24 Palermo - 1220
Autumn came. I had spent the better part of the summer listing, talking, hunting and dining together with my wife and son. Though there was a distance between me and Constance that I knew we would never learn to cross, Henry enabled us to find a common ground to share. A common interest and a stable factor in our marriage; beside the relentless and brutal pursuit that is the governing of an empire. He was our safe haven and the prime source of our happiness. Our child,- the innocent creature bestowed on us, to bring up to good, and whose future was in our hands. My son delighted me by opening up his heart to me. We played chess by the hearth and Henry bestowed me with his everyday tales. He showed me his love for music and dance, and I taught how to read maps and speak Greek and Arabic and fight your way around the treacherous haven that was the court.
He shared my love for exotic life, and while his appeal to falconry did not seem that abundant,- he took great interest in my menagerie, with which I had already impressed the cold cities of Northern Italy and Europe. Everything was made to yield to his wishes and his conveniences. Constance and me strove to shelter him, in a manner in which every overindulged child is sheltered by their parents, and to surround him with all that could bring him contentment.
Another might judge me for my fickleness; had I not claimed my undying love for Adeleine?
Not that I ever forgot our intimacy and the moments we had shared. For the night where I first discovered the marvel that was Adeleine - in the pavilion behind the nightly sky - was forever engraved in my mind and her old letters were within the safety of my quarters still.
Yet our last encounter was fated to take place as my longing towards Sicily only grew. Ultimately, after what seemed like weeks of silent contemplation, my fervour took the better of me and I ordered the court to be relocated.
The evening before I planned on giving the court this edict, Adeleine was seated on the balcony of my bedroom as we looked over the lights of the boats on the Tiber and I was completely frank with her since we made a great thing about being completely frank with each other about everything.
Resolutely, I said: "I am to leave for Sicily."
She sighed like one about to lose consciousness, but did not speak.
"You cannot imagine how much I suffered before taking such a decision." I paused, hoping that she would reply, expecting an outburst of furious rage, reproaches, and insults. I tried to take her hand, but she drew it away and murmured as if stupefied:
"You bid me to marry a man - I did. And scarcely have I done so, you plan to leave altogether?"
I fell upon my knees before her, without, however, venturing to touch her, more moved by her words than I had anticipated.
"Adeleine, my dearest, you understand my position. Oh, if I could have married you, what happiness it would have afforded me! But you know why I couldn't. What could I do? There are days when I would like to kill your husband." I spotted tears gather in her eyes and whispered: "Do not weep, Adeleine, do not weep, I beseech you. You break my heart."
Adeleine' countenance hardened; though her tears continued to flow. She rose. By then, I realised that she was going to leave me without a word of reproach or pardon, and I felt humbled, servile. I seized her gown and implored:
"Do not leave me like this."
What could I do? Not knowing what I was saying, as my head sank lower and lower, I listened.
"You are loathsome to me, repulsive!" She said. "Your tears mean nothing! You have neither heart nor honorable feeling! You are hateful to me, disgusting!"
With pain and wrath she uttered these words so wretched. She looked at me with that despairing, tearful glance, ever so touching, which expressed all the misery pent-up in a woman's heart, and said: "I have nothing more to say; I can do nothing. As I have almost no right to do so in this god-forsaken world. Have you not humiliated me enough? You did not even come to me when she was born. Oh, how beautiful she is, yet you refrain from seeing my child. Oh, if I were born a man! You might have respected me."
"You know I have always respected your every opinion. And I wish to see her. Soon. I know we have a future together."
I listened to her hard, heavy breathing, and I felt unutterably sorry for her. Although nowadays I realise that my self-centered ego primarily felt sorry for itself. Adeleine tried several times to begin to speak, but could not. I waited. Then she said in manner so timid, with an expression so severe:
"Then you are more of a foul than I ever was."
Disengaging herself, she left the room. I pondered over her words for a long time after that. To be fair, our relationship had been strained ever since I bid her to marry Giuseppe di Marano, son of the Count of Antioch - and I had been a fool for believing it would have ended any other way than it had. That did not mean I did not cry bitterly, and part of my heart would never leave that room.
Louis had been proven right, it had been nothing but the fickle that was young naive love; no matter how bitter and despairing our parting was. So under the nightly sky I mourned, but as soon as morning came, I buried it. As I had come so accustomed to doing. War, loss, heartbreak. None would see my sorrow.
Soon after, I bid Rome - and Phillip, as I trusted him to be my viceroy - goodbye and sailed back to my city. My home. My dear Palermo.
My limps ached from standing on deck. I had risen early, before the sun had even shown itself, and for long dreading hours, I waited. Tired but stubborn.
With me was only my private fleet. The queen's galley sailing close to my own - other passengers were more of my trustees, such as Alessandro and Julius and Gian del Richo, who had grown on me over the past few months.
Overall, the journey had been pleasant, in the sense that the weather had been kind to us - disregarding the fact that I still dreaded my seasickness. Above, in the nightly varicoloured sky of deep cerulean, stubbed with diamond stars, the moon looked as if it had put on a dress of pure white thread. The waves crashed gently against the stem below, a melody that filled one with peace, quietude and drowsiness.
My hair fell midway into my line of vision. I was halfway gone when I felt someone come and stand next to me. I turned, expecting to see Julius readying himself to make a remark at my expense.
"Are you all right?" A deep baritone voice greeted me. Louis' kind gaze was barely illuminated by the lantern he carried, yet I recognised the fondness in his eyes. They reassured me more than any words he might have followed up with.
"Yes." I nodded, looking at the soft waves. "Yes, soon I will be."
He simply nodded. On such moments, he was a man of few words, and he lay a hand on my shoulder as we shared this moment of peace.
The rising sun split the night, and I almost cried tears of joy when I saw the first cliffs appear on the horizon. I leapt up to the quarterdeck, biding Louis to follow me. He genuinely laughed as he saw my elation.
Slowly but steadily the island became distinguishable - it seemed as if it was rising from the ocean.
We watched the trees show in the grey of the earliest light. First, we saw only the trunks and the outline of their tops. As the light grew stronger I could see the tops of the trees blowing in the gale and then, as the sun began to come up behind the hills, the whitish-grey and the bright green of their blowing branches. The grass was brown from the drought and the limestone tops of the far cliffs made them look as though they were crested with snow.
"It will take the fleet another hour to reach it," Louis said, yet I could barely contain my excitement.
Not too long after, Julius came onto deck and was informed of our progress. That moment, he lifted an innocent ship-boy of his feet and spun him around. The terrified young sailor held on to his broom for dear life as my friend dropped him on the planks once more and walked up to me. Deeming Julius capable of bestowing me with the same treatment, I unconsciously stepped back a few paces. Yet he merely embraced me.
I was overwhelmed for a moment. I was no stranger to his abundant displays of affection, yet it had been long since Julius had shown me such intimacy. I knew he had struggled with himself after the war, though he mostly hid it away. That's how he dealt with such things - he laughed them away and cried only in the hidden corners of his heart, so that none would see his worry.
But now - as he embraced me, with Sicily appearing on the horizon - all tension seemed to leave him. He seemed... at peace. Over his shoulder, I could see the white floury sand of the beaches. There was a green sphere over the water and as the water became clearer, I could see the shadow of any big fish swim along whenever the animals came within close vicinity of my ship.
That afternoon we made our entrance and passed through the gates of the Royal Palace. The main monument representing the wealth, political and cultural power of Sicily; a model of Arab-Norman architecture.
The ancient castle was erected on pre-existing Punic origins and it had been the residence of the sovereigns of Sicily for more than two hundred years. It derived its architecture from Islamic as well as Byzantine influences.
On my way towards the imperial chambers, I walked the familiar halls with their rare profane decorations, distinguished by the significant presence of figurative elements derived from Sassanid culture. Wooden muqarnas ceilings were supported by double-arched systems of arcades as opus sectile floors stretched through the buildings.
I clearly remembered my mother's words when we used to pass by the frescoes, calling it; "the most surprising religious jewel of human thought."
Then, I passed the doors of my childhood rooms, and due to an indescribable curiosity and desire, I entered. Upon trowing a first glance trough the main room, I nearly expected to see a younger version of myself with unruly black hair shoot upright and run off to the back. Taking with him whatever toy that took his fancy.
In front of me there stood a low table, behind which a cushioned wooden bench was pulled sideways so that it looked out towards the windows. I knew the blanket - draped over the back - to belong somewhere else.
On the walls hung countless paintings that I once used to run past without really regarding them. In between, there were miniature sculptures that used to please me, poised on pillars. On the east wall, an empty old fireplace endured the years.
I took the blanket in my hand; fisting the thickly woven fabric absentmindedly. The windows looked out over one of the courtyards. It was a garden laid out with a clear eye for the aesthetics of plants, water, architectural elements, and natural light. In summer I knew it to be a cool space, thanks to the fountains and shade. Making it a protected and proscribed place, pleasant for whoever wished to have a moment of peace or contemplation.
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I regarded the few letters on the low table. They were not so well cared for, many of them had been shuffled around.
One stack of paper in dark cloth boards caught my attention. The map was filled with poetry. Classic and modern alike. The pages appeared badly worn and pieces and corners had been torn out for certain purposes.
The map of poetry must belong to Julius, I realised, vaguely remembering him showing me his latest work not too long before our departure for the mainland, ten years ago.
I sat down on the bench. My left hand rested on the arm; I made myself at ease and drew up my legs so that I sat comfortably against the back. I looked about the room and waited. I wished for a quiet rapture. I wanted to feel at home and melt the heavy, dead lump of lead that lay in me - a last remnant of the war I had fought and the horrors that I had witnessed.