Following the announcement of de Boniface the entire noblesse of Cambrai was silent and horrified, even the Huguenot lords. The Queen Mother stood with her gloved hand to her open mouth in shock- the Papess had been little more than a child. She had been cosseted and closeted by the Curia in preparation for a long and productive reign, guided by the Holy See, kept locked away in the Sacristy of Muro to protect her. That had failed.
Guy de Morangais was not so open in revealing his shock, he clutched his wine cup so tightly that his knuckles whitened and the pewter burned in his palm. The wine spilled up over his lace cuff and dripped slowly unto the material of his pants. His son, Roi, dropped his own cup and the red wine spread across the stone floor like a blood stain.
The ladies, gathered around on chaise in the centre of the room, were quiet and Charlotte di Sauve had placed her hand on the shoulder of the young Marguerite de Guys who was now the queen mother's favourite maid.
Angouleme and Alison had gone a terrible shade of greyish green, like lichen on a tombstone, and wondered perhaps why so many eyes had turned to them.
The young queen, Aoife, who knew nothing of the Papess than those lies that were spread in the heretic countries about how she devoured babies, rested her hand on the shoulder of Angelo Pardi, who looked as if he had lost a sister.
Duke Cesare turned back into the chest of the king of Cambrai and buried his face in his shoulder as the king stroked his black curls.
It was Aoife who reacted, taking a deep breath and tightening her grip on Angelo's shoulder. “We should sound the bells,” she said in a clear voice, “we should let the criers know that the populace might mourn with us.” Roi de Morangais looked at her open mouthed, “We should drape the cathedrals in mourning, but first, we should sound the bells that all may know of this horror.
One of the servants, laying down his tray ran off to obey as the nobles remained speechless and after several long minutes the bells of Our Lady started tolling out their slow sonourous horror, wailing out the sorrow of the church, then another bell started, and another, until all the churches, both Cathar and Huguenot, rang their bells for their Papess.
They just remained where they were, like actors waiting for their cue before, of all of them surprisingly, it was Alinson who began to move. “Hesse has killed the holy maiden.” He shouted, spittle flying from his slack mouth, “perhaps they wish to replace her with someone who will look more to their expansionist policies.” He looked at the king, his arms around the heaving shoulders of Cesare, who had buried his own face in the crook of the king's neck. “This must not be borne, we must act against Hesse for this horror.”
Eostre calmed herself, the red flush still showing on her face, “how do we know that this was Hesse?” She asked, “we only have the word of Monsieur de Boniface that they were the killers, and I heard that they had taken Muro and that she had been murdered, not that they had been the ones to kill her.” She took another deep breath, “how do we know that it was not your Huguenot brethren who killed her, and that your affront is merely an act that we might act against Hesse that we might leave our Cathar lands undefended.”
“My lady has a point,” Guy said calmly, loud enough to carry, “we do not know who killed the Papess, it could be Navarra, I shall send word to my daughter Mariette that she might tell me what she knows of the emperor's mind. She will know more of what happened.”
“My lord de Morangais,” the Duc de Guys said, “we all know your own pretensions towards Navarra, even maintaining that your family was royal there, it would suit your agenda for us to attack Navarra, and promote your daughter's star at the court of the emperor.”
“Enough!” Etienne said firmly. “We do not know what happened. I will not mobilise my armies until I have proof of who killed her, I will send men to find the truth of it, and have them speak to those who are leaving the Deici, when the truth of it is known then, and only then, I will act.”
“Majesty,” Catherine Galois protested, “we cannot be seen to be doing nothing as both Navarra and Hesse expand their borders, if either of them acted we must be prepared for holy war.” She was Etienne's half sister and he listened to her counsel, even if he didn't trust it.
“Monsieur de Boniface.” Etienne said, “bring me the Biscop of Nantes. We shall discuss with her the suitability of such Holy War. We cannot allow ourselves to be allied with either side for fear of being swallowed. Cambrai is not the power that it once was, but it is our counsel to be patient, to be like a snake that will strike, and de Morangais,” he turned his head to Guy, “recall your daughter from Carlsbad, if she remains I will not be able to prevent the gossip saying of how you support Hesse and might even have colluded with them in regards this murder.”
For a moment Guy was insulted and then realised the merit of the king's pronouncement, Etienne might have been a young man, on the throne for only three years, but he knew how to maintain the groups, to flatter and when to insult, and this, Guy had to concede, was a gift. He was offering him a chance to ally with either Hesse or Cambrai, to choose. Guys was right, he knew, he wanted Navarra so he would, for now, ally with Cambrai and summon Mariette home.
“My dearest Rabbit
I write to you from the heart, both mine and that of the church. I can see your dark smile at that, it is an old joke, but Rennes is a dour joyless place, all it does is rain and snow, so I bring you some cheer from Muro, though there is little enough here.
They have changed the novices again, I think I no sooner learn their names, or perhaps in some cases invent names for, than the Curia gather in some velvet lined room and discuss my eternal soul and I have new ones. At the moment I am only watched by Miss Victoria, from the House of Ceres, a very popular brothel in the heart of town, she took holy orders, she has a quick tongue and I cannot see that she will be my novice for long.
She told me a joke that would have made the Keeper's hair curl, and we are like sisters, running through the corridors and cloisters giggling under our habits.
I know we have fostered this correspondence at the urging of Briar, who thinks we, without him, both need a friend, but I must admit that I am glad that I have someone to confide in. Of course if the Curia even suspected how much I tell in your letters you would receive nothing.
Selene de Morangais has taken control of the Curia, as I understand it she is the sister of the de Morangais who makes himself a nuisance to you, we can gather together and both bemoan our terrible states of affairs and the de Morangais who complicate them.
I hear little news but I found a Huguenot pamphlet that had possibly been carried in by one of the sisters, I do not know that, and I do not care. Their heresies are not new, I have spent so long in the Haga Sophia and it's library that when I read these things I find myself saying that this argument was made by the Abee de Pensee, or that this was by Saint Janine. The one that separates most of them is truly a creation of this new age of reason. They argue that for the maiden to become the mother that a man is necessary, and that this man, should be recognised as part of the church, because of this they are arguing that the priesthood should marry and truly be part of the communities they serve. That, I think, is the bone of contention between them and the church, that they are kept by their communities, they serve and are not served. There are sisters I cannot see in some poor village with their fine ermine sleeves rolled up to deliver babies, or on their knees helping with the sowing.
It has sparked debate in the Holy See, suggesting perhaps simple lessons in reading and numbers, for we all are trained so, but the Curia will not hear of it. If I had an opinion I would side with the Holy See, but why would I have an opinion, I am only the holy maiden.
Victoria tells me of the scandalous practices of the Stregha and Alfar, and although I know them to be complete fiction, I must admit there is a wondrous thrill in hearing them, I do not believe that they have terrible congress with the Elder God, but the stories chill the blood and I enjoy those terrors, afterwards, as we lie in bed with the blanket pulled tight about our chins I relish this girlhood that Victoria allows me...”
Cesare did not finish the letter, he just put it down as his tears started to blur the ink. Etienne sat on their bed, his jacket open as he looked at his lover, sat at his desk, with the letter in his hand, his fingers holding the letter so tight the paper was creased there. His shoulders were so tense that he had almost formed a pleat in the fabric of his coat, and he had, on entering the room, poured the jug of water over his head into the bowl complaining, despite the winter chill, of heat and sweat annoying him.
Etienne knew better, his Rabbit was mourning.
Etienne had not known the Papess, except through Cesare's excited retelling of her news and her wit and her brilliance. He had met her once, a child, ten years previous, there to preside over the trial for the Princess Aine's murder. She had been a few years younger than him, not even pubescent, with black hair and eyes and the ability to lose her shoes no matter where she was. He had never spoken to her, surrounded by either the Prince's manservant or the crones of the church that brought her to Pavia.
Cesare had known her through Briar, somewhere in their correspondence Briar had decided, flush with love and joy and that wonderful happiness that wants everyone to be happy and ideally married, that they would make great friends and so had started them writing to each other. This had gone on now for eight years.
The Papess had grown into a erudite and witty young woman who wrote long rambling letters sometimes as much as three times a week, and then Cesare would sit on the bed, waving his arms about as he related whatever piece of gossip she had managed to find, which was usually not very gossipy at all. She fascinated Cesare, like a bright and shining thing that allowed itself to be admired and held in the hand, but then vanished back into the dark.
Cesare had never had a sister, and when his cousin, Briar, had left Pavia he had found him a sister in the Papess.
“Come to bed, Rabbit.” Etienne said softly from the bed, watching the tightness of his lover's shoulders from across the room. He wanted to comfort him, but he didn't know whether or not he should. Everything in him wanted to get up and swallow Cesare whole, to take his pain in and of himself and make it all right. He wanted to consume him, bones and hair and teeth so he could hurt for him. It was agony for Etienne seeing Cesare hurt.
“Soon, love,” Cesare said, but his voice was tight, “just give me a moment.”
Etienne stood up, wearing only his shirt which hung to his knees, it was too cold in La Massif in winter to sleep naked. He put his arms around Cesare's shoulder and rested his head against his lover's. Cesare was as taut as a harp string. The muscles across his shoulders felt like they might snap if he tried to move them. His face, however, was impassive. “Come to bed, Rabbit.” Etienne repeated.
“It's unfair,” Cesare said softly, “she was just a child.”
“A nation mourns with you.” Etienne said and that caused Cesare to turn.
“No,” he said, “a nation mourns for the Papess, only Angelo, Briar and I will mourn for Lia.” He said.
“I know you loved her,” Etienne said, “and I loved her through you, I would mourn her for that alone, simply because you loved her, but,” he kissed the top of Cesare's head, “it kills me to see you like this, I know you were her friend and I know you, come to bed, and cry it out in my arms.”
“I won't cry for her.” Cesare said stiffly, “because I have every intention of finding who killed her and tearing them into little pieces of meat, and casting them into the ether, ripping their name from history, not because she was Papess but because she made me laugh and she had put up with so much from them, they tortured her and then they killed her, and I loved her.”
“Who do you think it was?”
“Think?” Cesare asked, “I know it was the Curia, I just need to find enough proof that we can bring everything we have to bear against them for what they did.”
“There will be war,” Etienne said.
“There already is, you just kept Rennes from it until now.”
Angelo stood behind the Queen of Cambrai and slowly picked the lacings from her dress to reveal her corset and chemise. She had unlaced her sleeves and held her bare arms aloft to lift her fiery hair out of the way. Her skin, revealed from the layers of heavy fabric, was milk white with fair pale blonde hairs and freckles across her shoulders. She had no question now, of Angelo's intentions, because both from him and everyone that she had passed she had been told that he was castrati, that he had been cut, and she would have more fun with a real man. Often those comments were made with accompanying vulgar gestures.
“It is a terrible thing about the Papess,” Aoife said in her slow accented voice, “I was told, by my maid, Madelon, that you knew her.”
Angelo took a deep breath, “I knew her well, but not as Papess, as Lia, the two were mutually exclusive I found quickly.”
“I am sorry for your loss.” she said and turned around, “I too once lost a friend and I know it's like someone cut off a limb, and sometimes you forget the loss until you go to use it and then you lose them all over again.” She let down her hair and embraced him tightly. He noticed how she smelt of sage, when so many of the ladies of the court smelled of flowers, sweet and sickly. She smelt of the forest, and he buried his face in the crook of her neck and breathed her in deeply. She smelled of hawthorn and sage and the dark in the forest. Then he pulled back and looked at her, really looked at her, apart from the trappings of wealth, the slightly brownish hint to her skin where it folded, the shape of her beautiful grey green eyes that were like the moss that grew on the northern side of alder trees. “Nimhiú fola;” he asked. He was careful to use the Ieran word, because it would not be recognised, but it was one that he knew well, it meant Venae, it meant half breed. Mostly the word meant half-Stregha, for up until ten years ago they had been more open taking part of the world until the Princess Aine's murder, before they had closed their borders as the world went to war. But Aoife clearly wasn't Stregha, they had a sea scent, they had a silver blue tint to their skin and a haughty ethereal beauty, but they were not the only people thrown away by the Elder God, there was a second legend, the Alfar.
Angelo was an artist, sometimes he saw things that other did not. “Fifth generation.” Aoife said softly, “just a hint left in the blood.” She turned and he could see now it had been made clear, those inhuman details, faint as they were. She had the same high cheekbones that the Stregha had, and her hair had that same forest gold colour that he had seen in the Ieran paintings of the Alfar.
He suddenly wanted to paint her as some maiden goddess in the wood, naked but for her own beauty and a garland of flowers and hair, with a bow and arrow and some deer slain at her feet. It was something he had never experienced before, but he knew he wasn't seeing her for her own beauty, but the Alfar beauty within her. He wanted to paint an Alfar because he had painted Stregha. He carried within him a very rare ability, inherited from Veronica, to walk among people for no reason but their history or their art or their beauty, but sometimes it meant he was unable to see a person for the people that they were part of.
“Do you know Madelon?” She asked. “She sleeps in the closet attached to this room, I would not argue if you shared her bed tonight.”
“I cannot.” He said, “I was cut young.” It was a simple statement of affairs.
“What?” she asked, “sleep? I suggest you share her bed so that you are not alone tonight, she was your friend, and although I doubt it my husband may call on me tonight, or I would offer you my arms as comfort.”
“Majesty,” he said quietly, “I will take to a bottle of rich wine and cheese, I will mourn in my own way, but I thank you, but you're right your husband will not call on you tonight, because just as you think I need comfort over Lia, then so would Cesare who knew her and loved her as well as I did.”
Angelo Pardi lived in a middle sized inn called La Belle Etoile that was less than three hundred yards from La Massif. With his two older brothers, the famous castrati, he shared the entire top floor of the inn on a permanent retainer paid for by a variety of ladies who loved his brothers. The Pardi brothers were famous members of the opera and had been invited to sing at the king's wedding and had since spent the day in their cups, with women on their knees. Angelo shared no part of it, though he was, in his own way, as famous.
He climbed the back stairs with a jug in his hand and his head down,.“Angelo,” his brother, Tonio, had called from the taproom, there was a girl sat beside him, with her blonde head cast back as she snored, but it didn't seem to distract the other girls that surrounded both him and Guiseppe, “look, it is our baby brother, our Angelo,” he told the ladies, “come Angelo, come drink with us.”
He had walked over, “Not tonight,” he said, “my muse calls me, but I'll take your jug of fortified wine.”
“Dear Angelo,” Guiseppe said a little drunkenly, “the best of us all, do not drink all of our brandy, you will give yourself a bad head, and at least one of us should awake in the morning with our wits, for we appear to have broken our lady friends.” He laughed a little, “there is bread and cheese and some meat left in the parlour upstairs, don't eat all of it.”
“I ate in La Massif.” Angelo said.
“See our little brother, our baby,” Tonio said, “eats with kings and flirts with them too.” He brayed out a laugh. “Attended the royal wedding as a guest, not as the choir.” one of the ladies giggled, but she was too drunk to really know what was happening.
“The Queen will not last long.” Angelo said quietly, “she's too naïve.”
“Ah, me,” Guiseppe said, “hear that, I'd say it was treason but for being from our baby, our Angelo, instead it's an invitation to sing at her funeral.” Both he and Tonio laughed. “Perhaps she's already dead, and that's why the bell tolls.”
“No,” Angelo said as he finally picked up the nearly full jug, “they toll for the Papess, murdered in Muro.”
Tonio licked his lips, “then we shall travel there next, come with us, little Angelo, our little Angel, the Deici mourns without you.” He squeezed his arm.
“Veronica wants me here.” Angelo said softly, “I'll mourn her here, good night, Tonio, good night, Guiseppe, ladies,” He offered them a stiff bow, “I will be painting so you won't disturb me, no matter when you go to bed.”
“Paint me,” one of the girls said and then laughed, and went to undo the ties of her blouse, “you are a Pardi,” she pulled open the blouse to reveal two sagging tits with dark brown nipples and a soured milk complexion with her dank blonde hair, “I'll pose for you.”
“Thank you, miss,” Angelo said, “but Tonio will get cold without you, good night, fair lady, perhaps I will see you in the morning.”
“You're so pretty,” the woman said reaching out, and then pulled her hand back to cough into it loudly, more a hack than a genuine cough, rattling around in her lungs, “I'd be happy to pose for you.”
“Unfortunately,” Angelo said, shifting the jug to his other hand to empty one of the glasses on the table in a single mouthful, “I have been asked to paint the Papess, who I knew, and have not time just now to make you immortal. Perhaps another night.”
“I could keep you warm,” she said, “while you paint.”
“I have the brandy for that, thank you for your consideration, but not tonight.” He threw some coins on the table from a hidden pocket, “don't be too late tonight, I don't really want to be alone.” He reached across and kissed both Tonio and Guiseppe on the lips before he went upstairs.
Now he stood in front of a prepared canvas with his paints to hand and the brandy burning his mouth and making his teeth itch with the rawness of it, he began to paint.
It was odd painting like this, when he had for so long etched designs unto copper plates for Veronica's books, he did paint, but very rarely without someone to tell him what he was supposed to, and he knew what he would paint, Lia, but not how.
So he let his brush wander free as he thought of her, of the way she made him laugh, and the image of her back in Pavia, a child, with grass stains on her feet and the wind in her hair amongst Queen Constance's roses. So that was how he painted her, but instead of painting her in the novice's dress she had worn he painted her wearing only the roses, with the wind wild in her hair, and it was only after he had finished he noticed how her ears were Stregha pointed, how there was brown in the folds of her skin and under her breasts, the roses covered her nudity and her eyes were turned to the moon. She looked distant, strange, and as he looked at her in the poor light he had painted in, Alfar.
Angelo knew, much better than most, about the Stregha and the Alfar, because he had stood in their abandoned temple in the far Winterlands. It had been a great and silenced cathedral where their history was detailed. They had worshipped a great and omnipotent god, a hateful jealous god, they called the Elder God, and he had, over some perceived slight, torn them in two, he had ripped the wings from the Alfar and the fins from the Stregha, taking the Alfar from the sky and the Stregha from the sea.
Then discontent with that, as obviously that was not enough to punish them for whatever it was that they did, he took from them the ability to easily fall pregnant, almost taking them from their great wheel of reincarnation, a thing the followers of the goddess did not believe in, and tore their souls in twain. He took the pieces and threw them across the sky and the firmament so for each soul two bodies were born, immortal and mostly childless until they found that other half of their soul. The prince of Pavia, Briar, had found his immortal other in the Stregha Prince Rhiannon and had cast aside everything for him.
Cesare had abandoned Pavia to follow his, Etienne and even now, ten years later, they were like new lovers.
Lia would never know hers. She would never know what it was to drink liquor with the Stregha, or to hear the tales, spoken at fireside, of the elusive Alfar. Lia would never know anything, they kept her quiet and close and then they killed her. With a flourish, he painted the sheen of saliva on her lips, that were caught in a cheeky half smile, and the portrait was finished.
Spent he went to the bedroom, true to his request both brothers had taken to his bed, falling in the centre, with Tonio draped over the edge, his face on the bedside cabinet as he had drunk so much. Guiseppe was snoring, but Angelo looked at them fondly, his brothers, his twin stars, and undid his pants, stepping out of them and then climbed into the bed between them, knowing that they offered him a comfort that they might never understand they gave him, but offered it non the less. Sandwiched between them, breathing in their sweat and Giuseppe's wine sour and garlic breath washing over him he slept, feeling safe, loved and home.