31 A game by the fire - 1227
That afternoon, a small matter was to be celebrated, in favour of some nobleman's achievements whose name I have since long forgotten.
The ballroom was crowded with guests. A throng of people standing, talking, and preparing to sit upon the rows of chairs to watch one of the various entertainments of that night. A small group of musicians was playing in the background. Not too far off, were two large gilded chairs, bearing the arms of the Hohenstaufen line, standing both solemn and stately in the very front.
Constance, tall and dignified, in an easy but elegant dress in accordance to her advancing pregnancy, was conversing with a group of admirers. Violante and her brother were standing more gingerly behind her. My eldest wasn't in sight. My daughter was elegantly dressed in a dress of fair green material; holding her chin high and her hands folded, she looked every bit as bored as her younger sibling, whom, dressed in a neat, carefully cut coat in decent black and clean white linen, escaped the gaze of their governess for but a moment. He grabbed his sister by the hand and together they near disappeared through the crowd of guests.
I smiled behind my hand and followed them over the shoulder of the elder Countess of Sciacca, who was talking to Louis, standing right by my side.
As Conrad went through the room, he seemed to play a game with himself, mimicking the walk and posture of several attendees in a rather unflattering manner. By now I was smiling broadly, acknowledging that, perchance, the boy wasn't as innocent and virtuous as I assumed.
For a moment I considered leaving this matter to their governess, but their blissful faces led me to follow them. Leaving my company, I moved about the crowd towards my daughter and son, as assorted nobles stared at the back of my head whenever I passed them; bowing respectfully, hoping their sovereign might gift them the prestige of a few minutes of attention. The endless tiring game of the court.
I was closing in on the wilful youths, as a servant bearing a large tray of cakes and pastries stalked past Conrad. Instantly riveted by the sight of such delights, both followed him out of the room and towards the buffet room, where several tables, dressed to the floor with cloths, were loaded with plates of confectioneries. It must have been, in fact, a child's idea of paradise! The servant put his tray down on one of the tables and withdrew from the room.
Violante entered first and looked about cautiously, signalling Conrad to come in a moment later. The boy was salivating with anticipation as he stared at the feast of sweets, his attention attracted in particular by a huge pile of sugared fruits, nuts and honey arranged in the shape of a flower. He reached out a hand, balancing himself upon his tiptoes, and stole two of the confections. A high pitched giggle sprang up from the boy before he swallowed one in a single bite.
I chose that exact moment to step into the room and, raising my voice, I barely contained my laughter:
"That's quite brassy, I believe."
Both were startled, though Violante still put the pastry she was holding in her mouth, her cheeks rounded up from the sizeable treat.
"Do you want one?" Contad said.
"I shall have some later on."
"Why not now?" And he came up to me with such delightful innocence in his manner, that I brushed aside my disciplinary rant and kneeled down, allowing him to put the second honeyed nut in my hand. I tasted it with overbearing drama, pursing my lips and flashing my eyes, earning me another high pitched laugh.
"Do you like it?"
"I like them as well," the boy said. "They make each day a little sweeter."
"Can we take some with us?" Violante asked.
"No. You cannot."
"Please," said Conrad. "Please, please, please,-"
"It's for mama. For the baby," his sister pitched in.
"I said no. Now, clean yourself up. Take your brother, and return to your governess. The poor woman must be dreadfully worried by now."
I followed in their wake. The music continued and swelled as we came out into the ballroom to see the feast in full progress. I sighed, tasting a remnant of honey on my tongue, and strode towards the gilded chairs.
I returned from the festivities and set myself down by the conservatory with its rare shrubs and plants. I would often spend my evenings here, ever so often in the company of my family. As the skyline became apparent against the red heavens, attendants began bringing out glazed oil lamps. To my left, under a dome of palms, was a marble basin, on the edges of which four large swans of marble emitted water from their beaks. The scent of flowers perfumed the air, making every breath a gift.
I was joined by Julius and Louis. The first took a seat upon the railing, blocking my view of the fountain. The latter took a seat in the cushioned bench beside my own, handing his cane to a young man nearby. Ever since the old duke had returned from the last crusade, he had a particular fondness for hemp. With him, he had brought a considerable private stash, which he swore to use sparingly.
"Hell, put that out," Julius said.
Louis turned to me. "Do you mind, your majesty?"
"I don't mind."
"It's good." And holding it out to Julius; "give it a chance."
"I don't need it."
"Keep it to drinking, huh?"
"Gets me all I need from it."
He seemed relatively relaxed whenever he smoked, though the smell seemed to sicken Julius.
"I could by a pub," Louis said as he reclined in his seat, crossing his legs. "Get me a clean place close to the coast and serve ale to the local population."
"Why the coast?" I asked him.
"I wouldn't know. It's simply how I always depicted it in my mind. And I could buy a boat as well."
"You have one, several even. And I could give you a whole goddamn fleet if you like."
"No, no,- a cog. To fish."
"So you're going to sell alcohol to dipsomaniacs and drink and fish?" Julius said.
"Seems like a fine life. Don't you think, your majesty?"
"A fine life indeed."
"I could buy the bar and buy the boat and be at peace until life catches up to me."
"Life will all get us all eventually," I tipped my head back. "It seems unfair."
"Life is unfair," my childhood friend said. He shrugged and brought a flask to his lips, "blame the ones that made you believe it is fair."
"It should be."
My blond friend turned to me, "why should life follow your values? Because they are good and well-meant? Nature isn't a conscious being like you and me. It simply is, indifferent."
I rose and walked up to him, placing my elbows on the railing. Close to us was the marble basin containing the fish. Our eyes met in the reflections in the water and I smiled at him. "Some would claim you speak heresy."
Julius thought about it for a moment. Decided he liked it, yet was interrupted by Louis; "Allesandro of Catania is dying."
I turned around. "He is?"
"You sound surprised."
"I guess I shouldn't be. The man is old."
"Older than many of us will ever come to be."
"I ought to go see him. I presume he is close by?"
"What is he doing there?"
"Phillip send him as representative."
"Damned Allesandro," Julius caught sight of my discomfort and covered my hand with his. I felt a frisson the moment his fingers touched mine. "Good man seemed like he would survive us all."
"Indeed," Louis rose and the young attendant closed in, handing him his cane. "On another note, have you decided what to do with the pamphlets I brought to your attention?"
"I haven't had the time to read them. I'll let the Council have a look first, meet me tomorrow."
"Well then, I shall retire for the evening," he bowed. "Have a pleasant night, your majesty."
I nodded and bid him goodbye. As the evening air was cold and quite sharp, I requested Julius to join me in my chambers. We took a seat in the salon neighbouring my bedchamber, which served as an antechamber to my library. It was a comfortable lounge furnished with padded sofas upholstered in yellow purl with blue motifs. Our last match was still set up mid-game on the low table before the warm heard. I changed out of my robes and in the light of the fire we played for another few hours; Julius was seated in reverse, his chin resting on his forearms on the back of his chair. He was winning, and quite enjoying it.
"What's wrong? It's not like you to be so helpless."
"I must be more tired than I assumed," Silently, I gave myself the excuse of having my mind being occupied with Henry and the upcoming crusade. "It's your win."
"Have some resolve." His left eyelid fluttered down in a wink and with more flair than was accounted for, he rose up a little, reached over his own pieces and started tipping over mine.
I laughed, feeling quite elated, no doubt on account of the alcohol the two of us had already consumed, "you're so childish."
"And you are being a sore loser. What about raising the stakes?"
"And have me lose my whole palace to you? I'm the only one who's still eager to play with you, you should treat me better."
A pout. He looked quite peculiar when he was sulking - fairly endearing, that is. "They shouldn't have banned me from the tables."
"Your own damned fault."
"You could tell them to revoke it."
"I could,- but I'm not. You were impoverishing my nobility."
"Don't blame me then were you to lose your fortune."
"I know I can do better than this."
"Leave it. This is my last cup and then I'm turning in." There was a sweet, ragged edge of sleepiness in his low voice.
"It's good wine, I had it brought over from Puglia. You better savour it." I crossed my legs and rested my head back, watching him in the balmy light of the heard. His eyes were on his cup, which he twirled around with a lazy roll of his wrist. Breone walked in on us through the window and jumped in my lap. I pushed my fingers down between the cat's ears and along his head down to his shoulder blades.
"Is it true that Gian went back to Italy?"
Sorrow and regret washed over his countenance and I almost regretted mentioning it once I saw the sadness in Julius' eyes. His smile was tender and kind when he answered me, though laden with such melancholy that it send a sting trough my chest.
"You think he'll be back?"
"No, not this time. It's over. It has been long overdue."
"Don't say that."
He combed back his hair, closing his eyes in contemplation. "These last years,- I ought to be fair to myself. It has been over for a long time."
"I shouldn't have asked."
"It's fine. I'll be fine. I'm just not used to being alone anymore."
"You used to be confident, don't you think you should be out there instead?"
"You are the one constantly pestering me to be careful."
"I just wish you to be safe. You should find someone - anyone - who makes you feel loved. Who makes you feel at home."
He gifted me a vulnerable smile, "why, my friend, that would be you."
"I mean it. I've been thinking about it a lot these past weeks; thoughts of love and family. And yet, deep down, I feel as if I'm failing them."
"Is this about Henry?"
"Two weeks ago, he asked me for a title; I'm thinking of granting him Germany. It might be too much of a responsibility, but by his age, we were waging war on the continent. By giving him such a task, I can be sure he will grow a sense of respect and responsibility."
"And you're positive it won't feed his delusions of grandiosity?"
"You tell me, Julius. I don't recognise that boy anymore."
"What about her majesty?"
"They don't talk,- only fight on occasion."
Julius gave me a look of concern, though mixed with a fair dose of judgement. "Perhaps he simply feels neglected."
"He's just spoiled." I lifted the heavy limp weight of the cat, who came alive in my hands and laid him down beside my chair, where the animal relaxed once more in the heat of the heard.
"For all I know, yes, but he's also jealous of his siblings."
"He has every right to be unhappy; but has he not everything to be happy? Is he not healthy? Is he not cared for by his mother and me? Does he not have the liberty to spend his days as he wishes - apart from his education, which he is fortunate enough to receive? He has no heavy obligations nor does he have any financial commitments or debts. He has everything he needs to be happy, and many are so with far less. He has every right to be unhappy, though he has everything he could ever wish for."
"He never got to enjoy you as a father. At least not like Violente and Conrad."
"How was I supposed to be here when he was a child? We had a war to win."
"Exactly my point. And you're about to do the same yet again."
"You'll be leaving for the Holy Land."
"That'll take another year."
"And then you'll be gone, for what, three years? Five?"
"But I'll have Jerusalem."
"You'd rather wage war in some distant country than stay here with them?"
"I'm doing what I've been taught to do."
"Why don't you try thinking for yourself for a change. Stay with your family."
"I need to leave, my hands are bound."
"That's what you want to believe."
"I mean it."
I didn't like the direction in which he was leading the conversation and shook the upcoming doubts away as if I were wafting away a fly, I gestured with my head in the direction of the little private study adjoining the room and said;
"One of Louis' spies found a concerning stack of pamphlets in some scholar's desk. They are all copies, and upon further investigation, they found that other literates have them as well."
Julius sighed but made no move to go and take a look at the papers. "And they plan on killing you - so what? That's every other week."
I shook my head and forced my inebriated mind to focus in order to explain the situation.
"This is different from a rebellious nobleman. Seeing that the majority of my subjects are illiterate, this is being considered a ruse between scholars. The pamphlets are of an anti-imperialistic nature, scrutinising me for my position and my recent desires to claim Jerusalem. They advocate to rebel, disband the empire, and my position as sole ruler."
Julius looked up, interest lining his eyes. "You did read them?"
"Only a few, I've been given a succinct briefing about them and a few examples. Louis is bringing over the majority of the confiscated booklets tomorrow."
He stretched his limbs, rose from his seat and left for my study, returning with the stack of papers that had been lying on the corner of my desk. He reclined back onto the sofa, threw his legs over the armrest and read aloud;
"An empire characterized by extreme obedience and unquestioned respect for and submission to the authority of a single person, which is realized through the oppression of subordinate people."
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I brought my cup up to my lips. "Keep going."
"The idea that the Emperor should rule over our own, as well as foreign nations, often by military force is considered both normal and common. In reality, it should be considered morally reprehensible as it terrorises the oppressed regions." Lover of jokes as he was, Julius liked a pleasant jest and said; "They've got a point."
I groaned, throwing my head back in weariness. "Not again."
"I don't need another evening of your tedious theories."
"You may tease me, but I think they are quite innovative."
"Should I be worried?" I shook my head in ridicule and laughed.
"I would never wish for you to be harmed."
"Still, if you agree... I should consider you a revolutionary."
He raised his brow in a mocking manner and threw the pamphlets upon the table. "Sure. Now pass me the wine, will you?"