23 Those distant nights- 1220
I felt somewhat sombre on leaving dinner without having really talked with my son.
As I was seated opposite the windows of the ballroom, the feasting nobility in between, a perfumed damsel passed by me and I recalled Julius' invitation to meet him in the gardens.
I made way to leave but came across Phillip. The man instructed me to return to my family, but I - disgruntled - refrained from doing so, instead intermingling myself with the feasting aristocracy as well as one might do. I was vaguely aware that I was behaving like a homesick, overindulged young man and that surely the berating of Phillip had been justified.
Yet what a shock, I thought, perhaps that is exactly what I am.
Subsequently, as the sky donned itself with a black gown, I found myself drunk in the gardens in the company of Gian del Richo. A young count with brown locks and a hip to shoulder ratio capable of dazing Julius, who had been unable to part from Gian's side for the better part of the evening. Our trio wandered trough the flowerbeds and shrubbery in the customary mannerism of inebriated individuals. Julius had found a leather ball with what appeared to be a solid moss stuffing; he staggered through the long helm grass but a few paces before me as he attempted to balance it on his chest, leaning backwards in too dangerous an angle for his intoxicated state. Beside me, the count was entertaining me with the tale of a certain Baron of Torsalo - an obscene story of a man who had an unfortunate experience with a damsel.
"Bastard walked straight out."
I listened and laughed, content to focus my thoughts elsewhere. Somewhere, anywhere, but reality and the responsibilities it brought.
"Shouldn't have opened the window," Gian said as he offered to refill my glass.
The wine was far too exclusive to chug down without savouring its taste. I paid it no mind. Julius bounced the ball in my direction, hitting the hat of the count next to me, earning him a sulking; "that was on purpose!"
"Shut up, del Richo. Before I'd- so again. I wanna ride-"
"Hè?" The count said.
"Yeah," he hugged me, "I wanna ride, bout' you?"
"Can't," I said. I stood there. Dumb.
"Forgot- where stables are," grinning, I turned: "hey Gian."
"If you had to choose between the ladies Delfine and Ramera."
"Me!" Julius said, hugging the count.
"Noo- Elisabetta of Ramera by far," Gian shrugged of Julius- who seemed unable to remain standing and dropped to the ground.
He rolled over, "I wanna ride-"
"Quit riding my leg."
"I wanna ride! For the life of me-"
"Hello? Horseboys?" I arched my neck out to the heavens, my arms spread like a bird in flight.
"You mean stableboys... or hostlers," Julius said, ignorant of Gian's attempts to get him on his feet again. The count held him under both armpits, Julius' torso limp against the brunet's chest.
"Bout we don't go riding?" Gian said, and upon seeing no stableboys would appear, I seconded. Alternatively, we made our way towards one of the east outer walls, where I knew the guards on duty to be discreet.
It was dark, and in the distance we could see but a few lights glow in the city. The wall was lined with torches, shining upon the dark stone. There was a breeze blowing so that there were no mosquitoes nor sand flies. Gian sat down on an upturned box, his back against the cooled stone of the battlements. Bottle in his hand, he produced another flask from the inside of his vest.
"It's wonderful," he proclaimed, "it sets my mouth on fire." He took a long swallow of the flask, "only the first hurts. It's like love."
"The hell it is. The hell with love," I said as Gian passed the flask to Julius. I went on to pontificate in a way only ebrious minds can, "what a sentiment. What a way to talk. What is happening? Are all around me a victim of some madness?"
"No madness here, yo- majesty," Gian said as Julius held out the flask:
"I have. I know cider when I smell it."
We could still hear the music from afar, a soft lingering tone carried forth on the breeze, and Julius began humming with the melody. Gian followed. I could neither sing nor hold tone, so I merely sat back in the dark and listened. I dissuaded from looking at Julius for the remainder of the melody, not even when he laced his fingers through mine and began to rub my palm lightly with his thumb, a curiously soothing sensation.
Only when the last hymn was being sung did I glance at him again, and, as if he had been waiting for that moment, he lowered his head to murmur a husky warning for my ears alone, "how drunk do I have to get you before I get to hear you sing?"
"Fine." He offered me his shoulder to rest my head, and kept his fingers entangled in mine. I held my breath while Julius said nothing for what seemed the longest moment, nor did he make a move to offer Gian the same courtesy. Only when the count arched a brow, looking at Julius somewhat uncertainly, did he take Gian's outstretched hand and winked at him ever so briefly. Wondering at his behavior, I glanced at him to find he had shuffled closer to me, a faint scowl on his visage. Unsettled by a sudden rush of warmth, I immediately dismissed the ridiculous thoughts that came barging up.
At some point during the night, I got the wild idea to get a bow from the armoury and use the flags on the tower closest to us as targets. I missed several times and so did the others, but we had a fine time doing it. By the time we had only a few arrows left, Julius leapt towards the nearby torch. With a practised hand, he tore open his wine-stained shirt - much to Gian's delight - and draped part of the ripped fabric around the tip. With a wink towards the both of us he emptied the cider and dropped the flask as he lit up the arrow.
"Take it easy," I said, "those things can burn people."
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"The hell with taking it easy. Let me see if I can hit the big one."
"You'll burn it."
"If I burn it I'll pay for it."
He took aim and the first arrow flared up towards the big, blue- embroidered flag in front. A tail of flames travelled through the dark sky with surprising elegance. It missed its target and briefly burned at the foot.
"Almost a perfect shot," Julius said, "let's try it again."
"You better cut it out."
"Gian. Let me have some of that, will you?"
"Here you go." The count handed him the bottle, his face shining with excitement.
Julius fired his second, a little in the wind.
"Sure missed it," I said.
"I know. Just wanted to illuminate this beautiful scene."
"Get me the wine."
"At your feet."
The last shot missed as well. But it was of no matter as Gian diverted my interest by bringing up the lady of Ramera again.
"Do you know she calls herself 'the Rose'?" He said.
"No, it's her mother who does, the Baroness."
"Is she like Elisabetta?"
"No. She is comical," Julius said, "she is sixty years old, has false curls and near no teeth, the wit of a goose, and garments that shouldn't be considered as such."
As we began sobering up, the conversation turned to such subjects, and we let the bow for what it was.
Later on, when Gian announced he was going to retire, Julius asked;
"May I escort you to your coach?"
Upon hearing the dejection in the other's voice, the count leaned closer and began whispering something in his ear. Some endearing suggestion, I imagine. Then he took a step back.
"When shall I see you again?" Julius asked him.
"Dine with me tomorrow."
They parted without another word and I did not wish to remain until late upon the castellations either. I left the east wall behind me, bound for my sleeping quarters. Upon ascending the staircases, I met Alessandro, who was retiring as well. The old man took my arm.
"May I accompany you, your Majesty?"
"I would be pleased if you do," I said.
The grand hallway was almost deserted. It was illuminated by the ambient light from the chandeliers, highlighting the texture and beauty of the architecture. Among the more dramatic sections of the palace were these staircases, which ran beneath the high frescoed ceiling. The only noises that were apprehendable were the echos of our steps and the cheers and the laughs from the south wing. Those who were still awake at this point would in all likelihood keep feasting for the rest of the night.
At first, we did not speak. Then I, in order to make some remark, said: "The Duke of Laverne looks very competent."
The old priest murmured: "Do you think so?"
I hesitated in surprise: "Why, yes! Is he not considered one of the most capable men in the Council?"
"That may be. All of them are divided between wealth and power. Ah, it is difficult to find a man who is sensible in his ideas! I have known several, they are dead." He paused, and I said with a smile:
"You are melancholic tonight."
"I always am, your Majesty; you will be too in a few years. At your age one is joyous; one hopes for many things which never come to pass. At mine, one expects nothing but death."
I laughed: "what happened tonight that makes you say so?"
"You do not understand me now, but later on you will remember what I have told you. We breathe, sleep, drink, eat, work, and then die! What do you long for? Love? A few kisses and you will be powerless. Money? To gratify your desires. Glory? What comes after it all? Death! Heaven and hell alone are certain."
The man hardened his grip on my sleeve and said slowly: "Ponder upon all that, young man; think it over for days, months, and years, and you will see life from a different perspective. I am a lonely, old man. I have neither father, mother, brother, sister, wife, children. I have only God. Rejoice, you do not know what it is to be alone at my age. It is lonesome. When one is old it is a comfort to have children. Do not ignore yours."
I stilled. Unable to cognise his meaning and therefore unable to answer. To who was he referring? The unborn child of Adeleine? Was he indicating me to do as I pleased, keeping Adeleine at court, disregarding his earlier warning? Or was it Henry he was referring to?
"I thought you bid me to disband love."
When we reached his room, the priest halted, pressed my hand and said: "Forget what I have said to you, young man, and live according to your age."
With those words, he entered his room and disappeared behind the door.
The hour was late and Constance had long since retired to her bed. Ever insightful and generous, she'd gone to her own rooms.