35 The king of Germany - 1227
I found Henry in the chapel. My steps carried far and loud in the pristine, empty space. Above my head, the ceiling was blue, studded with gilt stars and decorative borders around the architectural details of the pendentives. A scheme of frescoes ran over the walls. The chapel was a sixteen-sided ambulatory with a gallery overhead encircling the central octagonal dome decorated with a fresco that depicted the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse bearing crowns. My neck protested as I arched to study them.
That damned crown. Curse its dead weight.
Above the main altar, facing the rows of seats, was an image of the saviour himself; I sighed. My son had seated himself in the third row of benches before the altar. His eyes were closed, his fingers woven and his head bent.
He is such a duality, I thought.
Halting next to him, looking about me, I realised it had been long since I had spent time here myself. Yet not long enough.
"Your majesty." The young man next to me said.
"Why are you here?"
"To talk to you."
I gestured him to move. He rolled his eyes but did as he was told. I lowered myself next to him on the bench, mindful to conceal my bloodstained sleeve.
"You were aware of it, between your mother and me? When you were younger?"
"I was aware of the distance." He tried to act as if he were disinterested and looked everywhere but at me.
"In the past, you used to be the only reason we conversed, ever."
I reclined, my spine resting against the wooden back of the bench. "Why indeed."
By then I was plunged into a train of thought, the character of which was better revealed by a sad smile than it would have been by tears. Again that melancholic enticing towards my family and my home, though the unrelenting pull of time let me know that I had less than a year before I would leave them behind.
Damned be the papacy for their relentless pursuit. Curse the Holy Land and damned be all its inhabitants.
Henry had been waiting for me to continue, I only realised this when I looked at him and saw him staring at me still. That blasted crown felt way too heavy, even when seated my neck ached. In the spur of the moment I took it off and pushed it into my son's confused hands, his fingers hurried to catch it, astounded at my action.
"Heavy," I merely said.
"The big one is even worse."
He was cradling the coronet against his chest. I looked about the bows, with their fine textures and depictions.
"You know Henry," I said, absentmindedly stroking my lower lip with the pad of my thumb, "whether fame, or conquest, or riches, were the object of the men that wore that crown before us, they pursued that object with an indefatigable ardour, which could often neither be quelled by adversity, nor satiated by success."
"I do not wish for you to live a life like that."
"I don't understand."
I turned my head, looking him straight in the eyes. "Do you wish to become emperor, Henry? Truly?"
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I nodded. "Then I shall give you the chance to learn before you are ought to take over the reins. I shall let you leave for Germany."
"Thank you, your majesty."
"You will have to marry Margaret of Babenberg, in order to get the German nobility on your side. I shall grant you the title,- but I wish for you to go to the assembly at Frankfurt, and convince them yourself."
I nodded and pardoned him, making way for him to pass me, while I remained seated and stared upon the altar.
I heard him halt in the middle of the aisle.
"Why is it that you call me no longer father?"
Silence preceded his answer; "I will call you so again if you wish for it. Father."
I turned in my seat and saw a poisonous look embosoming his visage as he turned on his heels. "No,- Henry. That is not what I-"
The chapel door fell shut.
I threw a look upon the images on the walls. The smoke from the incense burning by the altar swayed ever so slightly and partly distorted the depictions.
Henry will leave me.
The indescribable doubt that settled upon my mind could not be swayed.
Have I failed him? Is he truly lost to me? I shall give him what he asked of me; reason persuades me to believe that I do right by giving him a chance to prove himself.
Perhaps it was simply a sense of abandonment that made me this melancholic.
Several weeks later, upon the day I gave the official declaration of Henry's new position, I joined the crowd in its sumptuous repast, followed by a night of music, dancing and gambling.
My son had what he wished for; Germany's crown. And by my order, he married Margaret of Babenberg, daughter of Duke Leopold VI of Austria, and therefore won the approval of the German aristocracy. I had written Constance in order to ask after her guidance regarding these developments; somewhere deep inside me had hoped she would dissuade me from my decision, as it would give me a reason to return to Palermo as I had left it; with Henry by my side.
Yet Constance, well-reasoned and rational as she always was, had given her approval.
Reclining myself upon one of the sofas that had been perched in the middle of the hall, I watched the men and women of the court flaunt themselves. The songs of birds were heard in an aviary close by, and the branches of laburnums and rose acacias formed an exquisite framework to the tapestry on the walls. Everything in this intense retreat, from the warble of the birds to the smiles of the eager youths that had been allowed to follow their parents to the court for the first time; it all breathed anticipation and excitement.
I had felt the influence of this atmosphere from the moment I had entered, yet preferring tranquillity and repose, I remained silent and pensive, forgetting that I was expected to at least act like I was interested in the fest around me. In shrill contrast to Henry, whom ostentatiously paraded himself around. All who had any business in the northern regions of the empire now naturally flocked in his direction, as they wished to secure his favour.
I didn't know what words to say to my son. I didn't know what to say now that the crown of Germany had been bestowed upon him. I didn't know what to say to this young man who would leave to spend his days far from his mother and me.
I was flanked by Louis and Phillip, while Auguste stood a few steps behind my seat, as resolute as marble. Phillip had laying next to him one of his dogs, who rested her head next to the feet of the duke's chair. He was deep in conversation with the woman on his left, the Countess of Arles, whose husband was chatting in the sofa opposite of them. The gems on their fingers reflected the dim light provided by the candles poised in between us on various pedestals.
I was intently listening to Louis, who had handed me a volume of Antonius de Verce, a rather daring philosopher from Messina. This influential man, known for his concerning phrasings and dangerous political ideas - though he had never undertaken anything illegal - was our primary suspect in the ongoing investigation. Louis showed me several passages that corresponded with the general tone of the pamphlets. Though, I had to confess, the philosopher made several sagacious observations. During his elucidation, the duke of Bavaria ever so often - I couldn't tell whether it was conscious - tapped his pocket to ensure himself the satchel containing his precious hemp was still there.
From afar I saw the figure of Riccardo Travato appear, looking about the room with incisive vigour. He was dressed in a blue kaftan, enriched with golden details that seemed to wind around his figure. We locked eyes and he made straight for our group. Having bowed to his acquaintances, he laid his hand upon his chest as to greet the elder Countess of Arles, then, by Louis, he was most graciously welcomed, while Phillip received him with his accustomed coldness.
I was about to require after his foundings when my gaze moved over his shoulder and my question froze on my lips. I felt as thought my chest was being constricted so that I could not breathe.
"Excuse me," I said to Riccardo. "I have to see a friend."
I was about to walk halfway down the hall between the tables of gambling nobles, when the woman took of her headdress, handed it to the maid behind her and lifted her face, shaking loose her curls. A young child, around Violante's age, lay a hand on Adeleine's arm. Her hair was raven black and framed her face in big curls, resembling her mother's, although its natural waves seemed somewhat more rebellious; her eyes, of the same color as her hair, were surmounted by well-arched brows. Her bearing was dignified and resolute. As regarding her gaze, it was to be found somewhat erudite.
A hand closed around my arm and made me turn. I was greeted by Phillip's unwavering vigilance. He had halfway risen from his seat and made no secret of the fact that he wished for me to remain seated. In the background, only the Countess of Arles seemed to have perceived the tension; causing her to search for a reason for the subtle change in atmosphere.
"I assume I don't need to tell you." Phillip said and I held my breath. Somewhere I had expected such an encounter, but I was not as prepared as I had liked to be.
"You mean,-" I restrained myself from looking again.
"We were young,- but children. I no longer care for her that way, yet,- the child..."
"What of her?"
"No. Nothing," my breath was unsteady. I sat down once more and crossed my legs in order to conceal their trembling.
"I'm pleased to hear it."
"But I beg you,- tell me of her," I almost whispered.
A flicker of indignation seemed to pass trough him. Then he nodded and said; "she has the potential to become a perfect linguist, and a first-rate scholar. She writes poetry; the study of which she professes to be entirely devoted."
"She writes? At her age?"
"Yes, the lady insisted upon it. She was determined to give her daughter an education."
"Intelligent, proud and perceptive; she truly is Adeleine's daughter."
The duke made no further comment and turned once more to his earlier conversation partner, whom seemed to study me incisively. She looked briefly between Adeleine and me; no perspicacious emotion on her visage whatsoever.
I swallowed, beckoned myself to lock away all upcoming emotions that could dissuade me to rise and flee, and turned to Riccardo. The man conveyed no judgement, waiting, biding, while his eyes disclosed no interest in the brief disturbance.
"Listen well," I said to him as soon as our close environment was otherwise occupied. My voice seemed hoarser than usual, which made me take up my drink before continuing: "you shall accompany me when I return to Palermo in a few days time; my galley will deliver you to Messina where I shall give you a company of soldiers at your disposal. Do keep in mind that I count upon the same discretion you have shown me to possess these past weeks."
"Yes, your Majesty."
The eastern man departed and I made known to my companions that I wished to withdraw as well. I left the orderless festivities behind me and made way for my bedroom, though it was only when the door fell shut behind my back that I truly felt alone and at ease.
I lay my regal garments upon the back of a cushioned sofa and made for the liquor table.
And so the years fly by, I thought as I contemplated upon a certain poem. Children grow up, and they come to understand that the man whom they once called their father makes for an egregious figure.
"Here's to you, Henry." I raised and emptied the glass. It was placed back with shivering fingers, as my mind was beleaguered with the image of a young girl crowned in black curls.