36 Treason and enmity - 1228
1228 - Palermo
It was but a month before our leave for the Holy land. Soldiers were being drafted and our ships in the Brisindi harbour were being laden. Autumn had since long passed into winter, and spring was at hand. I had donned myself in garments regal and warm, layered with greyish fur. Although the air was bitter, the sun shone upon the frosted earth. The bark of our pack of hounds distanced itself as the animals were conducted towards their kennel.
I handed the reins of my mare to the man coming up to me as Julius dismounted. His hair and attire were adorned with a slight layer of flakes that came falling down at a leisure pace. The modest sheet of snow was getting crushed beneath the hooves of the mounts and behind us, the result of our hunt could be admired as it was displayed upon a wooden chart, ready to be taken to the skinner. It consisted of two roe deer and a lean young bear we had accidentally awakened upon killing the first deer. I was glad that Julius had agreed to join the hunting party, though he found the whole affair to be distasteful.
It was noon, and I had set apart the rest of the day to be spent in the company of my family. Together with Auguste, being my tranquil shadow as always, we ascended the steps towards the salon close by the stables, where I knew Constance and our newborn to be waiting for us. I felt as if nothing could or should dissipate my happy reverie.
The sound of the gate opening sounded trough the frontal yard and caught our attention; a carriage rolled down the avenue and stopped at the steps. I hastily descended, presented myself at the already opened door, and held out a gloved hand to my daughter, completely enveloped in a green warm mantle. I raised the hand she extended towards me to my lips, and playfully kissed it. Some few words passed between us as I informed after her time in the palace by Catania. In my absence, Violante had come to conduct herself with a gracious air, in fact, the deep and intelligent look, giving a predominant expression to the child's face, had a striking resemblance to the child of Adeleine.
The four of us entered the room in which Constance had overseen the arrival of the hunting party. The salon was dressed lavishly; the floors were covered with the richest rugs one could acquire; the walls hung with brocaded carpets of the most magnificent designs and texture; while around the chamber, luxurious divans with yielding cushions had been placed.
Conrad was playing upon the thick animal rug before the fire, a heavy hound at his side that followed the boy's every move with sad, round black eyes. The child was small for his age, and unnaturally pale. A mass of straight hair fell over his forehead and hung down to his shoulders, giving increased vivacity to his eyes sparkling with a newfound youthful love of mischief. His first movement upon seeing us was to free himself of the hound that had laid its head in his lap, and to rush forward to us; then, without asking permission of anyone, he proceeded in all the wilfulness of a spoiled child unaccustomed to restrain his whims, to pull at Auguste's weighty coat. Luckily, Auguste was accustomed to such and found my son's caprices rather amusing, he picked him up and set him on his shoulders where the toddler grabbed onto the roots of the tough red braid.
Constance was seated upon a chair by the tall windows, dressed in a blue dress spotted with pearls. I walked up to her and laid a hand upon her shoulders from behind, together watching the young child that lay peacefully in the crib next to Constance's chair – the bright, pure smile of my newborn son diffused the almost deadly warfare in which I was normally engaged; the raw voices of tortured academics, the suffocating smell of the dead and the trepidation of the past months, were overshadowed. My thoughts flew back to the merry prospect before me, of tasting, at last, a brief respite from the fierce and stormy passions of my mind and the responsibilities the papacy installed upon me.
That afternoon, I passed by Julius's room, and on account of the fact that there still remained some time before dinner, I entered. Upon perceiving he wasn't present, as Julius was presumably teasing his namesake in his crib since Constance had left to uphold state affairs, I sat myself down upon a divan and smiled in anticipation of another evening spent in good company.
Out of the kindle of boredom grew a desire to seek out his poems. As this were Julius's apartments, the whole floor was practically donned with a gown of parchment upon which his literary exploits had been written. I shook my head at the fortune of paper that surrounded me, which caused the rooms to depict a vision of pure chaos and negligence.
He could have bought himself a kingdom, I reasoned. Such a dissipation of fine, costly parchment.
I stood and went for his nightstand. Since, as Julius claimed, all his finest works came to him when the palace slept, and inspiration along with the moon was at its highest. Why it had to be in the middle of the goddamned night was a conundrum I had yet to solve, but I knew his best works to reside either next to or under his bed.
A fair leather map lay beside a vase of dried sulla, buried under rings and bijoux and bibelots and curios. Paper peeked out from under its cover.
Had a thunderbolt fallen into the room, I could not have been more stupefied. I sank down upon the sheets of the bed, and hastily turning over the cover of the map, drew forth the paper that had caught my eye, at which I glanced with an expression of terror.
« - favouring or enforcing strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom- »
An awful feeling began to creep up inside me, cutting me deeper the higher it went. My blood was pounding. Loud. Louder. Screaming in my ears. I lost touch with reality.
I don't want to see it. Oh, fool. Pathetic fool that I am.
I rose, feverish in my search for likewise writings. I read aloud upon discovery; "An empire characterized by extreme obedience and unquestioning respect for and submission to the authority of a single person, which is realized through the oppression of subordinate people."
Then the first pangs of unending torture seized upon my heart. One might describe it as thunder that beckoned upon my person. I breathed out heftily, which sounded like the sob of a broken spirit, and leaning upon the armoire in order to steady myself, I shook my head. My heart throbbed violently and I rested a hand against my forehead in order to keep my mind. For I must remain rational, I told myself. Yet, I had been insulted, and in such a manner that it was impossible to fully comprehend it. One thought alone filled my mind: he seeks to depose me.
I poured out for myself a glass of water with a trembling hand; then hastily swallowing it, went to sit down at the first vacant place.
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Certainly, I was aware of Julius's demons, who had manifested themselves after the war of succession. But never had I perceived him to be capable of following the ideals of treacherous men.
I got violently pulled out of my contemplations by Julius's gentle touch.
"Are you alright?" He said as he took off his vest and draped it on the back of the chair in front, "I would have returned sooner had I known you were in need of my company."
There he was. The windows and the sky behind him. So blue. So bright. The light reflected in his eyes. Alure seemed his raiment. My head was throbbing, it ached with fever and fear. Pure, impotent rage filled my mind. The noises around me were cut off to a single high tone. My eyes clouded over and I saw Julius frown for he must have perceived my change of attitude. My breath became slow and deep, filling my lungs before it left my body in controlled, soft, furious breaths.
Julius lay a hand on my knee as he studied me and inquired; "what is the matter? You are ill – shall I send for for assistance? – shall I call?"
"No," I said, rising hastily as to distance myself. My mind filled with apprehension. After stealing a last glance towards the map upon the sheets, I covered my face with my hands, "stay where you are. It is for me to give orders here, and not you."
"It was only to summon assistance for you."
"I want none; I want none of it. Now; answer me,-"
Julius waited, expecting a question, but in vain. I fell back on another chair and passed my hand over my brow, moist with perspiration.
"What are those," I said at length. Strangely, the words seemed to come without emotion. "Explain yourself."
Julius glanced towards the map upon the bed and needed but an instand to fully assert the situation.
"Tell me, Julius, do you agree with these concepts?"
"What do you expect of me?"
"What is wrong with you? Who put these ideas in your head? I love you like a brother but with the way you are acting you might as well be a revolutionary!"
"But if you would read them or listen to me - really listen to me. They aren't as uncanny as you wish to believe. I'm impassioned about these theories." He advanced upon me with caution, kneeling down before me, but I didn't look at him again for the remainder of his plea, not even when he laced his fingers through mine, "could you imagine a world where the plebiscite might participate in politics? Where they are given a voice within the ruling of the empire? You may call it what you want,- but I deem it progress."
"You are rallying people against me." I retreated my hands.
"Against your position, the values of our society. Not against you as a person."
"I am your Emperor! That position and I are no longer deferential."
"Is the world really that damn simple for you?"
I still. A young woman, illuminated by moonlight, once asked me the same thing what seemed like a lifetime ago.
"Leave." I smiled grimly, contemplating the pleasure it would give me to end him. I saw Julius try his best to ignore the look in my eyes and continued to reason as calmly as he could.
Don't try to be fair or sound reasonable, I thought. Not now. Not when I'm like this.
It was as if he wasn't talking to me. His voice was barely audible. I looked up and didn't seem to perceive the same world as Julius did. The wrath was dulling my thoughts and I wished I could rip it out of my head so I may think. He kept on talking. Apologies, assurances, specifics... it ceased to make sense. I dropped the parchment my fists had crumbled on the cushion beside me and stared at the fabric and the paper and the dust dancing in the ray of light that fell from the window.
"Please," he said.
His voice seemed so small and insignificant.
"I pray, I beg of you," he said again. The tears streaked his face.
I let the emotion take me, I heard it laugh with my voice. I watched, as Julius frowned at my reaction.
"Leave." My heart froze over. My chest was aching with dread. I didn't want him to do anything. I wanted him to leave. I wanted him to hold me at the same time, to tell me all was going to be fine, that it wasn't real,- though we both knew better than that.
"Just listen to me for once!" He cried. "Please!"
"Why? Do tell me, Julius! Why should I consider the perfidious thoughts of insurrectionist academics!"
"Because I care for them! Because I am dear to you! Because I have nothing but kindness towards you."
I stood and turned away. Out of reach of his slowed hand. Then the words written recurred to my mind, and every line gleamed forth in fiery letters. In my mind, I consigned my friend to the most horrible tortures I could imagine, and found them all insufficient. I closed off my heart, as to exclude the pain I felt.
"Bastard!" My vision began to blacken. "You vicious bastard!"
I threw myself upon him. Rage supplanted religious fervour. I uttered blasphemies that made Julius recoil with horror, dashed my friend furiously against the wall, wreaked my anger upon everything, and chiefly upon him, so that the least thing,– a vase of dry flowers, a statue, or a breath of air that annoyed me, led to boutades of fury. It was a monstrous violation that only ceased when I held him by his collar, blood oozed on my hands out of the cuts my rings had made upon his cheeks. My clenched fingers loosened. His face was but a breath away from mine.
"Leave me," I whispered against his skin. The command trailed off and my voice rose; "leave me, or get killed, here and now."
My anger didn't cease. I merely went on until the emotion made me repeat the words with dreadful violence: "Leave me!"
He scrambled to escape the constricted space between the wall and me. I rested my forehead against the cool mosaic, crying bitterly. He must have been long gone when I began whispering a series of nonsensical apologies, as pleading and disconsolate as he had been.