33 Passing of a friend - 1227
Days went by, during which Allesandro seemed to grow thinner with every passing sundown. Even Henry paid him a brief visit on the third day, though he scarcely knew the man and the suffocating atmosphere of imminent death that hung in the room made the youngster uncomfortable. One evening, four days after my arrival, Allesandro began to cough. It was gentle at first, dry and stale, upon which it turned into a gruesome rattle; Allesandro choked. Nothing quieted him and he had to be carried from the chair to his bed.
All knew it was to be his last night.
When other visitors were gone, the dying man, who was panting, tried to raise his head. His hands plucked continually at the spread, he shuddered and gasped; but did not speak. Then he lay there, abruptly motionless and ghastly. The hours dragged on; the bells of a neighbouring convent chimed midnight.
I left the room to obtain some food. I could have sent for it, but I did not wish to stay. The boredom and constant waiting were testing my peace of mind. I returned an hour later; Allesandro had not stirred. I seated myself in the easy-chair by the fireplace and had a servant place upon the table before me a copper-alloy pen, some ink and some paper. As neither the pen nor the ink had been used for a long time, the point of the pen had corroded, the ink had dried away, and I was forced to rise and replace them. The night advanced and I kept working, as I could think of nothing else to fill the time, occasionally turning my gaze towards the old man on the bed.
I was half asleep on the parchments when I felt a presentiment that something was about to happen. I opened my eyes just in time to see Allesandro close his. He coughed, shuddered, and a stream of blood issued from the corner of his mouth and flowed upon his facial hair; his hands ceased their perpetual motion; he had breathed his last. In surprise and affright, I spontaneously made the sign of the cross. I called for the attendants waiting outside. A young woman entered and approached the bed.
"He has peace."
Recovering my self-possession, I said with a sigh of relief: "yes,- yes. Indeed."
My eyes seemed attracted to that emaciated face which the flickering light made even more hollow. I was fixated till the spell was broken by a sheet and the grim countenance disappeared. That was my friend, Allesandro of Catania, whom the day before had spoken to me. For several decennia he had lived, eaten, laughed, loved, and hoped as did everyone - and now all had ended for him forever. Life lasted a few years and then fled. One was born, grew, was happy, and died. Farewell! My dear friend, you will never return to this earth.
Yet my heart grew hopeful. Why should I lament when I had so many years still before me?
Arriving upon the courtyard by first light, I saw the soldiers in formation, ready to mount. The air was fresh and cool. I got into my carriage and signed for Henry to follow, he took his place respectfully opposite me on the cushioned bench. Without saying a word.
And as such, I left Nepals behind, focusing my attention on my visit to Rome.
The trip took four days, as the imperial caravan that accompanied me was lengthy and supposed to stop ever so often in the small cities we passed. I noticed as we were on the road, that Henry was quite taken aback from the dense emotions of the past days. He signed himself ever so often with his thumb, muttering a short prayer.
Reaching our destination, I stepped out of the carriage and descended upon the stone pavement. It was one blaze of light; a magnificent carpet was spread upon the steps leading to the entrance of the main building, on each tread stood a man in full attire, as rigid as marble. The courtyard was well filled and the mass had parted at the arrival of my vehicle. The majority of the aristocracy were in evening dress.
At once, two children, one in red, the other in white, started throwing pedals beside me.
I tried to hide my discontent. What kind of frenetic display was this? What on earth were Phillip and Louis thinking, giving me such a flamboyant entrance; surely they must know I do not enjoy such. With Auguste flanking me, I ascended the steps. Henry was beside me, walking along slowly, with a firm step, his head erect. He saw no one - thought only of himself.
He must greatly enjoy such attention, I thought. What caused him to grow so confident? I almost miss the timid boy he once was.
Phillip of Paleria, surrounded by friends, stood right before the grand door. Dressed in a blue coat, with buttons of a similar color; a white shirt, over which was displayed a massive gold chain, an attestation of his status as my representative; dark trousers, and a quantity of dark hair with silver strands descending so low over his shoulders that it had to be pulled back in a low ponytail. When the man perceived me, he smiled and bowed ceremoniously, after which I greeted him effusively. Age had paled Phillip's blue eyes, yet under those signs of seniority, I still saw his full lips, his heavy chin, and the broad posture of a soldier. An irregular, attractive face, full of gentleness and yet of malice.
The night went on splendidly, though with far too much flair and elan than was accounted for; once more I questioned Phillip's decision to organise such a feast. I displayed no true interest in any of the formal presentations, uttered words which signified nothing, and replied to all greetings and introductions with the words: 'yes,' and 'I see'.
The following morning I decided to walk the corridors, as it had been long since I had been given the opportunity to appreciate it's arts and treasures. It felt weird: they were my own after all, though I walked by them as if I were in a museum.
Is this home still mine, though? Have I ever lived here long enough to perceive it as such? Has it not been Phillip's for far longer now?
The palace hadn't undergone much change. At first, I walked the five halls that opened one into the other from where my bedroom was situated; they were carpeted with rich, oriental rugs, and upon their walls hung paintings by old masters. At the far end of the main gallery, right before me, surrounded by verdure on all sides, was a picture. It was a grand work - the work of a master - one of those triumphs of art which brought its spectator in a haze of revere and wonder. It depicted me, or at least it was supposed to. If I already had a tall posture, the artist had portrayed me as if I were a giant among men; I had been donned a golden harness, embellished with vivid gems; the kind of which if I had worn it during a battle, I might have dropped to the ground on the spot, unable to move,- yet the authoritarian figure in the picture wore it as if it were his own skin. In the background stood my vassals and allies, notably smaller, even though some had to pass as the figures of men like the late king of France, Phillip II. A far-off castle was depicted in the background while angels above blew their trumpets. The soil was bright and green, as if no blood had been spilled and at my feet lay the body of Otto IV.
They never found his body, I thought. And I never slew him as this paining would let its spectators believe. He had longer hair. A full beard. And didn't look as submissive as they depicted him, on the contrary even, he had been fierce and powerful. We might have been friendly had we not found each other on opposite sides of history. Not friends,- just friendly. Because what did we really had against one another? We both needed that damned crown, that was all.
When the time was there, I ceased my tour and made my way towards the Council room. Surely Louis must have been waiting for me, yet the man made no notion of it as he rose once I entered. I bid him good morning and took a seat at the head of the long table. Apart from us, there was only one other man in the room; a tall, slender man with fair dark whiskers and a worldly air. He had a sharp countenance with unsettling eyes, which made for an attractive, androgynous face with Middle Eastern traits.
"Who is this?"
"Riccardo Travato. A pleasure, your majesty." He advanced with the grace of a gentleman and bowed, his black hair falling from his ears as he did so. Beneath that smooth and elegant exterior, I sensed the soul of a callous man. In response, I nodded and gestured for them to take their seat.
"He's been a part of the investigation concerning the anti-imperialistic uprising," Louis said as he sat down.
"The scholars in connection with The Licentia have been taken into custody. We have made progress to minimalise the spreading."
"We're putting a name on them now?"
"Yes. We believe them to be the group that lies at the source of these developments. Sadly, we have yet to discover who or where the specific author of the pamphlets is."
"We do have an estimation of their numbers," Riccardo said, displaying a detailed map before us with a flair for the dramatic. "They are mainly to be found in the marquisate of Tuscany, Sienna in particular. Their influence travelled up north trough Lombardy and the Duchy of Swabia,- but, it has yet to reach Franconia, Nordgau, Bohemia or any further up north. In the Carinthian March the pamphlets were found as well, but strangely, they are considerably less popular than in the surrounding territories."
I nodded, looked back to meet Louis's gaze and leaned my elbows upon the table. "Rome? Aachen? Any signs of them in Bologna?"
"Not enough to cause worry," the man said.
"Any number is enough to cause worry. What about the men in custody?"
"We have been able to part some lips but it's a drawn-out proceeding." Riccardo said.
"I reckon you had problems concerning escapees?"
"One scholar from the University of Modena almost succeeded the evening before your majesty's arrival. I eventually had to use the dogs. They got to him too fast and ripped him apart. It's a pity, though, he made for a promising lead."
"It's of no matter, I'm positive that sooner or later we may silence these imprudent rascals. Prepare them, I wish to visit the cells."
"In that case, I shall take my leave." Riccardo, eager to interview the remaining scholars, departed. He bowed upon leaving, and with a short; "until soon, your Majesty," he let the solid doors close behind him.
"Are you sure you wish to visit the cells?" Louis frowned as he folded his hands before him. He regarded me with the utmost care. "Those imprisoned are currently being dealt with every cruelty known to man. After days of such torture, most minds collapse. They become something that can no longer be called human."
"I assume we can trust Travato?" I asked, disregarding his concerns.
"At this very moment in time? Yes,- I am convinced we can. I met him but a few years ago. If my memory serves me right, it was in the city of Damietta, situated along an eastern distributary of the Nile, where we first became acquainted. In order to attack Damietta, and in an attempt to free ourselves from fighting on two fronts, our troops allied in Anatolia with the Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm, which attacked the Ayyubids. Travato was one of the key figures, having being employed by Meledin."
"He's a traitor to the Ayyubid sultan?"
"Is that his real name?"
"No, I believe he is known as Abu'l-Ghanâ'im al-Marzûbân ibn Khusrawfîrûz in the east."
"Why change it?"
"Who knows? Perhaps to make the transition to these regions easier, people are often wary of what they don't appraise to fit their idea of the ordinary or the familiar. I don't even know whether that is his true name; when I first met him he called himself Sahar 'Aswad, while he is also known as Sumayl in Cairo. He is an eccentric individual, with a tendency towards megalomania. Although I have to give it to the man; he is a wicked figure, and I mean that in the best of ways."
"That makes him no different from half the people we know. They all tend to be conceited and have a predominance towards their self-interests."
Louis's laughter resounded through the room. "I agree,- but to be fair, he is immensely hardworking. He has a colossal will to succeed and I have known him to be relentless in the pursuit of his goals - whatever they may be."
"I see," I rose, readjusting my sleeves and cloak as I turned away. "I'll see you tonight, I assume?"
"Yes, your Majesty, until then."
Then, upon realisation, I halted in my step and called out; "have you spoken to Phillip yet?"
"I did, he is mainly wondering why you dissent from meeting him in private."
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"I never denied him."
"He seems to think so."
"Has he been briefed yet?"
"Up to a certain degree, yes."
I nodded once in contemplation. "Wait for my accord until you acquaint him any further."