15 Young indulgence - 1211
Once the negotiations started that morning, I found myself bewildered. Alessandro proofed himself to be a mediator deserving of an honourable repute, and my newfound respect for the man was surely in favour of our correlation. During one of the breaks, I noted him staring at me and I looked up to meet his gaze. His old pale eyes seemed to vibrate with mirth and amusement.
Seated in the high chair he seemed small and tough, though strange. He wore a priest' garment and always acted as though he knew a great secret, as though he had just heard it and it greatly amused him. It made him look content though it often made him appear melancholic. Seemingly, he had convinced himself that he didn't care about anything, but later on - when I truly got to know him - I came to know him as a man who cared a great deal. He was quite mischievous and that was part of his secret; he liked being bad and he didn't have remorse. He had a flair for politics, loved intrigue, and was a deft speaker; comfortable working a crowd.
"Did it please you, your majesty?"
Confused at his meaning, I looked about the room before answering; "of today's developments? I am."
The man chuckled as he regarded the fireplace, a beautiful marble mantle, veined with black marks. His eyes darted over the portraits hanging above, "knowing that aligning yourself with me did not put you at the disadvantage."
I willed myself to oppose his statement but found I was at a loss of words to refute his claim.
"Do not fret, your majesty," he said, "many make themselves guilty of prejudice, many are penitent afterwards, I do not blame you."
I said nothing but slightly nodded my head and raised my glass. A smile curled his worn lips as he raised his own in response.
As dinner was served, the discussions were coming to a close. With Alessandro by my side, I made my way through the grand hallway.
Earlier today, we had been informed that at the Diet of Nuremberg, last September, I had been elected in absentia as German King by a rebellious faction backed by Innocent III. Additionally, the pope excommunicated my rival, who had been forced to return to Germany.
"Your increasingly strong measures to check the noble' power made you an enemy to many. It comes as no surprise some members of the nobility are eager to side with Otto IV," Innocent III had said.
This proved to be true, but with the papacy at my side, I would hold the advantage against Otto's retainers. The pope' support nevertheless did come at a cost; I had to agree on a future separation between the Sicilian and Imperial titles, requiring me to name my wife as regent of Sicily.
It had been long since I had spared a thought for her, and I would dishonour her image even more that evening.
Forgive me, Constance, for I was a young fool.
A slight rain that saturated every square of paving on the driveway, ran down the windows of my coach as it halted. I perceived the high windows of the mansion before me, while behind me, Julius descended from the carriage, holding a hand to his hat as he did so.
We had been invited to a noble's residence on the outskirts of Rome, who was throwing a feast in my honour.
Upon entering, Julius wandered from my side and became lost in the sea of aristocracy swarming to meet me; ruddy cheeks, mounds of braided hair atop heads. Men and women talking about all manners of millinery nonsense. It was as if I had engulfed myself in a landscape of pearls and ribbons.
Just as them, I was hidden in riches, smelling of chamomile and encrusted in embroidery.
Gusts of rain came in from a few open windows and the music rushed on. Broad-chested men were acting like cocks in satin coats.
I politely greeted the guests and showed my gratitude towards the hosts. I danced with each of their daughters - their powdered necks and satin dresses twirling about - until I pardoned myself. Eager for some respite. Wandering towards the very edges of the ballroom, I found myself a quiet window, looking out upon the gardens.
"You are younger than I expected."
"Am I?" I said before turning towards the melodic voice addressing me, "do I not meet your expectations?"
The young woman before me showed no sign of fluster as she met my gaze, "I meant it as no disrespect, your majesty."
Her brown hair was pulled back, revealing the long line of her neck, arching slightly as she tilted her head sideways. Her nose was modest and straight, her cheeks high and soft, with a modest blush adoring them, making my hand itch to touch her. I could do nothing but stare, mesmerised as I was, while she seemed unaware of the sudden interest I bestowed upon her appearance.
"May I compliment you then? You look lovely tonight," I said, a polite smile on my face. Inside, I cried and recoiled the moment the words passed my lips. Damned be Julius, he made it seem so easy to make charming advances. I swallowed and brushed the long strands of hair that had fallen, back behind my ears.
Her gaze wandered from mine and her brow furrowed, "thank you."
"You sound rather disheartened. Do you not enjoy a compliment?"
She rested her eyes on the night outside, and I wondered whether she could see anything but her own reflection. She was magnificent. I could not beckon my eyes to leave her,- the way she raised her brow when speaking, the beauty of her bare throat brushed by jewellery that shone a rich burnished stygian blue next to her white skin.
"I find it is either polite flattery or holds a hidden purpose."
Amused, I forgot my own flustered thoughts and humoured her, "you enjoy bluntness then?"
"I prefer to call it honesty."
Curiosity rose within me, and I inquired after her name.
"Adelaine of Urslingen", she said. The blue of her dress waved around her as she turned towards me once more, "daughter of Conrad of Urslingen, Duke of Urslingen and Spoleto."
"Now do tell me. What would please you, Adelaine of Urslingen, if not a well-meant compliment?"
"I'm afraid you would judge me rather blunt."
"Didn't we agree to call it honesty?"
"Quite so," her face was divided by the pale cast of the moon and the warm light of the candles above.
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Her features softened and a small smile formed, "tell me of the war, then."
The war? This was a festive social gathering, if there was talk of the war then surely it would be behind closed doors. My surprise and displeasure must have shown, for her shoulders fell. The urge to pull her into my arms, to comfort her, rose within me. I took a steadying breath, holding myself in check and blamed my arisen urges on the liquor I had consumed earlier that evening.
I spoke rather quickly, taken aback and seeking to please her, "it's a rather gruesome subject for such a pleasant night."
"I agree," she said, making no secret of her dissatisfaction as she made way to leave.
"And I find myself in too beautiful company to talk of death."
"I won't hold you then, your majesty," she curtsied, "I'm sure there are numerous ladies awaiting a kind word from you."
"While I have been flattered by your words on numerous occasions these past minutes," I said in a poor attempt to halt her. Once again I recoiled; what nonsense was I sprouting?
"You jest," she said.
"I do not."
"I assure you, I do not."
"Then I believe we're at an impasse," she said, briefly curtsied once more and disappeared from sight. Voices mingled with the orchestra and bounced from the high ceiling. A sudden sense of abandonment washed over me.
If the earth had swallowed me then, I would have greatly welcomed it.
I would normally seek the company of Julius in these moments, and I found him to be chatting with a striking man of his age. He introduced his acquaintance as the young Viscount of Assisi, and upon perceiving that I was in need of a drink, he offered me his.
I gladly accepted the bitter liquor I knew to be in his glass and commenced to further entertain the nobles coming up to me to engage in discussion. I caught myself momentarily looking sideways each time I detected a shimmer of blue fabric out of the corner of my eye so that I might steal a glance of that alabaster skin.
Later that evening, I encountered her once more on the dance floor. Thus as I held her in my arms while we swayed to the music amidst the other pairs, she inquired after the war once more, and I, finding myself avid to indulge her, led her to the gardens. I saw Julius stray away from the public eye as well, in the company of a certain young viscount.
The rain had stilled. We walked about the dim garden paths, as I explained to her in grand detail the story of the war of succession and the struggle for power taking place throughout the empire.
Coming across a small pavilion, we entered. The ivy crept in between the seams of the white stone, and the locusts send their call out into the evening.
"And what are your plans once - or rather if - you come out as the victor?" Adeleine said, straightening her dress as she sat down on the low bench perched in the centre of the pavilion.
"I imagine I shall govern my empire," I turned, positioning myself before her, resting one arm against a supporting pillar. Regarding her voluptuous figure seated, enlightened by the pattern of moonlight that lay upon her dress.
"Yes, 'my' empire," I said.
"It's an awful lot to own, isn't it?"
"I have paid a price for everything I own."
"And what is it exactly that's yours?" She heaved her chin, "we're not owners, we shouldn't own people."
"Really?" An amused laugh escaped me, "I own my soldiers, they do my every bidding."
"Is life really so damn simple for you?"
"Perhaps I ask less of it than you think."
"I don't believe that at all," she said and rose, advanced until she was but a whisper away, causing me to blush. She wished me all the best in a faltering tone, and I spoke to her without knowing what I said.
And she smiled. Oh good gracious, how she smiled. Her eyes alight and sparkling as I had never seen them, her gleeful grin causing the strangest tug at my heart.
Adeleine let her handkerchief fall, I picked it up and she took me innocently by the hand. I kissed her palm with particular vivacity and grace; upon which our lips met, our eyes sparkled, our knees trembled and the world halted.
I drew her into my arms.
Later that evening, on my way back towards the Lateran palace, I mentioned the charming damsel. Yet Julius seemed rather disinterested, as he sat sideways, one leg over the soft bench, rearranging his sleeves whilst regarding the city at night. His slender figure arranged as if he were posing for an erotic illustration. Both of us were heavily intoxicated, and I assume half of my ranting became lost due to my own mumbling.
"I might compare her to a nymph!" I cried as I let myself fall sideways, face-first into the cushions of the bench.
Julius sighed as a peculiar deep hollow in the road made the carriage heave. He half-heartedly continued to listen to my tirade as he pulled me upwards and against him, his fingers combed my hair out of my eyes with a certain solemnity.
"My friend, for a guy who has a wife and son; you are astoundingly innocent," he said, presumably thinking of a certain viscount.