translated into his competence as a pacifier, I had a hard time trusting him, taking into consideration that I had never seen the man in action. Yet Phillip trusted him, therefore I would as well.
"We'll make that time easily," Julius signalled the troop to depart in formation, turned back to me and said, "weather has been good till now, the roads will be clear."
We rode. Past Fondi and past the hills surrounding Vetica. Past Mainza and it's stone temples. We rode until I saw the city' outline on the horizon. Rome was engulfed in a pale blue hue, as it was still too distant for me to distinguish colour.
Later, we passed under one of its gates and made our way through the cobbled streets towards the Vatican. People were shouting to one another across the roads; one shout just above my head stilled as they recognised my escutcheon. Down the whole length of the streets at regular intervals were little market stands, women were thronging along, gossiping with the men accompanying them. A fruit hawker who was crying his wares to the people in the windows above, progressing almost as inattentively as my delegation, halted with his push-cart to let us pass.
The Lateran Palace was of unusual extent and the main entrance was particularly high and wide. Upon arrival, we were released from our horses. My men were given way towards their modest lodgings and I entered the palace with Alessandro and Julius by my side.
I passed, slowly, through the grand hall, as if I now had abundant time. The white arches above me were adorned by painted scenes and miniatures, whose bodies I deemed solemn but stately. It was as if the marble floor itself shone out a bright coruscation, which refulgence reflected throughout the walls, transforming the miniatures in a game of shadows.
An attendant came forward and directed us to a wide and inviting room, where several people introduced themselves. All, including two cardinals, were members of the Italian aristocracy, yet I forgot their names as soon as the next eager man greeted me and made himself known. After the required introductions, I had not yet been given the chance to meet the pope, and I was informed there would follow a formal presentation in the morning.
This was to expected. The papacy loved playing such power games.
I saw Julius frown when we were made aware of these proceedings. Sadly, with throwing a fit out of the question, I had no choice but to smile and tell them I was pleased to be given the time to rest.
The same attendant reappeared, offering to guide me to my temporary lodgements. The halls were imposing but solitary and I could hear my own steps echo mingle with those of the page's. These halls beheld a certain beauty; imposing and dignified, they seemed to be an unperturbed monument.
After dinner, Julius came to join me, and we spend that evening languishing on my terrace, looking out over Rome' rooftops. It was maybe one of the few peaceful moments I had during years of conflict.
As we regarded a particular well-lit area of the city, Julius said; "there must be festivities going on."
"Yeah," leaning against the railing, I emptied my cup.
"We could go."
"Why? You want to?"
I turned my head and saw a look that I had thought to be long lost. Julius' eyes shone out a bright boyish excitement, one I had pleasant memories off.
"Aren't we supposed to act mature," I said, "our days of sneaking out are ought to be behind us."
He took the cup out of my hand and placed it together with his own on the decorative table behind him.
"You go," I said, nodding my head towards the well-lit part of the city.
"Come with me," Julius grasped the back of my neck, frowning as he held my gaze. The evening wind stirred the dust around us, and long skeins of honey hair escaped their bond. They floated around before settling on his shoulders, "you're able to shrug off your newfound responsible attitude for one night, right?"
He pushed our foreheads together, eyes as vibrant as the sea watched me weigh over his words.
"I'm not joining you."
"You're addressing your monarch."
"You have a habit of being unapologetically nefarious whenever you're cheerful."
Spinning on his heels, Julius made his way towards the door, where he halted just a moment, "These events aren't all that good for your mind. You should relax for a while."
"I will," I said.
"Take care." With a suave wink goodby, he took his leave.
Turning back towards the rooftops, I sat down and crossed my legs. I refilled my cup, savouring the bitter smell flaring up from the can, and gazed over the city.
"Shouldn't we all."