Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 25
Maria was standing outside on the battlements of the Castel a Terra — it was one of little Alessia’s favorite walks — when she saw Manfred and Erik come up the hill from the newly anchored galleys. They were not hard to recognize. White blonde heads such as Erik’s were rare, and so were people of Manfred’s bulk. She smiled and took the now sleepy child back to their apartments in the vast castle complex.
She had been very sad to leave the house that she had shared with Umberto. But practicalities had dictated. The house was part of the living given to whoever was in charge of the little Arsenal. Spare houses were few in the citadel. It would have been unfair to deprive the new master sent out by Venice. Yet there were ample accommodations in both the Castel a Terra and the Castel a Mar. The governor traditionally lived in the Castel a Mar, but that had a tunnel that led into the caves in which the island’s age-old Goddess temple was hidden. Benito, she was sure, had engineered matters so that all the possible apartments in the Castel a Mar were either more inconvenient for his work and ill-suited to Alessia’s comfort, or were occupied by people whom she would have felt guilty to have him evict.
There were some rooms available, it was true. Rooms that were on the small side, and up several flights of stairs. These rooms in the Castel a Terra, on the other hand, were so much more comfortable and had a fine view and a pleasant breeze. Benito could be very subtle when he chose. Of course, it would need a little more than mere inconvenience to take her away from the Goddess. But the living arrangements did stop her from spending quite as much time with Renate Belmondo as she would have otherwise.
Not that the priestess was not available to her, or that she could not visit her. But it was a little more difficult, and there was always a wary look in Renate’s eyes when they met. Renate had been accustomed to huge power. It had been kindly and gently wielded, but the priestess had been accustomed to having the final word, and being deeply respected for this. Maria had to smile. Benito was not too good at respect for anyone.
Maria could accept that Renate Belmondo had made innocent misjudgments. But, older and wiser now, she could also see that Lady Belmondo had been grooming Maria for the role that she now found herself in. Something that Benito said rang very true: Aidoneus should choose his own brides, and court them just as other men did. Too often, intrinsically unwilling brides — girls schooled into complaisance, or desperate and miserable — had taken up the half almond. That had not been good for Corfu, and it had not been good for the Goddess or her priestesses either.
Of course, Maria thought wryly, it hadn’t been for the benefit of those ill-suited brides that Benito had wanted Aidoneus to go and choose his own girls to woo. Still, the situation had had a curious side effect: the priestess had let it be known that Maria was her chosen successor, as well as the living bride. Women came to talk to Maria now. In many cases she simply sent them on, but there were some things that she felt better qualified to help and arbitrate with. Renate Belmondo was Casa Vecchi Longi. As well-meaning as she might be, she had never known poverty or want. Most of the goddess’s worshipers on the island were peasant women. They had never known anything but poverty. Maria understood the choices they had to make better than Lady Belmondo. She’d had to make them herself, as often as not.
As time passed, she found that word had plainly got around: more women came to consult her. And it became more and more difficult to actually manage to do her own housework. Someone would just do it for her. That was not something that she’d ever thought she’d miss. On the plus side it did mean that entertaining became very easy. She’d felt guilty about it, and the small gifts too. But she understood all too well that to refuse would hurt their pride. And when pride is almost all you have, it is very precious.
She was very sure that Benito would bring Prince Manfred and Eric Hakkonsen to visit their apartment. Once it would have terrified her to have such elevated people in her home. Now, she looked forward to it, with some pleasure. Besides, when you came down to it, they were remarkably human. Perhaps not ordinary — well, definitely not ordinary — but still people, despite their rank.
Benito was trying to deal with the mountain of things that had to be sorted out before he left, when someone knocked tentatively on the door to his office. Benito ground his teeth in fury. He had given very strict instructions that he was not to be disturbed. He refused to even look up from his desk.
“Who the hell is it this time? Tell them to go away, Spiro!” he shouted to his secretary. He recognized that timid knock.
Instead, somebody opened his door. “And there I thought you would be pleased to see us again,” said Erik.
The carefully sorted papers and documents went flying. Benito nearly knocked his desk over and landed on his face in the process of vaulting it. Erik grinned from the bear-hug, “You’re really not suited to desk work, Benito. You nearly broke your neck there. A fine way to treat it after all the care we took looking after you during the siege.”
Benito attempted — and failed — to throw Erik over his hip, grinning so widely that his ears were in danger.
“You’ve gotten fat and sloppy since I’ve been away,” said Erik, also beaming. “We need to practice again.”
“Excellent,” said Manfred from where he was blocking the doorway to Benito’s secretary’s office. “Then he can beat you up for a while. I need a break.”
“What would you prefer?” asked Erik, cracking his knuckles. “Fingers? An arm?”
Benito had stepped back and stood looking at the Icelander, while still holding on to his upper arms. There were lines on that handsome clean-cut face that had not been there before. But at least Erik was able to smile again, even if there was a sadness in his eyes that Benito suspected would never quite go away. Erik was back his to dry jesting, too.
He also plainly understood the way that Benito was looking at him. “I won’t say that time heals Benito. But you get used to it.”
Not knowing quite what to say, Benito just nodded. There was some things that went beyond saying anyway. Suddenly, only having to part from Maria for four months of each year seemed a very small price to pay for getting her back. He knew that Erik would have settled for that, or made any other bargain, to see his Svanhild again.
“Let’s go and get ourselves a drink,” said Manfred gruffly. “Even some of that vile kakotrigi.”
Benito laughed. “It’s not that bad. Actually, I am getting to like it.”
Manfred looked into the office. “Want some help getting this lot into the fire? Best thing you can do with papers, honestly.”
Behind Manfred, Benito’s secretary flapped his hands as if he were a large panicking goose, trying to take off. Erik beckoned to the man. “Pick this lot up. Sort it out. Make sure that he has any relevant bits that he has to actually read clearly marked. And if you get any wrong you can explain to me just why your life is of any further value.”