“What the hell was she thinking?” Guy de Morangais said throwing his dove coloured gloves into the corner in a foul temper, “attacking the Papess so openly, I should have the girl strangled.”
“The Papess, my lord?” his page asked him.
“No,” Guy answered firmly, “my daughter, Selene.” He poured himself a cup of wine and slammed the metal ewer back unto the table that hard that the cup beside it spilled over his hand, so he let go of the cup to flick the offending drops away into the fireplace. His dog, curled as it was in front of the fire, looked askance at him before lowering it's head back to where it had lain so comfortably. He sat heavily in the chair before the fire and allowed his page to pull off his boots, although it was with a lot less violence than he himself would have used. “It is bad enough that she moved against the Papess,” he stopped, his fists balling, “the Papess, for Goddess' sake, but to fail and to fail so fantastically. I am backed into a corner and it's all that stupid bitch's fault.”
“The Papess, my lord,” the page asked.
“Stupid man,” Guy said cuffing him about the head, “Selene, it looks like I have no choice but to renounce her.”
“You could stand beside her claim as Papess.” Charlotte di Sauve said from the door she had just opened, “it would give you place to stand against the throne, no one will blame you for defending your daughter.”
“Had she murdered a queen and taken her place I might defend her, despite critics, but she acted against the Papess, the Holy Maiden. I would be stupid to stand with her.”
“Unless the girl is a pretender,” Charlotte said picking at the lace on her grey sleeve, “until we receive word from Nantes we do not know that she is who she says is or a girl taken by Michelotto,” she said with the name with real hate, “who looks enough like her that she might fool those who knew her ten years past.”
“And what does it help you,” Guy began, “that the girl be sat aside?”
Charlotte smiled and moved across to his side, running her fingers up the length of his jacket sleeve, “absolutely nothing, I am just pointing out that you are not necessarily backed into a corner. It is too soon to react to either one claim or the other, but it is politic to send word to Hesse that Selene may have fallen out of your favour, perhaps Ariadne might be coy enough to tell that to her sister who surely has not left Carlsbad yet.”
Guy turned his face up to that of his mistress, “are you sure that you do not have de Morangais in your blood, for you certainly think like one?”
“No,” she said and lowered her mouth to kiss him, “I just learn from you. I worry, however, that you still have much to teach me.” Pulling her face back from his she licked her lips, “so very much, my Lord de Morangais.” She said that because she knew that her use of his title aroused him and it was a small concession to his lust.
Guy was not naïve enough to believe that Charlotte had any use for him but his power, but knowing that they had a certain honesty between them that his previous mistresses had lacked. There was no dissemblance between them and their bed-play was inventive and invigorating, and it seemed, that there was something in his anger that intrigued her, he could see it in the darkening of her eyes and the wetness of her lips.
“You look tired, you have such terrible tension,” she said and ran the tip of her finger across his shoulders, “would you wish me to relieve you?”
He sat back and spread his legs, “do as you please,” he said.
She smiled, and then licked her lips and proceeded to do so.
“Come in, come in,” the maid in the bath said, she was completely naked, “don't be a goose.”
The Papess Pieta, third of her name, stood clutching her shift like it was her lifeline, and it was all that could save her from eternal damnation, she had one arm around her breasts and one covering her groin. She had bound her hair up into a loose knot and looked at the bath like the gate to hell. “I don't want to.”
Catherine Galois sat on a marble bench in the bathhouse, waving an ivory and feather fan in front of her face. “It's just a bath,” she laughed, “Cesare asked me to look after you and you make it look like we are trying to murder you.” She thought this was hilarious. “We shall give you a bath, wash your hair, and dress you, then we can see about starting a salon that you meet might with those who want to see you, like Angelo, and Cesare, and we can introduce you as Lia and not as the Papess until the Biscop of Nantes arrives.”
“But,” Lia protested, “I can bathe myself.”
“So can I,” Catherine said, “but you are a guest of the King's consort and you will be treated like a great lady, now, would it ease your mind if I joined you in the bath, I can quickly undress.”
Lia blushed bright red to the very roots of her hair. “I,” she said and then she started to cry, great fat heavy tears and Catherine stepped across to her.
“Oh you silly goose,” she said and pressed Lia's face into her ermine partlet, her hand on the back of her neck, “we're not going to hurt you.”
Lia snuffled up her tears, “I,” she said, “I know, but...”
Catherine smiled down at her, “how about you come and stay with me on La Cour, away from all this madness, you poor silly goose?”
“Mnotgoose.” Lia snuffled into the fur, she pulled back and scrubbed at her eyes angrily, “I'm Lia, I'm Papess, and I saw the goddess in the wood, I have faced down kings and emperors and...” She burst into tears again.
“It's been a long day, child,” Catherine said, “You've travelled all the way here from Muro where you fled your own murder, I'd be a mess for much less,” she looked at the maid in the bath and shooed her away, “come on, goose, we'll put you down for a while and in the morning all will seem much better.”
Lia scrubbed at her face with the backs of her hands, “has,” she started and then took a deep snivelling breath, “has anyone told Angelo?”
On fortified wine Angelo always dreamt strange dreams. He dreamt of forests and the way that water curled along leaves to fall on the loam floor of the forest. His feet were bare and he could feel the mulch slip up between his toes, cold and slimy and wet. There were sharp edges to the stone and he was running, aware of everything, the mist, the moss and the squelch of the loam under his feet. He was naked, and that didn't matter either, he was running but he was not running from something, or to something, just for the joy of running in the forest. There was someone or something with him, but he didn't know who or what it was, only that he wanted to laugh but he was running so fast. He was overflowing with joy, and then there was a flash of red hair, autumn coloured and bark brown tones of cream pale skin, and the sudden surge of lust and the wonderful finality of knowing that this was his other, his one, his true other, the other half of his soul, and she, he was not surprised that it was a she for although he had never felt any hunger towards male or female but he was most comfortable around women, and lust was new and wondrous to him. He had been cut so very young, knowing that he would never have children, that he would never feel lust or an erection. He had known that all of his life, but seeing this woman, this shadowy nut brown nymph ahead of him he knew it was lust, for he had heard it described often enough.
Both Guiseppe and Tonio had been cut late, as they entered puberty and the loved both women and men at every opportunity their fame presented them with. They hungered enough, he had thought, for all three of them.
The nymph seemed to prove him wrong.
The soles of her feet were grass stained and he could taste it, sharp and bright in his mouth, something he didn't know, and the dark stink of lust at the back of his throat, and then the mocking peal of her laughter. He felt it like anger but more visceral coiling in the pool of his stomach, hanging between his naked thighs, and prickling like electricity along his arms and the hairs of his legs.
He could taste her, like salt along his lips.
He sprinted forward, letting the branches scratch and pull at his skin, and the bright beading of blood against his skin, and he could taste it in the sweat on his lips, and the fire in his belly. He felt like a stag thundering through the forest and it was wondrous and new. His doe was just out of reach, even if he stretched out his hand he could not reach her.
There was a willow tree hanging beside a gurgling stream. It's branches and leaves dangling in the water and she waited there, wearing her autumn red hair and her skin and licking her pale lips, and her nipples bright like bronze coins upon her chest, and he wanted to lick them, and bite them, and to push her into the grass underneath the tree and cover her nakedness with his own.
She laughed and her teeth were white and vicious sharp, like little needles and her eyes were like limpid forest pools, sparkling under the willow branches that hung on the grass and in the stream. She lay against the tree, with her fingers, creamy and lush, hanging in the water and there were soft curls of red hair between her thighs like a promise. There was a sense of pinkness and wetness but the fingers of her hand prevented him from seeing much.
He stepped forward, parting the branches of the willow like curtains and she licked her lips and one of her hands, the one that was not in the water, cupping her breast like an invitation, and then trailing down between her thighs, which she parted, knees raised and feet planted so he could see and Angelo awoke, sweat slick and sleep stupid. Tonio was sprawled across the bed, smacking his lips as he dreamt, kicking his feet. Angelo couldn't help but think that he looked like a dog chasing sleep rabbits.
He rolled out of the bed, looking for Guiseppe, and padded, in his stockings and shirt across the carpets and floor to the sitting room that was part of their suite. Guiseppe was curled up in a large overstuffed bench with a book in his hands, under the lamp. When he saw Angelo he looked up, “Bad dreams, angel?” he asked, and it didn't matter that Angelo was adult because Guiseppe saw him as a particularly tall four year old, he put down his book and cleared a space on his bench, “come sit, angel, tell me all about it.”
“It was just strange,” he said and took the space in the curl of Guiseppe's arms. His brother's were hugely affectionate, and every day that they spent apart from him were repaid with this kind of affection, of being ushered into arms, of waking up with one, or both, of them throwing themselves over him whilst he slept. Veronica had treated him like an adult, even when he was too small to climb into her lap but to Guiseppe he would always be a baby that had lain with him and Tonio in the small beds of the Atelerio where they had been trained. “It's just strange.” He repeated, and trusting Guiseppe he closed his eyes to the warmth of his brother and the smell of his brother and went back to sleep. He woke slightly to the sensation of Tonio putting a blanket over them but Tonio just smiled and he drifted back into the night.
He awoke again near dawn, and Guiseppe was sat beside him drinking hot coffee in small cups. It was thick and oily black. The smell of it was almost overpowering and it made Angelo's mouth water. “Sleep, angel,” Guiseppe said sweeping his black curls away from his forehead, the blanket tucked around him was warm and thick and his mouth felt like cotton. He was unsure if it was the remnants of the fortified wine that lingered, or just a sickness that had caught him in his brother's arms.
“I have slept enough,” Angelo said.
“The heart heals when it sleeps,” Guiseppe said, “I will happily sing you a lullaby.”
Angelo smiled a little wryly, “no, I'm going to tell you a story.”
He reached down and took Guiseppe's coffee, draining the cup and licking his lips to take the last of it, “The Stregha believe that the world always existed, that it rotated beginning and ending in the nature of all things. They call it the Wheel of Resurrection, and that as they die they are reborn, and the great wheel is watched over by the great eye of the Elder God, and he was fair and just.
His people lived in two great cities, the Eparkhiya and Rapture, and the lived in the seas and the sky, and they had fins and they had wings and they were made of magic and light and sun and the moon and the wind. They called them the Stregha, or the people of the moon, or the Alfar the people of the sun.
“And they fell out of favour,” Angelo said, “I don't know how, the story doesn't tell us that, but they did and the Elder God turned the sky to fire and boiled the seas with blood. He took the Stregha and the Alfar and smashed their great cities and took them and ripped from them their wings and their fins and then for their sin, whatever it was, he took their souls and tore them in twain, casting the halves across the universe. As one last insult he made them immortal, taking them from the great wheel, almost ridding them of their ability to bear children, and with the knowledge that he had turned his great eye from them.”
Angelo did not know if Giuseppe knew this story, for it was not well known outside the Stregha court, but he continued regardless, “they discovered, through long years of life and pain, that if they found that other half of themselves, that part that had been torn asunder, that they lived the normal span of years.”
“How tragic,” Giuseppe said softly into Angelo's hair.
“But that was not all of it, the mortal men, those whispery mayflies that had lived on the earth, they took those parts of the souls when they were first severed, and bred like rabbits, taking those half souls and moving them across the very world, away from their lost cities, made people by the very presence of those souls but so short lived that the very concept that of them meeting their other, that other half of their soul was almost impossible. Yet, when they did meet, as two men, or two women or a man and a woman, it was like a great lock turning and they were bonded into this life and the next.
“In the Indes, in a temple to their goddess, Hrunti, there is, or was, fourteen years ago, a pair of such soul fasted people, they made incisions in their skin, peeling it back that they might be stitched together, treating their wounds daily with honey and vinegar as novices wash away their stench and even so they can't help touching each other.
“I was there eleven years ago when Briar met Rhiannon and it was like lightning striking, and I saw him throw away a kingdom for him. I saw when Cesare met Etienne and saw how they pushed everyone out of their world but each other, and I know that if Pavia had not fallen to Hesse then he too would have abandoned it for the other half of his soul.”
He stopped for a long moment, as if he waited for Giuseppe to speak but he said nothing.
“I want that, 'Seppe, I want that.”
“It would make a wonderful opera, angel, because it's not for normal people to know that love, there is a world full of people and not all of us will ever meet that one person that completes us, but it doesn't mean we should stop searching. It's just a story,” he stroked Angelo's hair softly, “you are raw from the death of your papess, you are searching for bonds that you can't have because they are a promise, they are a hope in the darkness,” he pulled him in tightly to the folds of his armpit, “it gets easier, angel, I promise, she will be born again, in your wheel of resurrection, and if you, who has travelled the world, could not find your other, then what hope is there for us?”
Etienne sent word to his wife that he would call on her that night. Aoife was quite surprised by this as it had only been a week since they had married and Etienne had not so much spoken to her at supper. Her maid was visited by his page, who carried with him a beautifully written note that explained at His Majesty would be calling upon Her Majesty that evening and that she should prepare herself for him.
Aoife bathed with oils that her maid had found, smelling of corrupted black plum, smoky opium and crumbling dead roses covered by a deceptive veil of mountain lilac, white gardenia and wild berry. The perfume was clearly labelled in a tight copperplate hand. It was strong and lovely and the scent rose from the water and made her feel seductive, as it coiled around her throat, up to her breasts, where they floated in the water and slinking between her toes. She ran the oiled and scented water and then stood up, the water sloughing off her, holding her arms above her hair as Madelon wrapped her in soft brushed cotton slipping it over her arms and letting it slide down her body, before she stepped into the soft fur lined slippers knitted slippers.
She wrapped a velvet robe around her queen and as she sat down on her silk covered chair and then started to brush her hair, singing softly in some strange Cambrain lullaby Aoife didn't recognise. Madelon treated her like a beloved daughter, rather than as a mistress. She even slept in her bed, humming and stroking her hair.
Madelon had, for the first time, put the marriage sheets upon the bed. They had been a gift from Aoife's father and were the finest linen that Iera could produce, thick enough it felt like paper and soft enough it was like feathers. She had turned back the sheets under the blankets and the heavy furs that were draped across the bed.
Aoife sat in the arm chair in front of the fire, beside the bed, and pulled her legs up underneath herself. Madelon had gathered her hair into a simple braid that now she tugged where it hung over her shoulder to coil upon her knee. Madelon sat on a simple padded stool reading to her the bawdier verses of Veronica Franco, but it didn't stop Aoife being nervous.
She was nervous for several reasons, one she was, as a princess of the Ieran court, a virgin, with only the stories of her maids to tell her what sex was like and the steady reassurance that it certainly hurt and she should lie back and think of St Mabh, who had suffered this for the Elder God to give birth to the kings of Iera, and certainly had taken no enjoyment from it.
It was her duty however, and she would do it to the best of her ability, which Veronica Franco suggested, was supposed to be considerable for a woman. She just had no idea how to, although most of the women of the Cambrain court, as far as she could tell, had slews of lovers whom they cultivated like hothouse flowers.
The closest she had was a couple of verses from a poet that made no sense to her.
She also did not know her husband, she had not spoken to him since their strange conversation in the wedding chapel when he had apologised that he would never love her. She had a portrait that she had been sent with the marriage contract. Etienne, who had been called Charles, the name he held the throne under, had appeared like an angel, with soft blonde hair that fell in loose curls and deep brown eyes. Her mother had pursed her lips into a tight line and said “he will not look like that, they have made him seem holy that he might better appeal to you.” but her mother had been wrong, in fact if anything Etienne had been lovelier without the portrait, with a soft curve to his beauty and eyes in which she could drown, but it was of no use to her. There were no lies between them, he would never love her.
He knocked and entered before she could call out, Madelon laid down the book upon seeing him, wearing only pants and a loose shirt coming through a small door that led to a small corridor through which their rooms were adjoined, and left laying a soft kiss upon her mistress' forehead.
To his credit, Etienne looked as nervous as she did. He sat awkwardly in the chair on the other side of the fire so that the bed loomed like a threat between them.
It was just there, like a monster or some other horror.
They were silent for long minutes whilst the bed remained between them.
Eventually he cleared his throat and spoke, “about Cesare.” He started, “I should explain.”
“Majesty,” she said wringing her braid in her hands although her voice was calm, “It is of no matter to me.”
“I love him,” Etienne stumbled the words out, “he is the other half of my soul.”
Aoife made an oh shape with her mouth. “I am from Iera,” she said, “I understand,”
“No,” he protested, rubbing his thumb over his palm but he wouldn't look at her. “You don't, I am King of Cambrai, and my lover is a Duke in Exile, if we were only lovers,” he stopped for a moment, “if we were only men,” there was another pause, “but, when we met the world stopped for us. Have you heard of Cesare's cousin, Briar, the Duke of Pavia, he ran off with a Stregha because of this feeling, he abandoned everything.” He looked at her, “I would do that, instead I marry where I am told by my advisors and do my best to protect my assets from the machinations of this court and my mother.” He stopped again, the words were lacking, “I do not want this, lady, but I must.”
“It is of no matter, majesty, we belong to the court.” She said and her voice cracked just a little because she hadn't suspected that they could be this open with each other. He risked a lot, she knew, telling her this, even if he was her husband and she was his queen. “I said before that love and marriage do not bedfellows make.”
The way that he looked at her made her feel very young. “Lady, I don't think you understand, I do not want to do this for two reasons, one I love Cesare very dearly and I fear that he is hurt by this turn of events, that I am with you tonight, and not with him.” He took a deep breath through his nose, “and two I think this is belittling to us both.” He lowered his eyes again, “if it feels like this for me, how must it feel for you?” He stopped, “but this is politics in a country where the slightest mistake in proprietary behaviour can see you dead.”
Aoife licked her lips, “let me tell you a story, majesty, a fairy tale.” She stroked her braid softly, “I imagine you know a version of this, the Stregha version, but we Ieran tells a different version. When the world was begun the Elder God watched us all from the clouds, a great golden eye in the sky who maintained all that he saw, for the Stregha who swam the seas, the Alfar who flew the skies, and we humans who numbered the lands like the blades of grass. But the Stregha and the Alfar were proud, and in their great cities, the Eparkhiya and Rapture, they gathered all their wisdom that their knowledge might not be lost, that they might become immortal.
“So they defied the Elder God and they created a great machine that they called the Wheel of Resurrection and twisted the entire universe into it.
“The Elder God was horrified by what they had done, and he took the very souls that they had wound into the Wheel of Creation and to save the universe from tearing apart he tore them in twain, casting the parts across the world.” She stopped for a moment, and took a sip of water from a glass beside her.
“Outside of the Wheel of Resurrection,” she continued, “they were immortal, childless and forced to rely on magic just to survive. Most of them went mad in those first days and they tore down their great cities. They tore off their wings and the fins on their backs where they had cut through the water, and exiled themselves into the woods and the mountains, to look at the sky and the sea and be forever parted from it.
Yet then one day one of them, a Stregha or an Alfar, found that other part of his soul, the part that had been torn asunder, and they could not stop from touching each other, from pressing their parts together, trying to shove themselves back together, and then they bore a child, a wonder amongst them as they were childless, and then they grew old, and died, and that whole soul, that full soul, not a half soul.” She stopped, “it was lost, too big for the Wheel of Resurrection and still in the Wrath of the Elder God.”
She stood up and smoothed out the lines of her nightgown, “so yes, my lord, I understand, I do, and I pity you completely. Now, shall we go to bed.”