Death and Two Women

In his bed-chamber, hung round with tapestries that emblazoned tales so ancient that the matter of them had been long forgotten, the Old Lord lay dying. His breathing made the only sound in the room save the mantel clock, and his bloody spittle flecked the linens.

At the foot of his bed, the Lady Myrilla sat in her cushioned chair, making the last neat hem stitches in his burial shroud; black work for a dark day. Her hair white as the linen, her eyes the faded blue of summer sky, she awaited the inevitable change of worlds. Her hands fell into the rhythm of the mantel clock while thoughts tumbled over in her mind, pleasure and pain, bitterness and joy in turn. The past washed over the present, yet she held the future at bay: the new age she could not bear to imagine.

Beyond the mullioned window, past the crenellated wall of the outer keep, the sea beat its own measure on the rocky strand. The waves advanced and withdrew, moving the shells and twisted, bleached driftwood now forward, now back. Straining her eyes, the Lady could see at the limit of her vision the mist-shrouded topmasts of carracks and ships of war, dancing to the long, steady swell.

He was a better Prince than a husband, though he never did me harm by word or deed. He would talk to me as though I were one of his Privy Council, and I loved that in him. My mourning I have done already, but I will never stop listening for his step.

A soft, almost tentative knock sounded at the door. “Enter,” the Lady said, threading her needle through the cloth.

Aramond, the Lord Chancellor, pushed the door open, his ironwood cane tapping on the stone floor. Myrilla presented her hand, and he made his way across the room, taking her hand in his own and kissing it. His middle finger bore the ring of his office, heavy with gold and holding an anachite diamond, sovereign against all poisons, natural or compounded by men.

He then went along to the head of the bed, steadying himself with one hand on the carved serpent that wound its way ’round the bed frame in a reflection of that great Worm which circumbinds the world. With an effort, he bent to touch the Lord’s brow.

“How long?” the Lady asked.

“An hour. Two perhaps, but no more.”

“Can you not, then, conjure against death?”

“Never so, most serene Lady.” He leaned on his cane, and pulled a chair next to Myrilla, with the dragon’s head of his staff against the arm. “We must talk, and not in fancy-dress phrases.”

“Go to! You were never a plain-spoken man.” In spite of the shadow that lay on the room, she smiled. “Let me have your last counsel.”

In his distant apartments, Egan the Young Lord paced the floor, waiting for another’s death to set him free. In the half-light of curtained windows, his eyes fell on those curious and perverse objets d’art with which his whims had furnished the chamber. A painted satyr whipped a nymph; a sculpted adder writhed like a living thing as the light shifted here and there.

Across from him, on a soft-pillowed couch, Dame Rosalura, secretary of his inmost desires, lay curled in the way of a wild-cat, her skin pure and lustrous and her eyes cold as his were fiery. Her high-waisted gown of scarlet sendal dangled a little off one shoulder as she stretched her arm toward a wine bottle.

Between this Scylla and Charybdis, Gabriel the Court painter stood at his easel, slender arms shaking a little as he held his brush and pallet. “Will it please Your Highness be still for just a moment?”

“It will not,” the Young Lord said. “Let me see the damned thing, and it were best for you that it be finished.” He pushed the painter aside and studied the canvas. “It is done, and never so poorly as I’d feared. You’ve caught my lady wife’s simpering smile to the very life.”

Rosalura left her couch in a sinuous motion and stood beside her lover. “And there too am I, as you so sweetly commanded.” Indeed, to a discerning eye, her face emerged out of the murky background behind his, subtly rendered, but there to see. “This is well enough done. No more necessary.”

Egan motioned the painter to go. “Hurry to your catamite. You’ve done well for half a man.”

Dame Rosalura took a single long step to block the painter’s way. “My Prince,” she said, eyes flashing wide with pleasure. “Ah, I have o’erlept my time to name you so. Then call me prophetess to be the first.” She put a finger on Gabriel’s chest, where his smock hung open from the neck. Her other hand touched beneath his waist, and he hardened in spite of himself. “Shall I make a whole man of him?”

“As you wish,” Egan said. “But not just now. It were not seemly in my poor sire’s last hours.” He laughed. “Another time?”

Rosalura laughed. “When was I ever seemly? Save to feign it when needs must.” She pushed her hand forward, feeling the painter tremble and grow at once. “It would be so easy. Don’t be afraid. Egan will tell you I make an excellent gentleman atwixt the blankets.” She licked her lips, blood-red without rouge. “Oh, get out,” she said with another laugh, throaty and low. “You’ll keep. Think of me when you cover some boy with your paints. Make him look thus.” She raised her arms and held her scented black hair back from her face. “’Twill hold you for a while.”

Leaving his palette and brushes behind, Gabriel hurried out the door, slamming it as he fled.

Left alone with his mistress in that most private place, Egan ceased his pacing. “You said once that you might kill a man like that with your bare hands? I should wish to see that.”

“A man like that? Like that perhaps, but not our poor Gabriel. I never would murder a man with such art in his hands. Choose another some time, and we shall see.” As she said this, she drew back her shoulders a little, letting him better see her shape through the thin material of her gown.

Damn her. My tongue thickens with desire. Egan walked to the wall where hung a great map of the Adrian Sea and its shores. “Let us choose another subject for the mean while. See you here where the Papal States lie ripe for the plucking? Place but the crown on my head, and they fall. By this blow, would we not strike Venezia herself into the hazard?”

Rosalura chose her words with care. In a nigh-submissive tone, she said, “I am scarcely a soldier, but might not a stroke northward give us a buffer against the Germanies? Your father oft said that there the danger lay.”

Damn her twice. When I am Lord here, I shall have every foot of this fortress turned ‘till I find those papers she keeps in reserve against me. Then we will see which of us has the mastery. “When I need such a minx as you to teach me the art of war, I will happily resign my throne. Until then, I pray you watch your words, lest you find yourself returned to that gutter whence you came.”

“Well,” Rosalura said. “There was never horse nor man that threw me yet. I sought not to teach you, but only to remind you. So let you recall this: I know where your dead lie buried; who your intelligencers are, and who informs against you. So do others, lest you think the knowledge dies with me. Also, you are not the only one who knows how to compound an insalata Fiorenzana. Those herbs wait for any to pick them.

“You have nothing to fear from me. I will follow withersoever you choose, but never think I will be silent. This is the hour of our triumph; let us not quarrel over minutiae. She pulled him to her with surprising strength, kissed him hard with her tongue down his throat, then pushed away. “Now let me dress properly for the day.”

She closed the door behind her, and held herself from shaking until she was well down the corridor.

In the death-room, behind doors of dark walnut, carved with the shapes of the fantastical beasts of old, the Lady and her Chancellor spoke together. They kept their voices low, in respect to the dying, and to avoid prying ears.

“Aramond,” Myrilla said. “Can you tell me what is that ship yonder whose masts reach so above the others?”

“That is His Brittanish Majesty’s vessel Nonesuch, or some other ridiculous Anglish name. Seventy-four guns; her Captain bears a similarly absurd appellation.”

“And her business? Surely something I should know?”

“Indeed. Since the Emancipation, there has been a lack of commerce between the Anglish and their old partners in trade; viz, Moroc, Tunis and the like. It is His Majesty’s—or more correctly, the Prince-Regent’s—intention to improve the traffic in ivory, spices et cetera. He seeks to use our excellent deep-water anchorages, to (he avouches) mutual benefit.

“Quite naturally, upon hearing of the Lord Orvald’s illness, the Ambassador Plenipotentiary insisted on waiting until our master should enjoy better health. Should Your Serenity choose to believe that, I would denounce you as an imposter.”

Myrilla sighed, took up her sewing, then laid it aside once more. “They wait for young Egan? Or some other condition of weakness?”

“May I speak without reproach or censure?”

“When was it otherwise?” The Lady’s face showed naught save a deep calm that belied her inner storm. I was never a patient woman, yet all my life it has been forced on me.

“This then,” Aramond said. “Our realm stands in the same case as the Lord Orvald; that is, in extremis. We live or die by trade and shipping. Our soldiers are unexcelled, but they are also few in number. The mountains and fortalices keep us safe enough, but without access to the sea, we starve and die. No man gladder than I to know that the loathsome traffic in human cargoes is ended, but we must find new commodities. I fear that the Young Lord has not the least sense of this.

“He loves his luxuries, his cruelties and his mistress far above any duty he might feel. Certes he will take us to war, if only to please the masses, and so will wake that sleeping lion in our harbor with his seventy-four guns.

“I am told he intends against the Papal dominions, and there is no surer way to embroil us in the endless divisions of the Italiani ‘Domestic fury and fierce civil strife’, as the poet says, and we without the resources to maintain it. There is also information that should we open certain abandoned workings in the mountains, we might discover the bones of our lost comrades; and that if we were uncautious our own might soon be laid with them.”

The Lady Myrilla put her hand over his, reaching across the table. She had never found herself able to talk to Egan, to evoke any reaction beyond a bland smile. To the Lady, it was as though her son was not hers, but some changeling out of a dark world. “I will not contradict you. He is a chaos I cannot order or control.”

The old Chancellor closed his eyes, listening to the breath of the dying and he thought, the stuttering beat of his own heart. “Then his accession must be prevented? Could you die to see that accomplished?”

Myrilla considered that fate. Were Egan to die, his cousin Ibian would be, by operation of law, the next in line. A bookish lad, though competent in arms at fourteen, he had not been raised to rule, but there were sound heads to guide him. “They tell us that Death is only a door. I could open it with an easy conscience.”

“Then listen.” Aramond pushed back his robe and drew a scroll tube from his pocket. “I wrote this in a fair clerk’s hand two days afore now. It waits only for the Lord’s seal and sign-manual.”

He handed a paper to the Lady, and she read it over. “This is a codicil to my husband’s will. Names me regent for—whomever? The county Medor to follow in my stead should I be also gone? Surely it cannot have force unsealed and unsigned?”

“In ordinary circumstances, you are correct. We are not, however, in such circumstances. You know I am somewhat fond of conundrums? Here is one: should the Crown be set on Egan’s head, you and I would be banished or condemned on the instant. I cannot even guess how many would shortly follow us.

“This being so, he must die afore-hand. And with clear presents of the means, methods and above all the workers of his death, so that there can be no suspicion fall on you or yours. Hence the regency to stand, whatsoever else befall. Medor I trust more than any other, saving yourself.”

So I am to kill my own son, and die myself in the attempt.. We made him together out of desire, and it did not suffice to make him whole. He is all that is left from when I was young. Now I have only hours for what ought to be a lifetime of mourning.

Myrilla picked up her needlework, knotted and snipped the thread. They say the Gods of the North did thus. She looked again on the harbor and the mountains beyond shrouded in fog, seeking haply the farther shore. I am not ready to die, but then, how many ever are?

“Can you tell me your plan?” the Lady asked.

“To do so would be your damnation, or at least so the Fathers say. Myrilla, my oldest and greatest friend, you must trust me now.”

She raised her hand, and he kissed it. “You know,” she said, “Egan is no fool.”

“He sees the surface well enough,” the Chancellor said. “Makes him a good tactician, but a poor strategist. Dame Rosalura is far more to be feared. I have written instructions for Medor.” He unrolled the codicil once more and laid it on the table. “So hardly is the law administered, and so honored that neither we nor Egan may seem to violate one jot of it. You keep the Lord’s seal?”

“Yes, but—”

“But me none of your buts, madam, I pray you.” He smiled, and she took the seal from her purse. A candle, a bit of wax and a scrap of ribbon and the task was complete.

When the wax hardened, the old Chancellor rose, looking now as though he ran a race with his master for who should sit first before the Thrones. “Turn away, Lady. This is black art, and should you witness it, it would imperil your soul as it does mine.”

He hobbled again to the head of the bed, leaning more heavily on his cane. Inking a pen, he pressed it into the dying man’s hand. “Scribé.” The pen moved across the paper. “It is done, and no man may question it.” He returned to the table and sanded the ink dry.

“You have the wine for the memory-cup? We will drink to Orvald when he is gone, and if Fortune favor, there are some will join him.”

Myrilla rose from her chair, crossed to the locked cabinet and brought out the bottle, stoppered with its cork, foil and waxen seal. Aramond took a syringe from his pocket and thrust the needle through the cork, taking care to leave only the barest mark. This he hid with a pinch of lamp-black rubbed well. “The death-lily. Not an unpleasant end. Very like hemlock, but more swift and sure.”

“End of our little tale, then?”

“No, madam: rather the beginning. We have only to wait.”

The wait lasted not long. Harder and more irregular came the Lord’s breath as though, the Chancellor’s plan being set in train, he himself was no longer required. All sound stopped, excepting the ineluctable tick of the mantel clock. The Lady walked to her Lord’s side and held her glass before his face. She grabbed the bell-pull and tugged twice to summon the inevitable. “Our Lord is dead. Call his Guardsmen in, and let the teller bells be rung.”

“Donn. Donn.” The bells tolled low, reverberating amongst the hills, past great houses and less over the pastures and steadings, even to the far borders and beyond.

At the sound, women fell to the earth, stricken with birth pangs though they carried no children. Beasts groaned in the field, and men stood wondering as the furrows bent and weaved as though waking from slumber. Such was the bond between the Lord and the land, sundered only by death which stopped ordinary time. All things waited until the clock could be once more wound.

In her own inner room, Dame Rosalura stared into her scrying glass, where the image of Lord Orvald’s deathbed hung, as though detached from the world like a painting in oils. Gone then, and peacefully. This gladdened her. She would’ve welcomed the painful death of an enemy; indeed, she had caused a few such. However, the Old Lord was not an enemy, only an impediment that time had removed.

Half-rising from her seat, she bent closer to the mirror, letting her hair fall like raven’s wings to either side. In the glass, the Chancellor and the Lady floated as in a magic lantern show. What would I do in their place? Why am I unsure? They are like me; they will not passively await the future. They will try to make it. It must be they have some stratagem in mind, but I cannot divine it.

As she watched, the Lady’s face filled the glass, and those eyes seemed for all the world to look into hers, though it was a thing impossible. She wants to know. Rosalura stared back, letting a smile steal across her lips. Why do I do this, tying myself to a man cruel, selfish and vain? For power? A little. The only power I have had is from my wit and my body; I should like to taste another. For pleasure? Yes. When I hunt boar or stag, the ride excites more than the kill. I need to jump the highest walls, and swim the current where it is most swift. If I am lost, so let it be.

A knock at the outer door woke her from her reverie. She rose and unbolted the doors. Egan stepped in, the brazen scales of his dress armor jingling, and his hob-nailed boots scraping the floor. Even as he made his little courtesy, the bells sounded.

“Our time,” he said, pantomiming the crown being placed on his head. “We should go by the secret way.”

“Not so, gracious my Lord.” Her smile held a world of promise, save at the corners where some doubt seemed to linger. “It is not so secret; in truth it would be the best place for an ambuscade, with no one to see. In the open corridor, there will be eyes to watch, and mouths that will not fear to speak.”

Egan’s face twisted for an instant, disfiguring the handsome countenance that served to fool so many. He held back the angry word that crouched behind his teeth, and the mask fell into place once more. “You are right.” He turned to his soldiers. “Stand you close, and have a care. The hour is near, but we must not slip before it chimes.”

“Should we—your wife?” one of the men asked.

“No. Her presence is not required.” Rosalura made no demurrer. She knew well when to choose her battles. She is a Vissicontini. I must make sure she gets at least outward respect.

Egan leaned to Rosalura and spoke sotto voce. “I cannot bear her mewling God, that has no joy save in penitence.”

“Ah, when you talk thus, I could very nearly love you.” Rosalura smiled and laughed inwardly.

They clattered down the passage, between the gilded hangings and painted faces of the long-vanished men and ladies who had walked that path before them. When they arrived at the Old Lord’s rooms, the soldiers sheathed their swords and stood at the opposite wall.

The new Lord knocked thrice at the door, in accordance with custom. Belinus, Captain of the guard, opened to the knock and stepped aside, his face the color of old copper and his expression inscrutable. Egan strode into the room with Rosalura a step behind. By strict observance she should not have been present, but no one chose to quibble in the house of death.

In his measured walk to the head of the bed, Egan acted with care and proper decorum, making the required gesture of closing the Old Lord’s eyes. “Farewell, my father. You ruled long.”

The correct formula was “long and well”, but again no one spoke.

Rosalura watched without expression. Only her clenched hands betrayed emotion as she studied the faces of the Lady and her Chancellor. Egan would dismiss both of them, of course, and his lover felt a quick pang of disappointment. These were worthy foes, and a serviceable counter-balance to the new Lord’s changeable ways. He might, she reflected, even order them murdered, and that needed prevention.

Her gaze fell next on the Guardsmen, their skin dark as the shadows that filled the corners of the room. Before the Great Emancipation, their grandfathers were chattel slaves. Now free, they were considered the finest soldiers in the realm, sworn to protect the Lord and his servants. They too, Rosalura understood, must go; not for their skin, but on account of their loyalty.

“Join us, my Lord,” Myrilla said to Egan. “Are you ready for the oath and pledge?” Once these were given, he would be ruler de jure even though the coronation would wait a few days, or even weeks.

Egan gave assent with as few words as possible. For a quick moment, his eagerness showed through the mask.

The Chancellor held the Three Books of Law in his hands, and Egan swore to keep the law, honor the high folk and the low and protect his lands from all dangers within and without.

That done, the Chancellor spoke almost in the voice of his young age, clear and resonant. Last words: would they could be nobler. “You may bring the wine and draw the cork. Look to the seals, that there be no treachery. Leastwise not in the sense you would expect.

The new Lord looked close at the bottle, cut away the waxen seal and drew the cork with a soft pop. Three golden goblets waited on the table. He filled them, and chose one at random. The old man took the other two, and held them for a moment before giving one to the Lady.

“With the Lord’s permission, may I say some foolish words?” the Chancellor asked. Egan nodded. “My worldly duties are now discharged, and I retire to a better place. I will think fondly of him that is dead, not least for the many private times we had when business was done.” He laughed as one does, remembering simpler pleasures. “I would amuse him with such artifices as lesser magicians are wont to use. “Card games, sleight-of-hand, shells and coins, and such little devices. All done now, unless we meet in some verier world than this dumb-show.”

Hearing this, Rosalura stiffened, aware in that moment that something was terribly wrong, but unable to set her finger on it. Her thoughts whirled in a gyre as she watched Egan wait for the Lady and the Chancellor to half-drain their cups before tossing his off at a single draught.

“Long life and health to the Lord!” The Guardsmen smote the hafts of their pole-axes on the stone floor.

“May the realm endure.” The three principal players set their cups on the table. Egan turned to Belinus, the Captain of the princely guard, ready to be accompanied to the Presence Chamber, where he would make the edicts customary upon accession, along with a few others he had long waited to speak.

As the bells of the fortress rang once more, now in the long descending peal that signified a new beginning, the Chancellor staggered and clutched at the gilded arms of his chair, his face ashen-pale. He sat and mastered himself, as the lowering sun cast the pattern of the window mullions on his robes. Comprehending in that instant all that had hitherto been dark, Rosalura gave a half-stifled scream.

Guessing at the doom that held him in its remorseless grasp, Egan reached for his dagger. Even as he sought to draw it, Belinus caught his wrists and bound them like steel fetters.

“Peace, my Lord,” the Chancellor said. “There is no mithradate. Neither will there be much pain, and the end is mercifully swift in coming. I will keep company with you on your journey whither our souls shall be weighed in the Scales. Thereafter, our paths may diverge.” He reached into his pocket, and set a trio of scroll pipes before him. “Here be testaments—mine and others—and my last worldly advice to those who follow. Summon, if you will, the county Medor: he should be apprised of these letters-patent.”

Rosalura shook with anger. For a minute or more, she cared not whether it showed, but then forced herself to relax. That old man has outplayed us. At least for now.

A knock sounded at the door. Each one in the room looked at the other, as if woken from a trance. When no one moved, Rosalura herself swung the door open. Ibian, nephew of the late Lord, stared wildly about the room, uncomprehending. At a sign from Myrilla, a Guardsman took him aside and whispered the news. When the brief explanation ended, the latest successor to the throne turned pale as ash, not knowing if he had found fortune or misfortune.

No sooner had the door closed again, than Egan slumped in his seat. His struggle with the Guard Captain had only quickened the action of the drug that now reached his heart. He tried to speak, but no longer could muster the strength. His eyes closed forever.

The Chancellor, calm at his own impending end, reached out his hand and took that of the Lady Myrilla. “This is fare-thee-well,” he said, low but clear.

“No. It is ’till-the-morrow, old friend.”

A moment later and Ibian, his youthful mind still churning with thoughts of an unlooked-for future, went to the side of the bed, and pressed his uncle’s dead hand as if looking for reassurance. Tears flowed and ran along his smooth cheeks. Rosalura studied him with a new interest. A well-formed lad, if in a womanish mode. Fourteen, as I hear. Well, never too early.

As these thoughts flittered by, there grew a certain curiosity in her eyes. Perhaps the Lady saw it, or else the Chancellor with the last of his fading sight.

“Have we an epilogue?” Rosalura’s words, spoken barely above a whisper, appeared to break some spell that had bound everyone to silence. Belinus said a few curt words to his men, and two of them hurried away.

The Lady stood up, confusion in her face and carriage. “How am I not dead? We three drank the selfsame wine; why am I spared?”

It came to Rosalura like a vision in her scrying-glass. Something very akin to giddiness took hold of her. “Sleight-of-hand. Oh, by the Forgotten Gods, he said ‘sleight-of-hand’. Your cup, Lady, look in your cup. What a loss that old man is; so clever, so clever. He told us in plain speech and we did not listen.”

Myrilla raised her cup, hearing a faint scratching sound. She tilted it so as to look at the bottom. There, below the remaining finger’s breadth of wine, nearly invisible to a casual glance, lay the Chancellor’s ring. Gold in the golden goblet, the ring set with anachite diamond, proof perfect against all poisons. Doubtless slipped into her drink when he handed it to her; the last gift of a faithful servant. Not to her, nor to him who was dead, but to the whole realm at once.

For her part, Rosalura gathered herself, took a few steps, and lifted the Chancellor from his seat, lightly as a mother lifts an infant from its cradle. She carried him to the bed and laid him beside his old master. “They should be together.”

“I ought to be with them,” Myrilla said, her tears now freely running.

“No,” Rosalura replied. “That would be to mar all.”

The two women stood with the dead in the empty room. Egan’s body had been carried away, but Aramond and Orvald remained side-by-side as in life. Outside the walls, fog covered all the world. Unwound, the mantel clock no longer told the seconds. A single taper burned on the table between Myrilla and Rosalura. Had there been one present to observe, he might have imagined that he saw two of the Forgotten Gods—gold-crowned Aphrodite and grey-eyed Athene—together in hourless silence; for once, without need of speech, awaiting a new day.

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