Subterranean Press Magazine: Winter 2014
Pilgrims of the Round World by Bruce Sterling
After discovering planetary wireless broadband, Bruce Sterling united his time between Turin, Belgrade, and Austin. He also began writing some design fiction and architecture fiction, as well as science fiction. However, this daring departure from the routine made no particular difference to anybody. Sterling then started hanging out with Augmented Reality people, and serving as a guest curator for European electronic arts festivals. These eccentricities also provoked no particular remark. Sterling went on a Croatian literary yacht tour and lived for a month in Brazil. These pleasant interludes had little practical consequence. After teaching in Switzerland and Holland, Sterling realized that all his European students lived more or less in this manner, and that nobody was surprised about much of any of that any more. So, he decided to sit still and get a little writing done, and this story was part of that effort. Prior to this he had written eleven novels and five short story collections. His most recent books are the collection Gothic High-Tech and the novel Love is Strange.
Sterling described the story that follows as the world’s first work of crusaderpunk. That pretty much covers the odd adventure you are about to fall into…
Here in the city of Turin, it’s hard to miss the presence of the Shroud. The Turinese are used to the Shroud of Turin. They understand that it’s an object of world pilgrimage. It’s a major artifact of their tourist trade. The magic of the Shroud brings people to the city, it relieves them of a little time and money, and then the magic lets them go. It’s been that way for centuries.
Nobody knows quite how the Shroud arrived in Turin, back at the dawn of the Renaissance. But somebody arranged that—somebody with means, motive and opportunity to do miraculous things. What kind of people could they possibly be, and what else would they have been doing, in their crowded, colorful, restless lives? “Pilgrims of the Round World” was my attempt to befriend those unknown people, and to walk the same roads that they did.
Pilgrims of the Round World by Bruce Sterling
For Jasmina Tesanovic, my fellow traveller in this journey
The Inn of Saint Cleopha was closing forever. From within the kitchen came a wail of distress and a violent smash of crockery.
Within the inn’s arched brick dining-room, the mystic adepts of world travel gazed at one another in worry and wonderment. At one grand table, visibly hungering, sat a wandering Jew, an Arab astrologer, a German printer and a battle-scarred Serbian Ottoman.
At the inn’s second trencher-board lurked a Portuguese slave dealer, a Waldensian heretic, an Alpine brigandess, and the madame of a Turinese brothel.
The final table stood in a golden puddle of twilight, graced by a silk-robed Chinese eunuch, a Genoese mapmaker, a sea-captain from the Canary Islands, and the Rector of the University of Turin. They were hungry, too.
The inn’s hostess burst from her kitchen in a smoking reek of onions, rosemary, and roast chestnuts.
“This is the end of the world,” she wailed. “Saint Cleopha is so upset that she just broke half my dishes!”
“Are we to go to bed without supper?” said the Waldensian heretic. He was always a skeptic.
Their hostess hastily supplied wicker baskets of toasted breadsticks. “I know that all of you are hungry, but don’t blame me when you hear the saint moaning tonight. My poor little Cleopha, she is losing her House forever, here where she died in her cell, three years younger and much chaster than that Joan of Arc who those stupid French make such a fuss about!”
The madame of the brothel bit the ivory beads of her rosary and burst into tears. “Why, I can’t bear all this! It’s so sad! I’ll never eat a proper dinner again!”
The lean brigandess patted her cousin’s plump arm. “Let us give thanks for the good things Saint Cleopha once gave to us, who are sinners. Agnes, what did you do to little Saint Cleopha? Did you disinter her holy bones?”
“I can pack her spirit into a bottle,” offered the Arab astrologer.
Ugo de Balliand, the master of the Inn of Saint Cleopha, made his entrance. To mark the grave occasion, the host had dressed to befit his new station in life. Ugo de Balliand was no longer a modest Turinese innkeeper. He had become the Duchy of Savoy’s Abbreviator Major and Envoy Plenipotentiary to the Crusader Kingdoms of Cyprus and Jerusalem.
The workaday Ugo de Balliand had almost vanished within his splendid courtly ensemble, which included a towering feathered cap, a flowing cape of fur-trimmed velvet, a buttoned surcoat, tight striped leggings and pointed leather shoes. The shining belt around Ugo’s portly waist bore a jewelled poniard and a ceremonial sword.
The stunned guests watched in meek silence as Ugo tossed the inn’s account-books straight into the fireplace.
The finance records ignited with a lively crackle of fine Venetian paper, and Ugo turned to his wife. “Agnes, my darling, what is all this unseemly noise? Your chambermaids are crying, my stableboys are drunk…This is the last night of our House! Let us respect the composure of our guests.”
“My stove-boy broke his hand in my stove just now,” said Agnes.
Ugo smoothed the long drape of his cape and essayed a courtly bow to the diners. “Good friends, as you can see, these are trying days for the goodwife and I. We’ve sold our House and every object within it. Every closet, cupboard, and pantry is empty, from cellar to attic! The place you once knew as Saint Cleopha’s Inn is merely a skeleton now!”
Agnes wiped her eyes on her apron, with a look of pathetic appeal. “I even sold my girlish dowry chest!”
“So, during this event, the last banquet that my wife and I will ever offer to you,” said Ugo suavely, “we both ask you to remember our Inn of Saint Cleopha, not as it is tonight, but as it once was. Remember that we, your host and hostess, were always faithful to the Rule of our House. We always gave to you just what we ourselves would want in any foreign land. Here in Saint Cleopha’s Inn, you slept well, in a solid stone room, free of thieves, fleas and bedbugs, that locked from the inside. There was courteous service, excellent food, and never any prying questions about your private business in this world.”
The world travellers exchanged mournful glances and murmurs. Despite their widely variant origins, they were, one and all, deeply moved by their host’s declaration. It was no more or less than the truth, and it marked the end of an era.
“There are just a few final items to bargain over tonight,” said Ugo, “mere curios really. So we thank you, our final guests and most special friends, for helping us to dispose of these possessions tonight.”
Grieving, yet with stolid dignity, Ugo climbed a slatted folding chair and opened a scroll. “Honored guests of the Inn of Saint Cleopha! Bearing in mind the dietary restrictions of your various faiths, harken to what we offer you to eat today, our last day as an inn, on this, the feast-day of Saint Hildegarde of Bingen, the seventeenth day of September in the year one thousand, four hundred and sixty-three.”
Ugo beckoned at the steaming kitchen door, where Agnes’ squad of kitchen-boys waited with their platters. “Avanti with the anteprima, boys! A little amusement to open your palates, friends…A fine-grated pickled radish, accented with my consort’s strawberry compote. Dig in right away, don’t be shy, those flavors won’t disappoint you.”
The diners tucked in with forks and bare fingers, as Ugo read his menu in a capable, clerical Latin, the speech of all learned scholars of Christendom. Ugo’s second reading of the menu was in courtly French, the lingua franca of the nobility. The third reading was in the local, folksy Savoyard dialect, an Alpine speech that was half-French, half-Italian.
Ugo’s fourth reading was in a spicy Roman Italian, for all roads led to Rome. As a final hostly courtesy Ugo read his menu in a halting and effortful Sicilian Arabic.
During her husband’s impressive feat of scholarship, Agnes oversaw the distribution of the bowls, tureens, and platters. Food came in heaps. A guard-dog in a spiked collar wandered into the dining room. Two jackdaws cawed at the window. A blind musician arrived with his portable wooden pipe-organ. The pilgrims were generous to the musician, for he sweetly sang in five languages as he played, and had always been a regular attraction at the Inn of Saint Cleopha.
In the midst of eating, the night’s bargaining commenced. The Chinese eunuch left his table to confer with the Arab astrologer. The eunuch beckoned languidly, with his long, brass-shod nails.
“He wants to buy your virgin’s teeth,” said the astrologer, tipsily adjusting his star-spangled robe.
Agnes bit her fingertip. “The holy teeth of Cleopha will go to China? That land of millions that Marco Polo lied about?”
Ugo tenderly straightened the white cooking-cap on his wife’s blonde curls. “My dear one, everyone can see that your woman’s heart is bleeding tonight, but I must overrule your natural feelings…What is the Chinaman offering for the saint’s teeth, exactly?”
Using chopsticks to spare his long fingernails, the eunuch retrieved an enchanted needle.
Ugo and Agnes conferred quickly. Since Agnes was from Savoy, while Ugo was from Cyprus, the married couple had invented a private dialect of Cypriot-Savoyard French. Nobody understood this lingo but their children, who were grown and gone from the inn.
“These Chinese needles are legendary,” Ugo said to Agnes. “They have a magic virtue for pilgrims. They always point south.”
“Must we sell holy teeth for a needle? I could carry teeth to Cyprus in my hat.”
“You could hide a magic needle among your pins and threads, and no robber on the road would ever guess its value. A needle is woman’s magic, dear, you should take it.”
Agnes accepted this reasoning. She curtsied to the Arab wizard. “The Rule of our House was to never turn a Chinese from our door, although the Chinese rudely eat with wooden sticks. What a bargain that Chinese pagan rascal is getting, little though he knows about sanctity!”
“This Chinese pilgrim knows all about Christian saints,” shrugged the Arab astrologer. “He’s a Nestorian.”
“He’s a Nestorian Chinese Christian? My goodness, then tell him it’s a deal.”
Volleys of platters came from the kitchen, bearing the last preserves from Agnes’s legendary larders. Agnes of Chambéry had skills that bordered on witchcraft when it came to stewing, brewing, salting, smoking and stuffing.
So, in this last chaotic feast, the pantries of Agnes disgorged a gleaming cavalcade of wrinkled Papal salamis. Veal hash diced with garlic and truffles. Ancient black olives big as one’s thumb’s ends. Oaken kegs of pickled snails. Smoked steaks of man-sized catfish from the River Po. Tangy, reeking brus cheese. All this washed down with a panoply of perfumed beers, hypocras-potions, herbal bitters and mulled amalgams.
The wandering Jew approached the innkeepers, gesturing in agitation.
“Can anybody here speak any language this Jew understands?” Ugo shouted over the din of wooden spoons on pewter platters.
The Spanish sea-captain sharply whistled in response. He rose from his bench with a bow-legged swagger—but then the Genoese mapmaker jealously scurried past him.
“I can speak Greek to this Jew, and it is my pleasure to help with your negotiations,” said the Genoese scholar. “Signor de Balliand, my congratulations on your promotion to the corps diplomatique! I have a new map of safe routes to the Kingdom of Cyprus, evading the Ottoman Turks, both on land and sea.”
Agnes smiled prettily. “Sir doctor geographer, we’re trying to bargain.”
“This Jew is a Rhadanite Jew,” said the map-maker.
“Oh for heaven’s sake!” cried Agnes. “For Rhadanites, dinner is always on the house! Welcome to Turin, sir! Some of our best friends are Rhadanites.”
“Are you really a Rhadanite?” said the Spanish captain to the Jew, in Spanish.
“Si. Yo soy.”
“Well, you Rhadanites can certainly out-sail the Genoese. In my Canary Islands, we admire that.” The two of them conferred in halting Spanish.
“This sailing Jew is asking about your fine picture here,” the sea-captain related. The inn’s plastered dining-room wall held a large, disordered fresco. This sprightly composition was entirely thronged with feathery green trees, craggy brown boulders, speedy gray falcons, faithful yellow dogs, a comic flock of eager ducks…Capering horses, gallant riders in ermine-trimmed capes, all of this splendid clutter surrounding a towering marble fountain thronged by blonde bathing beauties with spidery arms, vase-like hips and breasts like cupcakes.
“Oh yes,” said Ugo indifferently. “That was Master Giacomo Jacquerio, a local artist. The master painted our hall to pay for his meals. Painters are like that, you know. A nice fellow in his own way, but…” Ugo cocked his head sideways and waved his hand.
“This wandering Jew has seen the Fountain of Youth. He says that your picture looks just like that place.”
“I can’t doubt that.” Ugo briskly wiped his hands on a kitchen towel. “Jacquerio’s big daub here is done for, but I think I can oblige a connoisseur of his painting. Master Jacquerio once painted the portrait of my own father.”
“Oh my dear,” cried Agnes, “you can’t sell that painting of your dad tonight!”
“Listen, my treasure,” Ugo confided in a murmur, “maybe old Jacquerio could paint a bit, in his homely Turinese style. But he was no match for that kid from Vinci. Let’s not be foolish here.”
“But your family in Cyprus would love to see your father’s portrait. Let’s take it away to Cyprus with us!”
Ugo removed his tall feathered hat, shook his head sharply, and then restored it. “My father was merely a troubadour! I am the Savoy Ducal Envoy to the Royal Court of Cyprus! Let us not embarrass ourselves before the Queen of Jerusalem.”
“Oh dear me, I didn’t think of it that way.” Agnes narrowed her eyes. “I remember where I packed that picture. I’d better fetch it for you, because you’ll never find it yourself.” Agnes hitched her long skirts, then hurried up the stairs toward the strong-room.
“So, you’ve sold your famous inn already, then,” the Spanish sea-captain offered, as they waited for Agnes to return.
“No real-estate deal can ever be simple,” Ugo told him. “You should have seen the trouble that we took to legally own this place.”
The captain nodded. “To secularize a nunnery, yes, that must have been a challenge.”
“Well, the English freelancers had smashed this convent, so when we changed its fief under the Turin bishopric to that of a tenured pilgrim hospice…Oh well, you Spaniards know how English pirates are! No need my telling you! Once we’ve left for Cyprus, my wife’s cousin will turn Cleopha’s nunnery into a tannery.”
Silently, the captain studied the doomed mural on the wall.
“A tannery business will be a nice little earner for Turin,” said Ugo. “The lad will make fine leather for saddles here, parchment, armor, whatever you need. We stand next to the city wall, so he can throw his slops straight into the town moat. Agnes’s people have always had good business sense.”
Agnes reappeared with a tightly rolled canvas. She handed it to the Rhadanite, who opened it and squinted.
“Legally speaking,” said Ugo to the captain, “the case of Saint Cleopha’s benefice was never fully settled. You see, Cleopha was beatified by my late lord, Pope Felix the Fifth. I served as his majordomo during most of his papacy. However, the Council of Cardinals has recently ruled that Popes crowned by the Council of Geneva were, in fact, AntiPopes. They further interpret the clerical law to state that Cleopha’s state of sanctity must therefore be null and void.”
“Deep matters,” said the captain. “In my own Canary Islands, we leave those controversies to people who find them interesting.”
“Well, Pope Pius in Rome may yet rule that Saint Cleopha of Turin remains a saint. If he rules that, then Cleopha’s shrine will have to be re-sanctified. I don’t know where the Vicar of Turin would ever find the funds for that, though. While a tannery pays taxes.”
The Rhadanite had made up his mind. He offered a small brass vial of North Atlantic ambergris, and further remarked, in Greek, that the Rhadanites were the maritime Jews of Iceland.
The Spanish sea-captain plucked the rolled painting from the hands of the Genoese mapmaker. He whipped the canvas open. It depicted a Crusader troubadour with his lute, a suit of motley, and a pilgrim seashell badge.
“This is in good condition,” the Spaniard said. “Especially for a Crusader.”
“My father’s songs of holy war have been long-remembered,” said Ugo. “You might ask our blind musician there to play a few. He knows them all.”
“Being a good Spanish Catholic,” said the sailor, rolling the canvas and setting his booted feet firmly, “I believe I can beat this Jew’s offer.”
“Can you, captain?”
“I have also sailed to Iceland,” the Spanish sailor bragged, tucking the rolled picture into his armpit. “What is more—privately, mind you—I have sailed to Greenland. I have ventured to far, southern Greenland. That’s a very hot realm there, very green indeed. The foreigners there have their skins burnt all red by the sun. They let me and my crew watch their ball games.” The sailor dug into his knapsack. He offered a smooth black sphere.
Agnes drew nearer. “What is that?”
The sea-captain dropped the black globe. It rebounded from the stone floor back into his clutching hand. He conveyed the ball to Ugo.
“This is a child’s toy,” Ugo judged, bouncing and catching it.
“Toys are good things,” said Agnes. “When Carlotta, the Queen of Cyprus and Jerusalem, bears her royal heir, we can give her prince this ball.”
“The red men kill each other for these black globes,” the sea-captain said. “They play tournaments within courts of stone. The losers are cut to pieces, and boiled in pots with spices, and eaten by the crowd.”
“Then let’s buy that ball right now,” Agnes urged.
“My dear,” said Ugo, “ambergris is highly prized in Cyprus. All Cypriots are connoisseurs of perfume. This black ball is an oddity.” He turned to the Genoese map-maker. “Sir map-maker, what do you make of all this?”
The little Genoese scholar was glad to be consulted. “Speaking as an adept of the mystic science of geography,” he intoned, “I know that the world is round. As do we all here. However”—he glanced up at the Spanish sailor, with a growing resentment—“I do not believe in any mythical ‘Green Land’ between Ireland and China! Eratosthenes never spoke of that. And as for cannibalism, every traveller brings some tall tale! Are we to believe that ‘Red Men’ in some ‘Green Land’ are eating human flesh? Where was that ever written in the classics?”
The Spanish sea-captain plucked nervously at his short gray beard. “Those Red Men of Greenland have all kinds of good food at their ball-games! They don’t just eat one another. They eat a big yellow rice which grows on a cob. They burn the rice until it pops.”
“Rice that pops?” Agnes demanded. “Did you bring us some?”
“Signora, the food of the Red Men of Greenland is nowhere near so tasty as the splendid food of your kitchen,” the sailor said. “Your Arabian coffee is the best coffee in all Christendom. Your African sugar is whiter than the snow of your Alps.”
Agnes murmured to Ugo. “This Spanish rascal is flattering us. Give that Jew your picture, and we’re taking that vial of ambergris.”
“My darling, I begin to fancy this black ball! It’s more amusing than one would think.”
Agnes whispered into his ear. “A Queen who has quarreled with her Prince has a good use for perfume. We must reconcile Queen Carlotta with her husband. That is our great purpose, while the toys for her heir can wait.”
The last feast at the Inn of Saint Cleopha continued until the diners could swallow no more. One by one, the bleary-eyed commensali retired to their stony pilgrim cells. There they huddled on thick straw ticking under clean woolen blankets, while their spilled wine slowly stained the table linens in the hall.
All the servants of the Inn of Saint Cleopha were natives of Turin. Being Turinese, they were much too sly to continue working when their bosses were closing their workplace.
As the autumn night darkened and the frogs croaked like monsters in the city moat, the servants silently nicked the beeswax candles from the chandeliers. They swiped the herbal flea repellents and moth repellents. The boldest even pried the mullion panes of stained glass from the tall arched windows.
Ugo and Agnes had expected this behavior from the staff of their inn. This was the popular custom, whenever a House failed, and its servants were servants no longer.
Once, Ugo and Agnes had been the trusted servants of the Savoy Anti-Pope Felix, whose palace had also sadly failed. They had been present at the very deathbed of Felix, in Rome.
Pope Felix, the greatest mystic of Savoy, had once schemed to rule all of Christendom. In a brilliant strategic maneuver, Felix had coaxed Byzantium and its Greek Orthodox Church toward the bosom of his Anti-Papacy. By healing the ancient schism between the Catholics and the Orthodox, he would suddenly double the size of Christendom, terrify all the Moslems, and make himself the greatest of all the Crusader Popes.
But the Duchy of Savoy was a small place. A mere duchy was unlikely to unify any great realms. Savoy was no bigger than Cyprus, its best ally.
The mystical mountain duchy and the pious Crusader island had been intimate for three centuries. They ceaselessly traded daughters for dynastic marriages, as well as sharing their wines, spices, sausages, cheeses and popular music.
When the Byzantines refused the mystic embrace of the Anti-Pope, every dream failed at once. Violent Turkish hordes arose and smashed Byzantium. They destroyed the overland route to the Holy Land.
Then the Roman cardinals, sweating with fear, had installed a younger Pope, a clever man of a different generation. The humbled Savoy Anti-Pope, reduced in the ranks to a mere cardinal, had spent his last days in hermetic seclusion, in a Roman palace, in the tender care of Ugo and Agnes.
White-haired, silent and doddering, Felix had finally collapsed over an illuminated tome of Hermes Trismegistus, while still clutching his Swiss tiara and his enchanted staff.
Then—quite swiftly, almost instantly—the greedy Roman mob had attacked the fallen House of Felix. Ugo and Agnes, besieged by the stampeding common folk of Rome, had barely managed to save the Anti-Pope’s precious alchemical library, in order to sell it off later themselves.
That Roman episode had taught harsh wisdom to Ugo de Balliand and Agnes of Chambéry. So, as the former servants of their own doomed House rampantly misbehaved, Ugo and Agnes wisely retreated up the brick stairs.
Ugo slammed and barred the iron-studded door to their bedroom.
Their marriage bed was firmly bolted to the stone floor. Tall woolen curtains walled this marital structure, like a castle’s final redoubt. The floor around the sturdy bed was densely crowded with travel gear: chests, canteens, cording, and overstuffed saddlebags.
Ugo hopped up into the fortress bed and unlaced his expensive, narrow shoes. “Did I look all right tonight?” he asked Agnes. “Did I look silly?”
“You look born to the post of ambassador! All the guests were very impressed by your appearance.” Agnes flipped back the woollen covers on their stout wooden bed. “We did good business tonight. That proves it.”
“My darling, whatever is happening to us? Why must we abandon everything that we built together here? Even my father—a Crusader, a touring musician—never dragged himself around this round world like we must do.”
Agnes wisely noted her wearied husband’s growing air of melancholy. “I’m glad we’re going to Cyprus together!” she chirped. “It is my great good fortune as your bride to finally meet my husband’s relatives.”
“Well, our own son is over there in Cyprus now. When I think of all the trouble that little rascal caused us here…” Ugo grunted. “Well, life has its mysteries, doesn’t it? Our boy is a knight with the Queen of Jerusalem. Soon I will be her ambassador in Cyprus. And you, my dear: I will dress you in silk. Yes I will! Beautiful silk and fine linens! That way, I won’t mind being dressed like such a popinjay.”
“Turin was always kind to us,” said Agnes of Chambéry, “but Turin is no capital city. Little Turin is a pokey roadside town.” Agnes threw the starched kitchen-cap from her ribboned braids. She bent and dug through a saddlebag, disgorging wax seals, a diplomatic code book, official ribbons, and embroidered pennants.
“The spices in Cyprus are even nicer than the silks,” Ugo promised. “You can have all the black pepper any cook would ever want.”
“I always wore such pretty hats, when I served Duchess Anna in Chambéry. And when we lived in Rome, Ugo! Well! Rome is the true Eternal Capital of this round world.”
“Rome,” nodded Ugo, slowly disrobing for bed. “Yes, to be young in Rome, and in your arms, my sweet one, and making easy money from so many pilgrims…Will we ever be that happy again?”
“No city is so holy as Rome,” sighed Agnes. “All I had to do was confess on Sundays, and my, those other days were so lovely!” She turned and straightened. “Look at this.”
Ugo was startled. “I’d forgotten you still had that.”
“The greatest witch in Rome helped me brew this potion,” said Agnes, fondling the little vial between her hands. “When my Duchess Anna was a new bride, all blushing and fearful, just a foreign girl, I gave her half of this love potion. She drank this, and she had eighteen children, Ugo. Eighteen royal heirs from her body. Those were my wiles as a Maid of the Bedchamber—me! Agnes of Chambéry.”
“No Queen of Jerusalem will drink that! What if it’s turned to vinegar?”
“The love magic of Rome never grows old! Anna drank of this potion, and then Ludovico of Savoy loved Anna of Cyprus with an almighty love! He did everything to please her until the day she died.”
“It’s a good thing you didn’t feed Anna all of it.”
“Maybe I was saving that for you,” said Agnes.
Ugo barked with laughter. “Don’t fool with the bull, old woman! You might get the horn!”
Seeing his dark mood lifting, Agnes smiled sweetly. “Dear husband, the rule of your House is law to me. Since I always honor and obey you, see what a fine reward I reap! Soon I’ll be a fine Crusader lady in the royal court of the Lusignans. Me, the daughter of merchants, in the court of the Queen of Jerusalem.”
Ugo silently crossed his arms.
“Ugo, my parents never even knew this world was round! My family had a pancake world, with mountains piled on it, haystacks, grapevines, turnip carts, old clothes, copper pennies, their rags and bones! But when we live in Nicosia Castle, then you’ll see that, though my birth is lowly, I have a high soul!”
Ugo was listening, but unmoved.
“No more hot, greasy kitchens for me! I’ll attend delightful chapels every day, to sing your father’s prettiest hymns! I’ll be always in a state of grace, and devoted to the cause of Christendom.”
“My dear,” said Ugo, “although my father always sang about Crusades, and you always sang along—that is not how people live in Cyprus.”
“I’m sure you haven’t forgotten Jerusalem, Ugo.”
“Never! Never! I have never forgotten Jerusalem! No Cypriot ever can!” Ugo drew a silver chain from around his neck. “King Janus gave my father this holy medal with his own hands! ‘Protect my daughter,’ King Janus commanded him, ‘sing your bold songs of Crusade, and rouse the martial Savoyards!’”
Ugo pulled the medallion chain from his plump neck and ran it through his soft, clerkly fingers. “What became of that royal command? What did ‘Anna of Cyprus’ do, once she was ‘Anna of Savoy’? Anna ate tasty truffles! Anna wore pretty shoes!”
Agnes saw that her best wifely efforts had failed to dispel her husband’s melancholy humour. She recognized her defeat, and began to shriek from her own pent-up feelings. “My Anna was so precious to me! My Anna was a beautiful, gracious, courteous lady! It’s my Savoyards who are worthless! The men of Savoy are iron men with iron heads!”
“Well, my Cypriots have no iron at all! They’re not Crusaders any more, they lie like Greeks and they cheat like Moslems! The way Carlotta and her husband carry on, the world will soon forget that Cyprus is even French.”
Agnes put both hands to the sides of her head. “Oh Ugo, after all these years among us, you still don’t understand us.”
“Oh yes I do. I know you Savoyards better than you do yourselves. My father brought me here to rouse a Crusade. To rally an army of stern and chaste Christian knights! But your pretty Anna, once she blinked her eyes, once she charmed her Duke…He would hear no more music but love songs.”
“Husband,” said Agnes, “Pope Felix and his Holy Knights of Saint Maurice always adored your father’s music.”
“A band of musicians is not an army, woman.”
“Your father was the soul of poetry for a Pope and his Knightly Order.”
“That Pope was dethroned. That Knightly Order never set sail for the Holy Land. My father died sorrowing in the robes of a monk. The failings of this sinful round world are hard to bear.”
Agnes crossed herself. “Ugo, no one ever helps us. No one but our own blood kinfolk.”
Ugo silently put on his nightcap. He climbed under the bed’s thick quilt.
“Except of course for my dear Saint Cleopha,” said Agnes, “who always answers my prayers, in her own way. Also the Holy Virgin helps me greatly in my troubles, and also my dear name-saint, Saint Agnes. Also, Saint Helena, she who found the Holy Cross and is the patroness of innkeepers. I feel spiritually close to Saint Helena, for reasons you know. Did you buy those holy candles like I said?”
“I forgot,” said Ugo.
“Ugo, listen to me now. The son I bore you is in Cyprus. Our Amedeo is a Crusader knight, he has a sword and spurs. The Queen of Jerusalem is his own liege lady. Are we not pilgrims, too? Didn’t we take our holy vows? The Rule of the Road is our Rule now. We sold everything, we have no House. The Road is our House.”
Ugo’s mouth tightened. “That is just as you say, my dear.”
Agnes rose from bed and blew out the candle.
Constable Higgins was the terror of Turin’s southern gate. He snatched apples from the peasant baskets, and smacked the gypsies with his fists. Higgins was an Englishman, a mercenary freelancer, barrel-chested, red-haired and bristle-bearded. Higgins wore rust-speckled chain-mail, and a fierce helmet with an iron strip broader than his big nose.
As his constabulary staff of office, Higgins brandished a halberd. This fearsome weapon combined a slashing axe-blade, an armor-piercing spike and a horse-gutting hook.
Constable Higgins controlled the busiest gate into Turin. However, the Englishman had three weaknesses: bribery, flattery and the appalling creature he called “Mrs. Higgins.” This tiny Turinese streetwalker had been picking rags before the English mercenary had attacked her town. Mrs. Higgins had captured Higgins in combat, put a ring through his nose, and ridden him to respectability.
“Egenz, for how many years have you and I done business?” Ugo asked him.
Higgins leaned his stout halberd-staff on his shoulder and squinted at his ten spread fingers. “Well, sir, I first took my guard pay at this very gate from Perrin of Antioch, for he was the Vicar of Turin, back in those days…”
“It’s been fourteen years, Egenz. That is the sum.” Ugo wound himself up for a declamation. “As it happens, that same fourteen years ago, Monsieur Jean, the Count of Burgundy—do you remember him, how he was about red wine? Notorious! Count Jean shipped a lot of his fine wine through Turin. But not all of it reached his castle.”
Ugo handed over a wicker basket, crowded with dusty, nameless bottles scrounged from his cellar’s dampest corners. “In going through my cellars just now—for we’re leaving for Cyprus for good, you know—I came across this grand old vintage of the Count’s. At once, I thought—these bottles have been here in Turin just as long as dear old Egenz! So, this wine should be yours, my friend. To your good health, many years more.”
Higgins flushed with pride. “Signor de Balliand, why, that is such a courtly kindness! I don’t know what to say to such largesse.”
“I know you’re more of a beer man, yourself.”
“No, no, I’m sure that me and Mrs. Higgins can find a use for this wine.”
“On the subject of women,” continued Ugo smoothly, “my dear wife also has a keepsake to offer. You may know that our late Duchess Anna of Cyprus was quite the lady for fine clothes. My wife was once her chambermaid.” Ugo plucked a crumbling wad of cloth from within his sleeve.
“My word!” cried Higgins. “I’ve never touched the like of this.” The lace lay on his scarred, enormous fingers like a cobweb.
“Of course your good wife can’t wear the lace of a Duchess—that’s unseemly, that’s above her station. But let me give you a hint here.” Ugo winked. “Have the little woman stitch that lace to certain garments underneath—those dainty ones, that only a husband sees. Do you know what I mean?”
Comprehension dawned on the Englishman’s ruddy face. “What a clever thing! Why, that’s wonderful.”
“She’ll love you for it, Egenz. All women are like that.”
Glancing from portcullis to drawbridge, Higgins hastily stuffed the lace under the dense metal knitting of his mail-shirt. “Signor de Balliand…You are such a gentleman. In all our years here—fourteen?—you never did me one bad turn.”
“You have also been ‘fair and square’ to me, Egenz. I am a Cypriot—as you are English—but you are a good man to know in Turin. I am sorry to bid you farewell. I will miss you, and remember you in prayer.”
Constable Higgins weighed this complicated thought in his head for a while. Then he spoke. “I know why you must go back to Cyprus.”
Ugo gazed up into the towering mercenary’s ruddy, bearded face. “So, what have you heard, my friend?”
“Oh, I can’t stand guard at this gate of Turin, as busy as it is, and not hear a few things.”
“You can be frank with me, Egenz. We are both men of the round world. I won’t take any offense.”
“Your Queen Carlotta threw her Savoyard husband out of her palace. Carlotta, the Queen of Jerusalem, has no husband. She has no heir to offer her people.”
“She did that. That is true. That was a misfortune.”
“Her bastard brother James is making a play for her throne in Cyprus.”
“Then you’ve heard about the family quarrel,” said Ugo lightly. “We hope we can patch that up. The wife and I, we’re a Cypriot and a Savoyard, and we’re happily married, like two little doves.”
“If James the Bastard is hiring men the likes of me, then it’s no bedroom quarrel. It’s a war in Cyprus, sir.”
“James the Bastard is hiring his freelancers from as far away as Turin?”
“To tell you the whole truth about that matter, sir, James wants to hire away all the fighters who might back his sister Carlotta. You see, us freelancers know the world is round. Because we march over this world, with fire and sword.”
“You wouldn’t take the coin of some Cypriot bastard, would you, Egenz?”
“My road home is a longer road than your road,” said Higgins. “If not for Mrs Higgins and my little ones, I might go forth to your Cyprus, or back to my England. But I never will leave. Turin will bury me here.”
Ugo touched his heart below his buttoned brown farsetto. “I only wish I could have done more for you, here in your Turin.”
A tender, remorseful look stole across Higgins’ features. “I will surely miss that mignon steak at your inn. I never ate a better cut of beef, even in London.”
“Egenz, sometimes, at the Inn of Cleopha, we sheltered some pilgrims who were…odd. There have been certain incidents. You always smoothed those things over for us. I’m truly grateful.”
Higgins put a finger to his bearded lips. “If it weren’t for trouble, I would never get paid, sir.”
“No more hard feelings here about the siege of ’48?”
Higgins turned his mighty back to his gateway towers. He gazed solemnly up the boulevard that he guarded.
The street that Higgins controlled was built on an ancient Roman road-bed, much of its flagstone still visible, although much overlaid with rubble, cobbles, goat-droppings, weeds, rags—and, as one lifted the eye—flapping lines of laundry, roof-thatches, great twiggy storks’ nests, church steeples, and clouds of crows.
“The good people of this city,” said Higgins, gazing at his clientele of grocers, cart-wrights and apothecaries, “they never speak of their bad days to me. They trust me to defend this gate. Their city is old, and who remembers all the foreigners? Us? The sweepings of the road? The Turinese persist here, and we come and we go as God wills.”
Ugo sighed and crossed himself. “That is well said, Egenz! Then this must be our last farewell.”
“There is one thing more, sir.” Higgins opened a drawstring bag on his studded belt. “A vagrant came by my gate yesterday. He tried to pass me by as one of your guests. Look what he gave to me, as his token of passage.”
Ugo examined the disk Higgins offered. Face and reverse, the round medal bore the two hemispheres of the world. Half of the world was rather well-rendered. The shadowy half of the token was mostly fantastic.
But the passage token was made from chiselled wood and painted a vulgar yellow.
Ugo sighed and tucked the forgery into his coin-purse. “Egenz, this is why people can’t have nice things. This saddens me.”
“That rascal was a Pied Piper, sir. Clad all in parti-colour. He said that he knew you.”
“Yes. That wretch came here to bargain with us. He’s turning up for our last days here in Turin, like a bad penny.” Ugo shook his head. “I heard they’d hanged him in France. I should have known better.”
“Should I have let that Piper through the gate to see you, sir?”
“If he comes again, let him through,” said Ugo, “because he is family. But it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if you found some pretext to give him a few good wallops.”
“Consider that errand done, sir.”
Ugo reached up and solemnly clapped the Englishman’s iron shoulder.
The Tower of the Bulls was the tallest spire in Turin. Falcons nestled in its summit, and when the tempests struck its stone gargoyles, they moaned aloud.
This slender clock-tower cast its narrow shadow over a raucous scene of travel sales: souvenir badges, mosquito repellents, unguents for saddle-sores, laxatives, cheap forged Papal pardons, dice and venereal stimulants, all of this sold in a public tumult of shouting, sobbing and begging.
As was their always-courteous custom, Ugo and Agnes saw off a group of the guests from their inn. These travelers were joining a wagon caravan bound west. The destination of this convoy was holy Compostela, the final stronghold at the far western rim of Christendom.
The brigandess was the caravan’s guide. Her brigand husband was a notorious Alpine bandit. This green-clad fiend led a large gang of forest bowmen. These wicked outlaws methodically robbed noble lords and fat bishops, and never set foot in a church.
However, the bandit’s wife was a born Turinese. So, her business sense had prevailed over her husband’s voracity. Ugo and Agnes had given them privileged seats at the inn’s banquet tables, while negotiating the protection payments.
The pilgrim caravan rattled away in its fading racket of shouts, snapping pennants, squeaking wheels, and clopping hooves. Then Ugo and Agnes returned together to their shuttered and gloomy inn.
Deprived of all its carpets, tapestries and furniture, the Inn of Saint Cleopha was echoing, charmless and deserted.
Ugo and Agnes retreated into the cellar of the inn, where they had arranged a last, half-hearted bargain-sale of their final, dwindling possessions. Come the morning, they themselves would join the eastern pilgrim caravan, bound for Venice and the shipping port to Cyprus.
Even in its final hours, the Inn of Saint Cleopha still sheltered a few die-hard world travellers. These eccentric foreigners simply had no other place to stay in Turin. The silk-clad eunuch Chinaman was far too odd a fellow to frequent the streets. He lurked in the inn’s basement, methodically eating Italian spaghetti. Spaghetti was one of the eunuch’s few physical pleasures.
The morose Waldensian read his Scriptures by candle-light, while awaiting the overdue arrival of some fellow heretics. The protesting believers seeped through every border of Christendom: the Lollards and the Cathars, the Hussites, Utraquists and Wycliffites. They all smuggled vulgar Bibles, illegally printed in languages other than Latin. They paid well for shelter and silence.
The Serbian Ottoman had rented a corner of the cellar as his military workshop. This battle-scarred Serb was the loyal servant of the Empress Mara Brankovic, the Slavic harem consort of the mighty Ottoman Emperor. Mara Brankovic numbered herself among the great Sultan’s famous seven brides from seven nations. She maintained her own dark castle within the Great Turk’s vast domains.
The Ottoman Serb brought his royal mistress ingenious Italian weapons with which to slaughter her innumerable enemies, foreign and domestic. The Serb had purchased a trebuchet in Turin, and was disguising this deadly siege engine as a harmless stack of lumber.
The wily Portuguese slave-dealer had sold all his human wares to eager European noblemen. With that errand done, he was sorting, bottling and labeling panaceas, to convey to the new-discovered isles that the Portuguese called “Cape Verde.”
Exotic pestilences ravaged the Portuguese colonies, so the slaver was packing his ivory travel chest with cantarion, willow-bark, lac, and zedoary; aloes of every variety; quicksilver powder, cassia fistola, sal ammoniac, and lisciadro; cinnabar, cinnamon, galbanum, mastic, and sweet sugar-pills of every size, shape and color.
The learned Rector of the University of Turin was the wisest man in the town. This scholar had profound motives, and he awaited Ugo and Agnes, while sitting at a cellar bench, with a makeshift table made from emptied barrels.
Although born in Rome, the Rector of Turin had been an ardent follower of Felix the Anti-Pope. His loyalty had disgraced him, so Pope Pius in Rome had denied him his high position within the Vatican Library.
After that Vatican demotion, the Rector had fled Rome to shelter in Turin, and the fact that he’d not been poisoned, stabbed or garroted in Rome proved that he was indeed a very wise man.
The erudite Rector had long been the most faithful customer at the Inn of Saint Cleopha. As a University scholar and a beacon of the new learning, the Rector often interviewed the pilgrims at the Inn. The Rector collected their anecdotes of travel as a part of his labors on a vast, learned tome he called the “Cosmographia.” The subject of the Rector’s book was the entire round world and everything in it.
“Books,” the Rector told Agnes and Ugo, “are the only trade goods that speak to us across centuries, as well as across vast distances. Therefore, books are of supreme value for my University of Turin. Once you are settled in Cyprus, when you see books that you might ship to me, I hope you will think of me, and the needs of my school.”
“What kind of books do you want?” Agnes asked him.
“The best books for scholarship are always the oldest books. By this I mean Greek, Latin, and Hebrew learning, which we Humanist scholars can revive today. Anything written when Turin was ‘Augusta Taurinorum.’”
“Your University can have my cookbooks,” said Agnes. “They’re a bit stained with olive oil, but they’re useful in the right hands.”
“You are such a courteous soul, my dear,” said the Rector, smiling. “But, well, let me show to you the kind of books most prized by a scholar like myself. This precious book was brought to Savoy with the dowry of the Duchess Bonne of Berry.”
In the shadowed brick cellar, which reeked of spilled wine and was haunted by fruitflies, the Rector produced a magnificent tome, bound in leather and hinged in iron. “This book was written and illuminated by Christine of Pisan, the wisest of all writing-womanhood. The learned Christine created this book for her most noble female patroness, and its name is, ‘The True Book of All Wrongs Ever Done to Lettered Ladies.’ Over many years, Christine of Pisan wrote her letters to every corner of Christendom, collecting tales of woe from other women authors, from Ireland to Muscovy. This may seem hard to believe, but—not one of these female authors ever received her due fame!”
“That book is huge,” Ugo remarked.
The Rector nodded his long-haired head with his square, tasseled hat. “There’s one sad history among so many such in this book—the story of your own Saint Cleopha. Cleopha wanted to write her holy prophecies, all about the Kings of Italy and Jerusalem. Yet Cleopha, like Joan of Arc, was a girl who was never schooled. So Cleopha could only listen to her angelic voices, and scream aloud!”
“I have heard her cries,” said Agnes. “Cleopha often moans and screams, she slams the doors, she breaks the pots and glasses…Once, I saw her standing in the moonlight.”
“Until her town of Turin becomes a capital city that is ruled by a Queen of Jerusalem, Saint Cleopha can never rest in peace. So—in her own Turinese way—Saint Cleopha is a martyr of the Crusades. Cleopha is a Turinese pilgrim martyr, though she never left this town, and she scarcely left this nunnery.”
Ugo gazed among the cellar’s moving shadows. “Surely it would take a miracle for that to ever happen.”
“Yes, of course, a miracle, but it’s a miraculous prophecy.”
Agnes was struggling to follow the professor’s literate Roman Italian. “Queen Carlotta of Cyprus is the Queen of Jerusalem. So Carlotta should read this book.”
The Rector was distinctly pleased with the idea—but Ugo shook his head. “Carlotta has no time to read fine ladies’ books! The royal House of Lusignan is beset with her enemies.”
The Rector replaced the book with a second book from his capacious scholar’s bag. “This Cypriot volume recently came into my hands.”
“Oh by all the saints and angels!” said Ugo, eyes wide. “I haven’t seen this book since I was a page-boy.”
“This is a music codex from the Court of King Janus in Nicosia,” said the Rector. He opened the heavy tome with an expert’s ease. “This codex came with the dowry of the Princess Anne of Cyprus, she who became the Duchess Anna of Savoy through her marriage to our own Duke Ludovico. This is indeed a most valuable work: the chaunts, rondeaux and virelais of the splendid court of French Cyprus. Not one song in this codex is known in any other book in this round world.”
“My father so loved this precious book,” said Ugo, choking up with grief. He placed a reverent hand on the book’s stout cover. “I often saw him open it, but he never let me touch it.”
The Rector nodded soberly. “This book was a most precious dowry gift, even for a most beloved, most beautiful Princess.”
“Then we must take it back to Cyprus!” said Agnes eagerly. “They would dance for joy to see this! What would you take for it in trade? Name us a price!”
“That can never happen,” said the Rector. “This codex is the dowry possession of the Dukes of Savoy. Believe me, they will never surrender anything they take by marriage. We are fortunate to have this book in Turin. It’s on a strict loan from the ducal library in Chambéry.”
“My father’s music book is safer here in Savoy than in Cyprus.” Ugo stroked the codex gloomily. “Think of the precious treasures Cyprus has already lost! Stolen in pirate raids…Burned in peasant uprisings…”
Agnes looked on her husband in a mix of guilt and tenderness. “Oh, Ugo, don’t take on so.”
“The precious books we have lost in Cyprus, may God help us! When King Jean was trapped in his castle in Nicosia, Jean went mad and devoured his own library.”
“Don’t you say that!” Agnes said. “King Jean never did any such thing.”
“He did. He most certainly did,” said Ugo. “Jean of Cyprus went barking mad, just like Nebuchadnezzar. He ate the leather right off the book-spines. His own wife fed him a Byzantine concoction, so poor King Jean lost all his senses.”
“Ugo, slander is a mortal sin. Do not bear false witness against the Queen Mother of Cyprus!”
“Queen Helena is a Byzantine witch! She cut the nose right off the mother of James the Bastard. She snipped that woman’s nose off and threw it to the palace dogs.”
Agnes turned to the Rector. “I must apologize to you,” she said. “My husband suffers melancholy humour when he remember his father and his homeland.”
“These tales he relates from Cyprus are quite interesting,” said the Rector. “I should take notes.”
Ugo roused himself. “What I said just now was not diplomatic. So please don’t write about that—although every troubadour in Europe sings about the quarrels of the House of Lusignan. Helena Paleologos is an evil woman! A jealous Greek, a wicked Queen!”
“Those are lies,” said Agnes with dignity. “Wicked tongues also sang lies about my own Duchess Anna. My Anna was so lovely and precious, so generous and noble! I never heard my Anna say one bad word about her kinswoman, Queen Helena Paleologos! Anna was always kind to the Byzantines.”
“When Byzantium fell to the Ottoman Turks, ten years ago,” said the Rector, “the great libraries of Constantinople were looted and dispersed. Many hermetic tomes of ancient knowledge were in the care of Byzantium. We Italian Humanists have hunted these books ever since. I have one of great interest here, which I must show you.”
The professor produced a small, tattered notebook. This looted book was by far the meekest of the three books he bore. Its flakes of fading, ancient parchment had been glued onto a backing of linen, which itself had gone dark with time.
“I can’t read one word of this,” said Ugo, gently turning the pages.
“I acquired this book from our Serbian friend over there, the Ottoman arms merchant.”
“Then is that language Serbian?”
“The book’s cover is lettered in the Glagolitic alphabet of old Serbia,” said the Rector, “but the pages are written in Aramaic. The Serb traded me this precious book, in exchange for some cheap book of military doodles by that da Vinci character. That artist boy you people once knew so well. That lad who used to lurk about Turin, planning his canal schemes.”
“We knew that Vinci boy,” nodded Ugo. “He was talented, but he had no morals. He ate like a horse every time he visited our Inn. All painters are like that.”
“This book has notes of provenance, written in Greek, here on its inner cover,” the Rector pointed out. “These notes refer to Irina Kantakouzena, the Byzantine princess who once owned this book. She received it through her great ancestress, the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine, the Saint of the Holy Cross.”
Agnes was thrilled. “A holy book owned by Saint Helena! Saint Helena is my favorite saint of all the saints, Saint Cleopha excepted. Because Saint Helena was humble of birth, just like me, and she once kept an inn for travelers, just like me! How often Saint Helena pities my troubles and answers my prayers.”
The Rector gave Agnes a tender smile. “As well as being an innkeeper, your own dear Saint Helena was also a very great traveller. Helena was the first noble Christian pilgrim to ever visit the Holy Land.”
Ugo spoke up. “The wise say that Helena, who was both a Saint and a Roman Empress, was also sacred to Turin. It was Saint Helena who bought the fragment of the Holy Cross that is concealed within this town.”
“Not many know that,” said the Rector. “Helena, the innkeeper, Saint and Empress, was wise in all the ways of travel. Being the first one there, Saint Helena bought all the best bargains in the Holy Land. She bought the True Cross—and she also bought two of its nails. One nail for the helmet of her son Constantine, and another nail to shoe the hoof of his conquering war-horse.”
“You are indeed the wisest man in Turin, professor,” said Ugo. “No other man in town is so well-read in the hermetic esoterica.”
“The Empress Helena bought the very dirt from the hill of Golgotha, which she gathered in straw baskets,” said the Rector. “So, now, I ask you: is it beyond reason to believe that Helena, a Saint and Empress, would also acquire this precious little travel book? A traveler’s notebook—written by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!”
“What?” said Ugo.
“This is Our Savior’s travel diary of Palestine! It’s a souvenir book of travelling the Holy Land, written in our Savior’s own hand.”
Ugo glanced at his wife. Agnes did not meet his eyes. “That must indeed be quite a relic,” Ugo murmured.
“Yes,” mused the Rector, “among the many Apocrypha, this must be the book of all books.”
“And,” said Ugo delicately, “yet this apocryphal book came here, to this town, Turin, from Serbia, somehow?”
“Of course this book is Serbian! The Emperor Constantine was Serbian, and so was his mother. He was born in Nissus, and his mother was born in Herzeg. Those are both Serbian cities.”
Ugo ran his fingers over his balding pate, and considered the gathering shadows of the cellar. “So, what is written in this travel book?”
“That’s hard for me to tell you. Our Savior Jesus Christ spoke, and wrote, entirely in Aramaic. Few Biblical scholars can read Aramaic. Especially, our Savior’s rather obscure Nazarene Aramaic dialect. However, I have found a few Greek words written here in His notebook. Likely our Savior learned some Greek from the Greek traders in Sephoris.”
“I’ve never heard of ‘Sephoris,’” said Ugo.
“Sephoris is a town in Galilee. It’s about as big as Turin. Our Savior was a man of the road, you see. He was a traveling preacher, that was his trade. This travel book of His seems to be mostly His travel lists and reminders. Names, places, prices for lodging and food…The customary notes for any traveller.”
“Why are you telling us this?” Ugo said.
The Rector looked up mildly. “Well, surely you must know why I am telling you.”
“It’s that Shroud,” said Ugo. “It’s that Holy Shroud! Will we never live down that incident? When will people forget about that Shroud?”
“This is outrageous,” said Ugo. “That Shroud business was over and done years ago. I refuse to discuss this.”
“Maybe it’s time we should say something about the Shroud,” Agnes offered. “After all, we are leaving Turin.”
“Very well, then I will,” said Ugo, his face reddening. “The truth is, that Da Vinci kid invented the Shroud. He painted that Shroud like the Savior’s burial cloth, then he sold it to that Crusader widow. She’s the one who gave the Shroud to Duchess Anna.”
“I didn’t say to tell him all that,” Agnes said.
“He’s the wisest man in Turin, he knows that already,” scowled Ugo. “Listen, professor! Don’t you believe the lies and rumors about the Shroud! Anna of Cyprus never paid one penny for it. While I was in her service, Anna was kept on a strict budget, and she never ran up any debts.”
Agnes nodded quickly. “That little old Crusader lady just needed a place to live! She had lived in this convent, but it was attacked and burned by the freelancers. My Anna was always generous to veterans of the Holy Land. So, the old lady took possession of a Savoy castle—it was just a small one—and Anna received the Holy Shroud in exchange. Then we took this wrecked convent and we repaired it as an inn. No money ever changed hands! It was all a noble act of largesse, through the kindness and goodness of my Anna.”
“I scarcely touched that Holy Shroud, myself,” said Ugo. “I don’t want to touch your holy notebook, either.”
The Rector of the University of Turin laced his hands together and silently placed them in his lap.
“Maybe that Shroud truly is the Shroud of Christ,” said Agnes. “The Vinci boy painted a face on it, but it was very old cloth. To paint a face on the Shroud, that doesn’t mean that the cloth is not the Shroud. Isn’t that so, Ugo?”
“Anna always loved the finest things,” sighed Ugo, shifting where he sat. “Anna was headstrong, but such is the blood of the gallant House of Lusignan. Anna was a true Crusader Princess, she was of the blood royal, and if God did not approve of her Holy Shroud, then God would not have favored her with eighteen children! Eighteen heirs of the body, that the good God gave to her!”
“The fruit of Anna’s womb will be the Kings of Italy and Jerusalem,” said Agnes. “Cleopha prophesied it, and I believe it.”
The Rector mildly raised his ink-stained fingers. “Please don’t take this so badly! I don’t scold you about your Holy Shroud! I’ve seen the Shroud myself. All Christendom knows about it. Pope Felix blessed the Shroud, and we both know that Felix was the one true Pope and the greatest magus of Christendom. My point is: what about this notebook?”
“What about your book?” said Ugo.
“You people have worldly experience in sacred goods! I’m merely a librarian! What am I to do with this, the hand-written testament of Jesus Christ, the Galilean traveller?”
“You’re asking our advice about sacred relics?” said Ugo.
“Who else should I ask? That worthless new Pope in Rome? How dare he banish me from Rome, my own birthplace? He writes love poetry, that miserable scribbler! I’m a far better writer than the Pope is.” The Rector bit his thumb in scorn.
Ugo sighed. “I know what you are thinking, Professor. You think that you should publish this book you found. Through your Humanist scholarship, the lost knowledge of antiquity will be reborn.”
The Rector bowed his tasseled hat. “Ugo de Balliand, you are a man of the round world. It’s no wonder that the court of Chambéry made you their diplomat. Who can hide anything from you?”
“You can’t hide any sacred mysteries by printing books!” Ugo shouted. “Printing books! You stupid bastard, have you lost your mind? Are you a Doctor of the Church, you ink-stained wretch? Are you Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory, Jerome? Where is your Christian humility?”
“I know this must seem wicked.” The Rector inclined his square hat toward the Waldensian heretic in the shadows. “I thought you people might spare me that problem. You might simply buy this little Byzantine book from me—for your Crusader friends in Cyprus, perhaps? They’re rich! I would ask a reasonable price!”
“It’s a good thing that German printer has left us,” said Ugo. “That rascal will print anything. We’ve barely escaped a catastrophe!”
The cellar resounded with a distant pounding.
“Saint Cleopha has heard us!” cried Agnes, pale with dread. “I knew Cleopha would be angry! Cleopha’s holy shrine, become a dirty tannery! Oh you men, what of your salvation? What have you said, what have you done?”
“That knocking you hear is no saint,” said Ugo, rising from his bench. “That noise is the devil himself. I know that noise. There is no help for this. Because he is family.” Ugo left the cellar and strode up the time-worn brick stairs.
“Well then,” said the Rector, glancing carefully from side to side. “Once again, it’s just you and me, Agnes.”
“Don’t you start that with me, you rascal. I regret every moment I ever spent with you.”
“Please don’t be like that, my sweet one. We’re like Abelard and Heloise, you and me. We can’t help what we became to one another.”
“You and your fine Latin sonnets! You swore you were my spiritual friend in Plato. You promised you would never try my honor as a woman.”
“What happens in Rome, stays in Rome,” the Rector leered.
“You men who read so much, how bad you men are. There is no end to your perfidy, you lustful, reading creatures.”
“Oh, Agnes of Chambéry, have you no pity for me, you cold, gorgeous statue of marble? Think of all the days I sat there in your dining room, and not one word when you over-charged me for desserts! With your surpassing loveliness flaunted before me, is it any wonder that I never married? Even a Humanist is only human! This is your last day here in Turin! My darling, let us seize this precious moment!” The Rector leapt to his feet.
Agnes scrambled around the table. “Here in this dirty cellar? You must be mad! Help me, Saint Cleopha!”
Ugo trod down the steps with a new companion, a skinny man dressed in wild, tattered garments of red, blue, green and yellow.
Agnes hastily smoothed her skirts. “See who it is, here at last, to bid me farewell!” Then her eyes widened in deeper alarm. “Cousin, what have they done to you?”
The Pied Piper kissed Agnes on both her flaming cheeks. “The rich and powerful have attacked me,” croaked the troubadour. “The corrupt were stung by the truth of my satirical verses.”
“What happened?” blurted Agnes.
“Some ugly brute at the gate of Turin walloped me with his halberd.”
“Oh what a shame! How low the hospitality of Turin has fallen! The most famous troubadour in all Paris, and you are maltreated this way? If my Duchess Anna were still alive, men would hang for this.”
Ugo addressed the Rector. “Professor, this is my wife’s cousin. Francesco is a roaming jongleur. His trade is the music of the road.”
“You’re François Villon,” the Rector concluded, tucking his trembling hands under his cloak. “Your poetic reputation precedes you, sir.”
“I’m not François Villon,” said the Pied Piper. “I bailed Villon out of jail once, though.” The Pied Piper rubbed at his swollen black eye. “It’s good to see you, Agnes.”
“Francesco, I am so glad and honored that you are a guest at my inn again, for one last time,” Agnes said. “Can I feed you something?”
Through puffy lips, the Pied Piper blew off a trill on his wooden flute. “‘She is so cheerful and charming,’” he sang. ‘‘‘She is so courteous and pleasing, /For she always welcomes everyone.’ Such is your nature, dear Agnes. You haven’t changed one bit.”
“I have liniment and bandages in my travel bags upstairs. I’ll see to your wounds, you poor man.” Agnes fled up the cellar stairs.
The Pied Piper sat on the creaking bench. He rubbed the bruises under his motley, and set his tall belled cap on a wine barrel. “So, cousin Ugo,” he said. “Since they’re finally chasing you out of old Turin, you must be selling off all your fine stuff.”
Ugo sat. He pointedly poured himself a single cup of red wine. He set the cup on the cold stone floor, well out of the troubadour’s reach. “You’re late, cousin, but there are a few items left to me as yet,” he said. “Although a wandering, viper-tongued gossip like yourself obviously lacks the means to buy them.”
“I came here with assets to offer you,” the Pied Piper declared. “So. First of all, what’s with that fat Chinese faggot over there, stuffing himself like a hog? Give me some of his noodles! I’m starving.”
“The Inn of Saint Cleopha never denies a hungry traveller of this round world,” said Ugo with dignity. “We will maintain the Rule of our hostly tradition unto our last day. So—little though you deserve it—I’ll get you a nice hot bowl from the kitchen.”
Left alone together in the cellar gloom, the librarian and the troubadour gave one another the wary eye.
“So,” said the Piper to the Rector, “to judge by your cloak and that square tassel-cap, you must be one of those clerkly, writing professors.”
“Yes, I do write books,” said the Rector. “I am engaged on a treatise on the mystic science of geography.”
“My world is much rounder than the world in your books,” said the troubadour, “because I walk on this world, and I sing about this world.”
“Well, my book ‘Cosmographia’ is an exemplar of the new, worldly learning. The universal subject of my book is everything that is in the world.”
“An evil habit, writing. Writing ruins the natural memory, and makes one forget one’s verses. Printing is even worse than writing, of course.”
“Yes,” said the Rector, “there are a number of learned books on the subject of how books can harm the reader. In fact, I collect such books. Many books, all sizes, all languages. Both printed and in manuscript.”
“‘When wise men turn to folly, they surpass all fools, as the finest wine turns to the sourest vinegar,’” the Pied Piper quoted. “So—I hope you’re not trying anything clever and sly against my dear cousin Ugo. He seemed no more pleased with you, than he did with me.”
“I am the guest of our host here, under his roof! Heaven forfend that I should deceive him.”
“Ugo’s father taught me music,” the Pied Piper said. “So I took to the road for my fortune. But my cousin Ugo, he who should be the troubadour…Why, Ugo became a rich Turinese. He’s the worst bourgeois pinchpenny south of Switzerland!”
“Yes, he’s a prosperous man, Ugo de Balliand,” nodded the Rector. “Round of girth, a friend to the powerful.”
“He made so much pelf in this inn that he sold his daughter to a nobleman. I sang at that wedding, for ‘Ugolina di Guttuari, Baroness of Casselle.’” The troubadour set his tall tasseled cap in his lap, and toyed with its rusty bells. “I saw that girl-child in her diapers, and now I don’t dare serenade her castle window.”
The Pied Piper lunged sideways and gripped the glass neck of Ugo’s wine bottle. He emptied a shot down his throat. When he heard Ugo’s feet on the stairs he quickly set the bottle aside.
Ugo handed the Pied Piper a steaming bowl and a spoon. The musician made no bones about his eating.
Agnes arrived with her medicines. As she unrolled a bandage, she glared at the Rector so fiercely that the professor rose to his feet. “I regret that I must depart now,” he said to Ugo, “but about that book.”
“I thought about what you said,” said Ugo. “There is no price in this round world. Burn the book.”
“Your idea had also occurred to me.”
“What good can such a book ever do? Your book is a lure and a snare! Into the pyre with the Apocrypha. Into the clarifying flames.”
The Rector replaced his square, tasseled hat. With a bow, he gathered up his bag of books and took his leave.
“This is such wonderful spaghetti,” said the troubadour. “Truly, cousin Agnes, cousin Ugo, all jests aside: you people have the best goddamned noodles in the whole round world.”
Agnes helped the Pied Piper remove his motley coat, and lifted his threadbare shirt.
Ugo clicked his tongue over the stripes on the Piper’s skinny ribs. “Why, that brute beat you sorely, cousin! If I were staying here in Turin—rather than departing for Cyprus tomorrow—I would surely plead your case with the local Vicar.”
“Your city law only serves the interests of the fat and happy,” snorted the Pied Piper. He spoon-scraped the dregs of his spaghetti bowl. “Since I am the poet of the common people, I know what the lowly folk know about politics…Ouch, Agnes, stop that.”
“This ointment was personally blessed by Pope Felix the Fifth.”
“That grease is sure to kill me, then. Can we speak privately down here? I don’t like the look of that sour fellow in his plain clothes, sitting over there. Who is he, reading his book all silently, in that candle-light?”
“Oh, that’s our Waldensian,” said Agnes. “He wouldn’t harm a fly.”
“One should never read the Bible,” said the Piper. “One should listen to the Bible’s verses sung aloud, since that’s what all verses are for.” The Piper tapped the side of his head, which had been shaven for lice. “Now, my cousins, up here in my clever head, I brought some verses of great value for you. I brought you a new song from Cyprus.”
“Where did you hear this song?” said Ugo.
“I knew you would be interested,” the Piper declared. “Songs are strange things! A song can fly around this round world fast as the wind! Since I have a good ear, I can acquire such a song—even from a man who doesn’t want me to hear it. James the Bastard will never know that you, his enemies, have heard his favorite song, from my lips.”
“All Christendom agrees,” said Ugo sternly, “that Carlotta is the anointed sovereign of Cyprus and Jerusalem. Who serenades a bastard royal pretender?”
“Hungry men sing the bastard’s song, and they fight for the bastard, too,” said the Piper. “The war song of James tells his men that they fight for Cyprus—not for Rome or for Jerusalem. James will cast his Crusader sister, and her Savoy husband, both of them, into the sea. Then the Cypriots will own their island themselves!”
Ugo was horrified. “Cyprus without Jerusalem? A travesty! What would my father say? What could be worse?”
“I can tell you what’s worse,” said the Piper, grinning eagerly. “I know all about that.”
“Don’t tell him,” Agnes urged.
“My cousin Ugo has become a diplomat! He needs to know the worst,” said the Pied Piper. “To know the worst is always state-craft of the highest value.”
“My husband needs more faith in his cause, not more of your lies,” said Agnes.
“Oh very well then, I’ll tell you the worst for free,” said the Piper merrily. “The new Pope Pius in Rome wants to revive the Crusades. He writes books about himself, our Pope Pius, so he’s quite a clever fellow. Now listen. The Pope persuaded the French to build a new Crusader war-fleet. Then what happened? A French prince seized all the ships. Instead of sailing for the Holy Land, he attacked Naples! That is what your Cause of Christendom has come to.”
“I know about that French misadventure,” said Ugo. “That was a misunderstanding.”
“Cousin, I sailed aboard one of those stolen Crusader boats,” said the Piper. “Those freelancers understood the truth better than you do. Roaming warriors, men of no nation, paid in silver coins, on a Holy Crusade to rob Italy! They laughed about that. They drank to it, they played their dice, gambled their coins and they laughed.”
Ugo’s face grew red. “In times as dark as these, Armageddon must be at hand.”
“I saw no battle of Armageddon,” shrugged the Piper. “I did see Italian battles. Scarcely anyone was killed, except for the plundered common folk. Then, those freelancers…Well, they had no more French pretender to buy Italian bread for them. Then they heard the new song of the Pretender of Cyprus, James the Bastard. His song names all his friends, and all his enemies, and promises great rewards.”
Ugo leaned forward. “When did the freelancers set sail for Cyprus?”
“Why do you ask me that, dear cousin?”
“Venetian ships to Cyprus are faster than any Neapolitan ship to Cyprus.”
“If you trust the Venetians, yes, they are.”
Agnes put away her bandages. “How clever you think you are, Francesco! Just because you entertained evil men, you think you should be evil yourself? Stop your boasting! Ugo, when he sings his stolen song from Cyprus, write down every word.”
“I’ve already packed my favorite pen,” Ugo muttered.
“I already know what your song is about. It’s just treason plain and simple,” said Agnes. Color rose to her face. “I loved Anna of Cyprus, my Princess, my Duchess! I loved her with all my heart! When I think of those sinful wretches, scheming to harm Queen Carlotta, my Anna’s niece by blood—why, my own blood boils! How dare they? Those Judas creatures to the Cause of Christendom! What doom could such wretches deserve? They should be broken on wheels, torn limb from limb by horses!”
“Maintain your composure, my dear,” said Ugo. “These matters of state are grave. Men will die from this misadventure.”
“Oh yes, you men, your wars, men, wars! Well, those wretches have gone too far this time, for they’ve roused the doughty wrath of Agnes of Chambéry!” Agnes panted for breath. “If this were Rome, I would know what to do.” Agnes made a stirring motion over a pretended stewpot. “Those wretches would choke on their last sip of soup!”
“We are diplomats, we’re not poisoners,” Ugo said. “Our task in Cyprus is to reconcile the royal marriage.”
“How useless you men are! Is my poor Carlotta to lose her throne because you make fine distinctions? Our own son may be killed at the side of the Queen of Jerusalem! Our own son, Amedeo, the fruit of my womb, murdered by treacherous fiends who mock the Holy Crusades!”
Ugo was overwhelmed. “That is just as you say, my dear. Whatever was I thinking? They’re the abandoned of God! They should be poisoned like rats!” He blinked. “It’s not too late to visit the town apothecary. We can buy the ingredients before we leave Turin.”
“Listen,” confided the Piper, “if you people weren’t family, I wouldn’t tell you this. But you’re not as smart as you think you are. I never yet met James the Bastard, but I have met women whose bodies he bought for a night. James is cruel. James has a king’s blood in his veins, and James wants to rule. James would kill both of you. You’re an innkeeper and a cook.”
“My role as the Savoyard envoy is to make peace within a family. Peace between wife and husband, peace between brother and sister. Savoy and Cyprus are of the same blood. Carlotta’s husband is her cousin.”
“Ugo, dear man, you are a fine fellow, you’re not the smart one in our family, all right? I’m the smart one in our family, and that’s why I’m penniless.” The Pied Piper coughed, stretched his side and winced at a cracked rib.
“Some day,” said Ugo, “one royal family will rule over Italy, every town, every county, every duchy. The head of that family will be the Savoy King of Jerusalem.”
“I don’t know who told you that nonsense,” said the Piper. “That is a strange dream.”
“A saint has prophesied that,” said Agnes.
“Well, that saint is not your friend. No saint ever sent you two people to Cyprus. The Savoyard court in Chambéry, they sent you to Cyprus. Because they want to be rid of Cyprus—and they want to be rid of you, too.”
Ugo turned to Agnes. “I told you so.”
Agnes shook her head. “Oh, don’t you believe a word of it! What does a troubadour know about the doings of the court of Chambéry? No more than a stable-boy.”
“I always knew that must be true,” Ugo groaned. “Why am I the ambassador? I keep an inn! We even had to pay our own way to Cyprus by selling our possessions! No wonder my father became a monk! Oh, I wish I were a monk myself.”
“Well, that vow of poverty would solve the problem of your worldly goods,” said the troubadour.
“You stop tormenting him, Francesco,” said Agnes.
“I don’t presume to give you people any advice!” said the Piper. “I’m as humble as a stable boy!”
Agnes crossed her arms. “Francesco, just sing your dirty song of treason! Sing your bad song about the traitors in Cyprus! Do you even know any such song? I swear I never saw such a rascal as you.”
“Oh, I know the dirty songs of Cyprus, all right. That’s why I don’t want you to die over there, in that cold-blooded nest of royal serpents!” The Piper shivered. “You are my blood kin, and I must love you; so, listen to me, please. Leave for Cyprus tomorrow. Be good, be obedient, do as you are bid…Then, once you cross the border of Savoy, run for your very lives!”
“Your advice is stupid!” said Agnes. “Where would we go?”
“Go to Rome. Jerusalem is a lost cause, but Rome is always full of pilgrims. All roads lead to Rome. The pilgrims in Rome are always hungry. Go and feed them. Start another inn. You will prosper.”
“Why, I never heard of such a low, wicked scheme,” said Agnes, scowling. “Ugo and I should flee to Rome and hide behind the skirts of the Pope? We are respectable people! Our daughter is a Countess!”
Ugo spoke up. “Well, once we managed a palazzo in Rome. Felix always said, he ate much better as a Roman Cardinal than he ever did as an Anti-Pope in Savoy.”
“Oh, Ugo, who would ever give you and me a palace in Rome? We’re not royalty.”
Ugo stirred restlessly. “We might find some way to be of service to the new Pope. Pope Pius is a much-travelled man. He’s ventured as far away as Scotland.”
“I’ve never been to Scotland,” said the troubadour, impressed. “People say that’s even farther than Jerusalem.”
“After Felix died, Pope Pius granted me a private audience,” said Ugo. “I asked him for absolution.”
Agnes was startled. “The Pope received you? You never said that before.”
“Well, it looked pretty bad at the time, so I kept my own counsel about it. But when I begged forgiveness on my knees, and I expressed my contrition about serving an Anti-Pope, Pope Pius blessed me. He even said nice things to me about our Holy Shroud.”
“Are you the people who sold that Holy Shroud?” said the Pied Piper. “I never heard about that! You, my own family? You sold the famous Shroud in Turin?”
“We legally transferred the Shroud to the ducal court of Chambéry,” Ugo corrected stiffly. “We never ‘sold’ any Shroud. It was a real-estate arrangement.”
The Piper was astonished. “What a story! I can’t believe I’ve never heard a satirical song about that.”
“That’s fine, Francesco, do your worst, make fun of us, sing whatever you please! We’re notorious for the Shroud, but no one ever gets the story straight! It’s so frustrating.”
“You people sold the Shroud of Turin? You got away with that, too? You weren’t jailed, or banished, or burned for heresy? How did you manage all that?”
“Francesco, stop gaping at us,” said Ugo. “We’re your own family.”
The Piper thought for a while, and his face hardened. “Oh, well, that’s easy enough for you to say, Maestro of the Shroud,” he whined. “What fine problems you rich Shroud people have! I’ve never lived in any palace in Rome! Here I come to you, with my body broken by a pike-butt, and you people can’t even offer me a bed! Where is that Rule of the House you were always boasting about?”
“We sold our House,” said Agnes. “We are on a holy pilgrimage to Cyprus.”
“That’s just as she says,” nodded Ugo. “We both swore a sacred vow.”
“Fine, be rich, and be sacred too! There’s no shelter for me here! I’ll just put my staff and my bag on my shoulder, and walk over the next hill, crippled and starving in my jolly rags, piping my merry songs.”
“You could come with us to Cyprus,” said Agnes.
“No,” said Ugo at once.
The Piper sighed. “How cruel you are, cousin Ugo. You have a Rule, but whenever it suits your own advantage, you break it without a thought. Your conscience must hurt, at least sometimes.”
“I liked you better wicked than pitiful,” said Ugo to the troubadour. “Let’s settle all this here and now. We’ll make a bargain, you and me. You sing to us that merry song you know so much about—that song of Cyprus full of treason and war. In return, you can stay below this roof. Alone, here in Turin. My House is all yours, cousin. Until the tanners come here to throw you out.”
“No doubt that’s more than I deserve,” said the Piper, rolling his good eye, and his blackened eye as well.
“I didn’t finish what I had to say to you,” Ugo said. “There are still some curios and rubbish here that we could never sell to anybody. So they’ll all have to go straight to the devil. That means you, you rascal. Sell our goods yourself, or burn them, eat them, whatever it is you tramps do. And mind you, this place is haunted, too. There’s a saint in here, and she will break every door and window until the House of Savoy rules Jerusalem. So, cousin, sing. Sing to us, and the famous Inn of Saint Cleopha will be all yours.”
Ugo and Agnes awaited the eastern caravan at the plaza of the Tower of the Bulls. They wore stout pilgrim tunics of wool, and over-cloaks marked with crosses, and broad-brimmed hats to bear many days of sun and rain. They carried pilgrim staves and leather scrip-bags.
Through much woe and sacrifice, they had reduced their possessions to the burdens of a single horse-drawn cart and three pack-mules.
“Where is our caravan-master?” said Ugo, glancing up at the iron arms of Turin’s city clock.
“Henceforth the Lord will provide for us,” said Agnes, rolling her blue eyes upward beneath her hat-brim. “I’m fresh-confessed, I’m in a state of grace, I’m dressed in pilgrim gray and I march in the cause of Jerusalem! If I die this very day, I will fly straight to heaven!”
Ugo removed his heavy pack and sat on it.
“Don’t you sit on my relics,” Agnes shouted. “That’s a sacrilege!”
“Woman, you will learn to save your breath on the road,” Ugo said. “We are pilgrims now, we are two vagrants. We are homeless and roofless. Don’t fuss like an old maid about your precious trinkets.”
“Fine! Don’t you blame me if you break that glass bottle with the spirit of Saint Cleopha in it.”
“Never mind your bottled spirits. Take a last look at this town, for we will never see Turin again.” Ugo raised his voice. “We’re off to Cyprus at last. Back to my own homeland. ‘A golden sun, a silver moon, and a sea the color of wine!’ In Cyprus, they’ll feed us rice, lentils, chickpeas, figs, and all the spices of Araby…” Ugo patted his round belly. “We’ll have a big feast, too, for we’ll be thin as stray dogs when we get there.”
“Oh Ugo, if I starve to death, marching on Crusade, and you bury me, then I’ll have to face Saint Cleopha in heaven. Then, what will I say to her—about you, sitting on her bottle of holy spirit with your big, fat buttocks?”
Ugo rose reluctantly. “The large buttocks of you women are made of much finer clay than the buttocks of us men, I suppose. Woman, when I become a monk, I’ll be a Franciscan. The grandest of the poor, taking not one thought for the morrow. True Crusaders shouldn’t carry all their bottles and pots and pans to the Promised Land! We should storm Jerusalem with fire and sword and kill every pagan we see.”
“I took only three cooking pots, Ugo. And just two decent copper pans, and a little of that silver cutlery that we saved from the estate of Pope Felix.”
“That is not true, woman! Your saddle-bags are stuffed with vain, girlish finery! Perfumes, potions, cosmetics, even Italian shoes!”
Agnes sighed patiently. “Ugo, you know that Carlotta must recapture the affection of her husband. Carlotta must conceive and deliver a royal heir to her throne. Everything I bring to Cyprus is for that purpose. You don’t think that I want lace underwear myself, do you?”
“My dear, I know that the wiles of you women can make or break kingdoms. That dreadful truth has never been hidden from me,” said Ugo. He squared his shoulders under his gray pilgrim’s mantle. “You women! It’s because Carlotta’s loins are so barren, that my Cyprus is torn in two!”
The eyes of Agnes welled up with tears. “Why do you keep blaming us women for all the troubles in the round world? Why don’t you speak of our own daughter, my dearest Ugolina?”
“Oh yes, our daughter the Baroness,” said Ugo, straightening and smiling. “See here my dear, I have left one thing behind in Turin that will always give me a proper pride. Ha! He who steals my purse steals trash, but I will be the grandfather of a baron of Savoy. Ha ha! No matter what happens in Cyprus, they can’t take that achievement from me.”
“I’ve never seen my own grandson!” Agnes wailed. “I was scarcely allowed to attend my daughter’s wedding! Why? Because I’m a lowly cook who works my fingers to the bone. I slaved for years in that scullery, and for what, just so that my mother’s heart could be torn to shreds! We’re leaving Turin forever and I’ll never see my daughter’s face again!”
“I never thought of it that way.” Ugo gazed around the stony square of Turin as if seeing it his first time, rather than his last. “Of course I don’t see much of the girl, because I gave her away to another man at the altar. But of all my kinfolk, anywhere—in Savoy or Cyprus—Ugolina is the only one among us who is safe and happy! Ugolina wears silk, she eats venison with lark’s tongues. She’s a noblewoman! Why do you lament, Agnes? Our daughter’s success is the grandest thing in my life!”
Attracted by their racket, a gypsy woman approached, brandishing a crooked broom. “Alms for me?”
“No, not from us, never again,” Ugo decreed. “We fed you scraps from our Inn’s back door—even though you are godless Egyptian creature who lacks any books, flags or chivalry. Can’t you see we’ve become holy pilgrims now, while you remain here in Turin, begging everybody like a nuisance? Go back to Egypt.”
“One round loaf of bread for poor me?” coaxed the gypsy witch. “For the world is round.”
Agnes crossed herself. “Old witch who wanders the roads of the round world, yes, I fed you. With my own hands, through the Rule of my House, didn’t I feed you? I let you sleep under my eaves. Well, I have no more House now. So avert your evil eye and let us leave Turin in peace.”
“Charity is repaid by charity,” said the gypsy, “and prophesy by prophesy. No caravan leaves Turin today. A caravan comes here to Turin from Jerusalem.”
“Jerusalem is in the hands of the Moslems, you ignorant creature!” Ugo shouted. “The Turk rules in Constantinople, and the sea is swarming with his corsairs! The Crusaders poison each other while the enemies of Christ advance on every side! Do you think you can scare me with your cheap hedge-witch prophesies? The truth is ten times worse than a wretch like you can know!”
“The Queen of Jerusalem is coming to Turin,” said the gypsy, “she who enters through the secret gate of the dispossessed. You will meet your children at that gate. You bore five children, three are already in heaven. Yet two of them still walk the round world.”
“I believe you,” said Agnes at once.
“Very well,” said Ugo, “Then I believe you, too. But listen to me, you old gypsy woman. Your magic powers are cheap, dishonest and indecent powers—your lousy gypsy magic is downright filthy, because you can’t even read the Scriptures, and—wait a moment, come back here, I haven’t finished scolding you yet.”
“Let her go away,” urged Agnes, “these are witch’s doings. We must hurry at once to the southern gate.”
“Must we do that, Agnes?”
“We must go, Ugo, we just heard a prophecy.”
“Then it’s just as you say, my dear.”
The southern gate was the busiest of Turin’s four gates, so the roadside just outside the city walls had prospered. Though nakedly exposed to brigands and freelancers, a little slum had grown outside the Vicar’s onerous city law.
Now the muddy paths of this ragged village splashed to the stamp of boots. The guardsmen of Turin poured from their tall iron gates. They used halberds, picks, even an improvised ram to smash the clustered shacks.
Curious Turinese gathered on the city drawbridge, observing the demolition.
Ugo and Agnes joined the watchers, and Ugo leaned jauntily on his pilgrim’s staff. “Now, finally, this is a sight to see! Today we leave Turin forever, and at last the Vicar’s dealing with these dirty shanties! Hot oil should fall on their heads, these idle beggars, these runaway villains.”
“We should pity the wretched of the earth,” said Agnes, patting the pilgrim’s cross stitched on her breast. “Where else are the poor to sleep? Those with no land must sleep somewhere.”
“Why do you think Turin has these big iron gates, then? Into the moat with those hovels! Any freelance band could break up these shacks, and attack our town with the flaming wood!”
Constable Higgins was barking orders among his busy troops, so Ugo left the shadow of the archer turrets and sought him out.
Higgins was excited by the sudden turn of events, yet as cordial as always. “Signor Balliand, couriers rode in at dawn and woke the Vicar. Foreign troops are approaching Turin! They bear a royal ensign!”
“But Egenz, that is very irregular. We were bound to leave Turin today, on the Duke’s own business, destined for Cyprus. It’s all been arranged.”
“No man leaves Turin today! Every man-at-arms is called to duty. We’re to smash-up all this clutter, and do the best we can to make my gate presentable to royalty.”
Alarmed by the spreading rumors and the noise of demolition, the people of Turin ventured in little groups from their stony fortress. They tiptoed across the moat-bridge into the suburban slum. Some hauled away the wicker chicken-coops. Others salvaged the chamber-pots and stole the roof-tiles. The urge to loot a village was always contagious.
“I believe I see their spears and pennants,” said Ugo. “Look at the dust raised on the road!”
Agnes stared at the approaching cluster of cavalry. “Oh, my saints, my angels! Be still, my heart! Our own Ugolina is come to Turin, with all her men-at-arms!”
Although dusty with the ride from her castle, Ugolina, Baroness of Caselle looked as pretty as any tapestry. The young Baroness rode a dappled gray mare, and the beast’s fine green caparisons closely matched her skirt, hat and veil.
The Baron of Casselle offered his in-laws a curt nod from horseback. The nobleman was a square-jawed, silent, squint-eyed landowner of forty years. He wore leather breeches, a fur hat and riding boots.
Ugolina gathered up her satins, hopped from her stately sidesaddle, and embraced her mother.
Agnes was stunned with delight. “What is happening? These must be tidings of great joy.”
“Sir Amedeo is coming,” said Ugolina, her face alight. “Sir Amedeo sent a scout from his army to warn me, and he asked me to meet him at the city gate!”
“Yes, mamma. My brother is a knight banneret of Cyprus, don’t you know that?”
“Yes, I know it,” said Agnes, “but I never hear anyone say it! My son is a chevalier, and my daughter is a baroness, and I never see either one of you.” She threw her arms around her daughter. “I must be the most blessed of mothers! Thank you Saint Cleopha!”
Queen Carlotta’s battered little host thundered across the drawbridge, between the archer towers, and through the southern gate. The Queen of Jerusalem was swiftly mobbed by the town’s population.
Seeing her Lusignan coat-of-arms, her blue and silver banners, and her red riding habit, the confused Turinese mistook the young Queen of Jerusalem for her own aunt, the dead Duchess Anna of Cyprus. So the Turinese loyally called out the name of their deceased liege lady, and the streets of Turin resounded with their cries for a royal ghost.
Carlotta’s men-at-arms were refugees, beaten and expelled from Cyprus. Carlotta’s royal loyalists had fled their island capital, across seas, marshes, rivers, plains, fields and forests, all the way to Savoy.
The Queen had chosen Turin as their destination, for their captain and guide across the roads of Italy was Ugo’s own son: Sir Amedeo de Balliand.
Turin’s ruler, the Vicar, was a pious, dimwitted old bishop. He was baffled by the sudden apparition of a Queen of Jerusalem, leading a band of knights who were starving, filthy, angry, and heavily armed.
The Crusader invaders outnumbered the Vicar’s own city guard. Their dialect of Cypriot French puzzled everybody. No one knew what to do with them.
Ugo de Balliand was the most prominent Cypriot in Turin. Naturally the Vicar’s weak
eyes turned to Ugo, and so, in the emergency, Ugo found himself appointed Turin’s own envoy to a Cypriot royal court in exile.
Ugo found that the invaders numbered eighty refugees in all, once he had head-counted all the laundresses, ostlers, money-changers, thieves, pickpockets and other camp-followers that the noble Queen of Jerusalem had attracted in her tumbling flight.
There was nothing to do but return, with this entire small army, to the empty Inn of Saint Cleopha. The forlorn inn quickly became a Cypriot military camp within Turin.
The only guest still within the Inn was the Pied Piper. The Piper was lurking there on a heap of straw, shivering, sore, and swollen. However, when he found a fresh audience of soldiers, the Piper was in his element.
The Piper leapt from his sick-bed like a man possessed. With shrieks of his flute, the Piper was soon singing campfire classics and performing minor acts of conjuration. The Cypriot knights were hollow-eyed, flea-bitten and starving, but they all adored music, and were enchanted by the Pied Piper. They were too poor to pay him much, but they laughed at all his dirty jokes.
Some of the refugee Cypriots had been lords of their island, but a month of hunger, danger and exposure on the roads of a foreign land had cost them their fine etiquette. The Cypriot marauders swiftly foraged three goats and two pigs from the streets of Turin. Ignoring the inn’s emptied kitchen, they gutted and roasted the stolen animals on the dining room floor.
Agnes took the Queen of Jerusalem into her own charge. Agnes had been an intimate servant of Anna of Cyprus, so she knew what to say to a great lady in grave distress.
Cajoling, flattering, offering a steady stream of proverbs, consolations and bits of prayer, Agnes got the refugee Queen bolted safely away within the Inn’s strongroom upstairs.
For his part, Ugo accompanied his son as the knight went to the stables to inspect the troop’s horses.
Ugo and his son Amedeo had parted badly. As a teenage boy, Amedeo had been a sneering, skirt-chasing street-rough, the boss of a gang of local urchins, always tossing dice and flashing his dagger. Turin had seemed too small to contain a youth so wild, so through the kindness of Duchess Anna, Amedeo had been sent away to serve as a squire in Nicosia.
Eight years had passed since then, and Ugo gazed up into his son’s scarred, bearded face. “You’ve grown, son. Did you eat well in Cyprus?”
“I ate, dad. Never like mamma’s home-cooked meals.”
“You saw battle.”
“I won my spurs,” Amedeo grunted. “I am a banneret knight and a seneschal. For a little while there, I was the Earl of Peristerona. One of Carlotta’s battlefield promotions.”
“My own son, an earl in Cyprus!” Ugo marveled. “Peristerona is a beautiful village. Your grandfather was born there. He would have been so proud.”
“Grandpa wouldn’t have been proud to see us lose the war in Cyprus,” said Amedeo. He unslung the musket from across his armored back and leaned the reeking firearm against a stable door. “Dad, you’d better talk some sense into this city guard of yours. Those fat Italians aren’t fit to fight. If they don’t stay out of my way, my knights will bash their fool heads in. We’re hungry. Some of us are wounded. We’ve lost lands, brothers, titles and honors. We’re not in the best of humours.”
“I understand you, son. We’ll find your men some good bread and beer. Dice, loose women, Turin knows all about soldiery. Count on me, my boy. Whatever I have is yours.”
Queen Carlotta’s soldiery had seized Ugo’s cart and his pack mules. Whatever Ugo owned was already theirs.
“Make my court introduction to your liege lady,” Ugo urged. “Allow me to present to her my diplomatic credentials. We can put things in order. Carlotta’s troubles are grave, I can see that—but a Pope and a Duchess have both trusted their affairs to me. The Queen will need a secretary, a banker, a good line of credit…”
“We didn’t pay our way to get here,” Amedeo said. “Who ever trusts an Italian bank?”
“Son, you people are Crusaders! You can’t just burn and hack your way across Italy as if you were Englishmen! This is Savoy, it’s the homeland of your best allies! So, tell me: where is Queen Carlotta’s royal consort, Louis of Savoy, the Count of Geneva?”
“Oh yes,” said Amedeo, “that boy from Geneva. Well, the valiant Count Louis fled back to the peace and safety of his Switzerland. Once James the Bastard swore to kill him, Louis showed us a clean pair of heels.”
“A Savoyard knight fled from combat?” said Ugo, putting his hand to his heart.
“Dad, Louis fled from his own soup-bowl. Louis knows what happened to Carlotta’s first husband—he spat up blood and died at the banquet table. Louis of Geneva is a mother’s-boy. He should sing in a papal choir. James the Bastard is no mother’s boy. The mother of James the Bastard has a hole in her face where she should have a nose.”
Sir Amedeo scratched a flea-bite beneath his chased cuirass. Amedeo wore splendid armor, the gear of a court favorite. His greaves and his baldric were grimy with road-wear, but it was fine, knightly, girl-pleasing armor.
“Cyprus is a pit of scorpions,” Amedeo said. He bent, knelt, and pulled a blood-caked rag from the wounded fetlock of a stallion. “We Savoyards can’t save those wretched people. All we can do is love them. Love them, admire them, adore them, and devote our lives to them. Serve them with every courtesy, as cavaliers.”
“That’s a very noble thing you just said, son. It’s very knightly and genteel. Your grandfather often sang about that.” Ugo nodded his head. “So, then: who is the liege-lady?”
Amadeo rose and set aside his plumed helmet. “I could never hide my romances from you, dad.”
“Tell me you’re not in that same girl-trouble that you were when you left here.”
“Dad, she is not with child. All right? She has no heir of the body, she is not that lucky. You just saw my liege-lady. She rode here under her blue and silver flag.”
“Your mistress is the Queen of Jerusalem?”
“Don’t yell about that! I could hang for it, if I don’t get cut to pieces first. Yes, I am Carlotta’s courtly lover. I am more than just ‘courtly.’ Carlotta had two husbands, all right? Carlotta knows her way around a bedroom.”
“You’re not even the Queen’s chaste lover? You don’t write verses?”
“I hate poetry! I kill men with guns, I’m not some goddamned troubadour! Carlotta is the woman in my life. I adore Carlotta body and soul. She’s pretty and she’s noble in spirit, but Dad, she couldn’t rule a closet full of brooms. She’s a disaster.”
“Here in Savoy, the plan was that her Savoyard husband would rule in Carlotta’s name.”
“Her husband can’t rule anything, either. Louis was born a sissy, and he doesn’t understand the country. Carlotta had everything. She had the best weapons, the best castles, all the richest lords of Cyprus vowed their fealty to her. Then the peasants rose up, the poor and the landless…They made a cause with James the Bastard and they set the fields and forests on fire. Freelancers sailed in from Italy. We lost Famagusta, then we lost Nicosia. We had to call for help from the Venetian Navy.”
“What? You trusted the Venetians? Them? The Venetians are a Republic!”
“I know all about the goddamned republican Venetians! Don’t think I didn’t warn her! The Venetian embassy threw her a masquerade party. All Carlotta’s noble courtiers went to the Venetian palace, to sing love songs and eat sugar-cookies.”
Amedeo kicked a clod of horse-dung from the stall. “While they were swanning around in their silks,” he said, “Moslem corsairs landed. They seized the embassy, took hostages and sailed away.”
Ugo clutched at the horse-stall to keep his knees from buckling.
“James arranged all that, of course,” said Amedeo. “James knows those Moslem pirates like brothers. In our better days, whenever Carlotta ran up her debts, James and I would take warships and raid the coast of Egypt. We’d seize merchandise, maybe catch some merchants, then sell them back for ransom. That’s how I got this scar.”
Amedeo ran his mailed hand over the puckered ridge through his hairline. “When we caught a prize at sea,” he said, “James arranged the ransoms. James always trades prisoners…because James is the Bastard of Lusignan. The Bastard does all the family’s dirty work.”
“Someone has to talk to the foreigners,” said Ugo guiltily. “We can’t pretend they’re not standing there.”
“Well, James is the truest Bastard you’ll ever find. James is half French, half Greek, half Moslem and all Cypriot. It was his masterstroke of deviltry to hire Moslems to abduct the Crusaders. The war in Cyprus ended that day. James is the only man who can buy those rich idiots back from their chains in Egypt. He’s offering bargain prices for his friends.”
“Then James stole the Kingdom of Cyprus.”
“Cyprus loved him for stealing Cyprus. Cyprus wanted to be stolen. They kiss the feet of His Royal Highness, King James of Cyprus. Carlotta is no one in Cyprus. She’s the ‘Queen of Jerusalem.’ She has no homeland, no throne, no husband, no heir, and as for her army, well, here we are. We’re in Italy.” Amedeo shrugged. “You are our host, Dad. Thanks for your hospitality.”
“Carlotta is still the anointed Queen of Jerusalem.”
“Dad, Carlotta has never even seen Jerusalem. Jerusalem is owned by Arabs, her mortal enemies. And dad—you will never see your Cyprus again. I’m so sorry to tell you that. But you must never, ever go home, because King James of Cyprus will kill me, and anyone in my family. James told me that to my own face. James wouldn’t lie to me. We were army comrades.”
Ugo and his son were silent together for a good while. They devoted their attention to the Cypriot horses, which were footsore, fly-blown, gaunt, and in need of much care.
“Son,” said Ugo at last, “We will have to carry on with the great cause.”
“I don’t see how. Carlotta trusted men that only a fool of a woman would trust. Carlotta can’t rule Cyprus. She will never rule Jerusalem. Carlotta will have to be sheltered for the rest of her life.”
“Then we will shelter her.”
“The family. Us. Me, you, your mother. Your sister, if she can help us too.” Ugo stroked his chin. “The road has certainly brought strange curios to Turin. I gained some of those, and I lost some, but now my House has a Queen of Jerusalem beneath my roof! A royal Crusader monarch is at my table! If I fail a business opportunity as grand as this one, I deserve to be hanged.”
“Dad, you don’t know my Carlotta. Carlotta is a Lusignan. The weird serpent-witch Melusine was the mother of all Lusignan women, and…Wait! Who approaches us? What fine young lady leads her pretty steed into our stables?”
Ugolina draped her mare’s green satin reins over her tightly gloved hand. “Do I have the honor,” she said liltingly, “of addressing the Signor Amedeo de Balliand, the noble Earl of Peristerona?”
“The honor is mine entirely!” said Amedeo, deftly dipping one armored knee. “I crave the boon of touching the hand of her grace the Baroness of Casselle.”
Ugolina removed her riding-glove, and extended pale fingers which never did a task more difficult than needlework. “Dearest brother, let me present you unto his grace, my lord and master: Camillo, Baron of Casselle and Viscount of Bra.”
The Baron of Casselle brusquely knocked his old fur hat against his leather trousers. “Fine battle-horses,” he said to Amedeo.
“Yes, your grace,” said Amedeo. “They’re of Arabian breed.”
“They need oats,” grunted the Baron. “Pray bring your steeds to my pastures. We have boar-hunting on my estate. Falconry, too. Bring Her Highness, your liege lady. If Her Majesty pleases of course.”
“Your Grace is the soul of courtesy.”
The Baron of Caselle strode through the stables of the Inn, whistling through his stained teeth and patting horses on their hindquarters.
“My happiness will be complete,” said Ugolina, “when my knightly brother, the seneschal of the Queen of Jerusalem, visits me in my own demesne. There he can meet his nephew, the young master Bartolomeo, who is the heir of Casselle.”
Amedeo stretched out one mailed hand. “Sister, you were only this tall when we had to part. You got married, and you had a baby! Good for you, little sister! May God bless you.”
“Your nephew is no little baby! Wait till you see my boy. He can walk and talk now, he’s good and strong.”
“Then that lad must indeed possess a noble mien. All lesser tots are like candle-sparks next to a star.”
Ugolina dimpled. “It’s so sweet to hear you quoting our grandpa’s old troubadour songs! It’s as if you never left! Amedeo, was that a gun I saw you carrying?”
Amedeo promptly fetched up his fire-arm and displayed it. “Sis, gaze in wonderment at this my battle-musket. It fires lead pellets with black powder. It knocks a hole through plate armor that’s as big as your tot’s little fist.”
Ugolina gazed at her brother adoringly. “You never change!”
“Sis, I can talk your courtly rhetoric just as long as you want to hear it, because I learned it from the best there is…” Amedeo set his musket aside. “But, well, I left you as a scrawny girl chopping weeds in a house-garden, and here you are, a beautiful Italian lady! You are gorgeous, from your hat to your shoes! I never change, but you’re completely different!”
“Oh Amedeo, dearest and only brother, I’m so glad you’re back! Italy is wonderful now! Italy is the wonder of the whole round world.”
Behind the iron-bound door of the strongroom, the din of Carlotta’s little desperado army faded to a murmur.
“Your Majesty will forgive the disarray in here,” said Agnes. “Truth to tell, we sold all our furnishings, because we were coming to your royal court! But I do have supplies in my saddlebags, and I’ve sent my daughter out shopping—Ugolina excels at that. So this Inn will never be your palace, but this will be as good a room as Turin can offer to anyone.”
“Does this room have a chamber-pot?” moaned the Queen of Jerusalem.
When Agnes tactfully returned again, the Queen of Jerusalem was more composed. She had removed her riding-cloak and gloves, and unpinned her flowing blonde hair.
“We appreciate the promptness of your services,” said the Queen, in her quirky yet stately Cypriot French. “Now We command you: tell Us your name.”
“I am Agnes of Chambéry, your majesty.”
“Oh, then it’s you!” said the Queen of Jerusalem. “You, who sold the Shroud of Christ to Our aunt, Duchess Anna! You were Anna’s court witch.”
“I don’t practice any witchcraft! I’m a good Catholic.”
“Your son told Us that you brew potions.”
Agnes laughed merrily. “Oh, your majesty! Any cook who can make a decent gravy can make a potion. But, yes, I was bringing you a few precious draughts in my bottles—just as I did for my dear Anna. My Anna needed her tonics, the dear Duchess, taken to child-bed so many times. I was always there for Anna, at her lyings-in. She trusted no other.”
“You were the servant of the Savoy Anti-Pope. He had great hermetic knowledge.”
“Pope Felix was a Christian hermit! Of course great hermits have ‘great hermetic knowledge.’”
“We have never been to Savoy before,” said the Queen. “The lords of your misty mountains are notorious for their magic. Everyone in Cyprus knows that the Savoy dukes are a race of wizards.”
“Your majesty, I have been the hostess to travellers from many lands. Travel tales always grow with the distance. Yes, there is some magic in Turin. Of course there is magic here. It doesn’t compare to the magic of the Holy Land. Many faiths worship your noble city of Jerusalem, and the holy water of the River Jordan brings salvation.”
“We would not know that, for We have never been to Jerusalem,” said the Queen of Jerusalem. Pale with weariness, she sat on the bare wooden slats of the strongroom’s empty bed. The marriage bed had remained within the Inn of Saint Cleopha, for it was built of heavy timber and bolted to the floor.
“Your majesty—you poor lady! Your trials would weary a saint!” Agnes busied herself at her saddlebags, and retrieved three glass bottles bedded in straw. She set the bottles at the feet of the Queen, then plucked one up. “Your majesty, this essence is the sovereign remedy for the melancholy humour. You should try a bit of this.”
“You want Us to drink that?” said the Queen of Jerusalem.
“This is most efficacious!” said Agnes. “This quintessence of al-Chemistry is called al-Cohol, the Bottled Spirit. Shall I open it for you? It works wonders.”
“Open that and pour a glass of it at once,” the Queen commanded.
Agnes hastened to obey. She had no drinking glasses in her pilgrim’s baggage, but she found a stout iron travel cup.
“Your majesty,” Agnes chattered, decanting the quintessence with care, “this bottled spirit was always meant as a gift to you. My husband was appointed your ambassador. We were leaving Turin to join your court, this very day.”
“Now drink that yourself,” said the Queen, her face leaden. “Drink it carefully, where We can see you swallow it.”
Agnes sipped the spirit down and wiped her lips. “I would drink this spirit every day, if I had it to spare, and my husband would let me.” She patted her bosom. “How it warms a woman’s heart!”
The Queen of Jerusalem drew an alabaster vial from her sleeve of green silk brocade. “For thirty-two days,” she said, “We have thought to drink this potion. This was the last gift from Our mother, Queen Helena Paleologos. This is a venom more deadly than the asp of Cleopatra. As a Queen without a throne, We wanted to make an end of myself.”
“Your mother gave you that dreadful thing?”
“Yes, that was my mama.”
“Put that down at once. No, give that to me. Right now, hand that over.” Agnes tucked the lethal vial behind the sturdy laces of her gamorra dress. “Young lady, there won’t be any making an end of yourself under my roof.”
“Agnes, We are so very tired and weary.”
“Drink this tonic, then.” Agnes filled the iron cup. “Your majesty, I am a woman of modest birth. I’ve forgotten half my fine Chambéry court talk, and I can barely write my own name. But I was the chambermaid of Anna of Cyprus, the finest lady Savoy ever saw. I can take good care of you. I can sew, I can clean fine clothes, I can fix a lady’s hair, and I can throw a shroud over a lady’s secrets. Because I knew all my Anna’s secrets—and I kept them for her.”
“Did she have many secrets?” The Queen of Jerusalem daintily sipped from the iron mug.
“Fewer than people say. When you’re a pretty woman in Italy, sometimes the men are insistent. Those indiscretions were just accidents, really.”
“This al-Cohol is good,” said the Queen. “Is al-Cohol Arabic, with a name like that? The Arabs don’t drink wine.”
“Arabs are men. Men drink. I’ve seen Arabs drink in my Inn,” said Agnes. “No matter what men say about their rules, men are the same all over this round world. I married a Cypriot. At first, it was strange, I was innocent. But when I became a mother, then I grew wise. I no longer heeded what my husband told me to do. I just gave him what he wanted, and not what he talked about. Ever since then, my Ugo has been happy as pie.”
“We married two foreign men,” groaned the Queen of Jerusalem. “We married Prince Juan of Portugal when We were twelve. He died of poison. When We were fifteen, they made Us marry Count Louis of Savoy. We don’t know which man was worse.”
“Royalty always marries foreigners,” Agnes counseled. “But men are the same at every court. You should see the papal Court in Rome, where the men don’t even marry! Those cardinals in their red hats are ten times as wicked as men who have wives.”
“We have never seen the Pope’s great and holy city of Rome.”
“Rome is wonderful. All the roads lead there. Rome is the eternal capital of the round world.”
“I wish We could venture in state to Rome, and not flee to Savoy. We have never left Cyprus before. We have never seen holy Rome, or holy Jerusalem. We are the Princess of Antioch, and We never saw Antioch. We are the Princess of Armenia, and We never met one Armenian.”
“The Armenians? When you need magic carpets, those are good business people.”
“Is the world round, Agnes?”
“Don’t you worry your head about that! If you lose your way on the road, ask for directions! No man who makes maps ever will.”
“We need a bath. We have fleas now. In Cyprus, We had a marble bath-house with tripods of frankincense.”
“You won’t get that here, but I think Ugolina might find us a tub and a sponge.”
The Queen of Jerusalem emptied the last drops of spirit from the mug. “Sir Amedeo, who is my bodyguard, is your son,” she said.
“Is that fat, bald innkeeper really Sir Amedeo’s father?”
“Of course he is! What a question, what a scandal, and anyway they look just the same!”
“If they look the same, then why are they so different?”
“Your majesty, my Ugo is of melancholy humour. His son is choleric. When you get older, you will see the humours of men at one glance. They are simple creatures, men. To make them love you is not as hard as you think.”
“Good and wise Agnes of Chambéry, We fear for the life of your choleric son, for Amedeo is so brave and bold. I trusted him. Because he is from Savoy and honest, and he is not any Cypriot, or Greek, or Christian Syrian, or a Byzantine. So, one day, I was giving Amedeo his orders, to go pirate me some ships from Cairo…”
Color rose to the Queen’s plump face. She fell silent.
“You can tell me,” Agnes urged.
“He just grabbed me. He smothered me with kisses and then he had his way with me. I was so upset about that, that I wanted to have his arms, legs, and head cut off, but really, how could I tell him no, after that! I was so ashamed that I never even told my confessor. Now my confessor is killed. Will I go to hell, Agnes?”
Agnes quietly poured out another iron cup of spirit. “How many people know about this?”
“Well, not many who live. If they breathe one word against Our royal chastity, Amedeo challenges them to duels and he chops them to pieces. But of course all the common people know about it. They all sing songs that make fun of Us, their own liege lady, their Queen.”
The Queen of Jerusalem sipped from her iron cup while tears flowed down her cheeks. “My Amedeo won’t live long. No man can live around Us! Juan of Portugal died of venom, and that coward Louis ran home to Switzerland! Just because James threw a few severed heads over my castle wall in Kyrenia.”
The Queen of Jerusalem set her empty cup aside and wrung both her pale white hands. “What a wretched woman We are! Our only babe was stillborn, and the midwife said that We will never bear an heir!” Carlotta looked up, shaking with her bitterness and shame. “We Lusignan women—we can’t all be brood mares like your Anna.”
Agnes wept. “Oh Carlotta, you are her very image. It’s as if God has sent my Anna back to me. Look at me, dressed for pilgrimage to go to you, and here you are, come to my own arms! The Will of God is almighty.”
Carlotta straightened her back. “We never ask God for anything. Except that Sir Amedeo should not be killed before We Ourselves are murdered.”
“There’s no need to borrow trouble with dark fantasies,” said Agnes kindly.
“Give Us some more of that tonic, Agnes. It really warms Us up inside.”
“Let’s wait until you eat something. Let me whip you up something tasty. I have my pots and pans in my baggage. Some pasta won’t take me half an hour by the city clock.”
“Then go and cook your strange local foodstuffs,” said the Queen, “and We will pour more potion for Ourselves. This is such a pretty bottle.”
“Your majesty, don’t open that one!”
The Queen of Jerusalem removed the plug with a hollow pop. She shook the empty bottle and looked down its thin glass neck.
“That spirit bottle holds the spirit of a saint,” said Agnes. “An astrologer put her in there for me. You should have seen him do that trick. It was marvelous.”
With a sparkling like bubbles in wine, a ghost appeared in the room.
“Are you the Queen of Jerusalem?” piped the little ghost, in her Turinese dialect.
“What is this spirit saying to Us?” asked the Queen, in her Cypriot French.
“Your majesty, Saint Cleopha speaks Piedmontese. I will translate. She asked you if you were the Queen of Jerusalem.”
“You have such a pretty name, Cleopha,” said the Queen of Jerusalem to the ghost. “Our dead aunt, and Our dead sister, both bore the same sweet name that you do, and you’re just as dead.”
Saint Cleopha, who was small and modest, said nothing.
“We command you to tell this holy spirit,” said Carlotta, “that We are not the Queen of Jerusalem. It’s a lie. We never entered Jerusalem. We never saw it, we never ruled it!”
Carlotta put both hands to her face and began to sob. “We are a fraud! Men dressed me up, to cover up their lies with a royal robe! I’m not the Queen of Jerusalem. In my heart, I know I’m not worthy. I am nothing but a miserable sinner.” Carlotta bowed her royal head and wept in penitence.
“Your majesty,” piped the ghost, “I am Cleopha…I am the least of women…a nun, and a sinner, like you.” Cleopha spread her thin little hands within her nun’s rough gray drapery, which had gone all diaphanous with her death.
“I was never a saint, or a prophet either,” Cleopha confessed in her own turn. “Just look at my dirty, ruined shrine here—who would call this place a shrine? I’m just a teenage Turinese girl! They locked me up inside this dismal nunnery, where you can’t even look at a boy, much less kiss one! Nothing in here but hard work and penance and prayer!”
The gray shade of the little saint drifted from side to side like a veil on a washing line. “No wonder I had my fits! I had convulsions, and was possessed by the voices of angels…Then I surrendered my soul, I spat up blood and I floated out of my bed, but any other girl in Turin would do the very same thing!”
“Oh Cleopha, don’t be so hard on your sainted self!” said Agnes. “You said that the Queen of Jerusalem would rule from this city, and look, that came true, here she is, crying her eyes out.”
“Did I say that?” wondered Cleopha. “I said all kinds of wishful things in my delirium.”
“Tell this little maiden,” said Carlotta, “that We don’t rule her city. We can’t even rule Our own city.”
“Well, if you’re a Queen and can’t rule Turin, then you had better go somewhere else,” counselled the saint.
“What Cleopha says is wise,” said Agnes, who was interpreting for both parties. “We must all leave Turin quickly, none of us can stay. See, I wear my pilgrim robes, for I have vowed to go on my holy travels. Turin is too small for a Crusader monarch. Even Cleopha can’t stay in Turin, because the Turinese are turning her nunnery into a tannery. Sorry, Cleopha.”
“I will forsake my glass cell,” said Cleopha. She touched the lip of the bottle with one immaterial finger. The glass toppled and loudly smashed into bits. “Now,” said Cleopha, commencing to fade, “my spirit will spread throughout Italy. When other Italian girls suffer like I have suffered—young, restless, and bored to tears!—I will hear their prayers and sorrow for them like a sister.”
“May God bless you, dear Cleopha.”
“And you too, Carlotta.”
Cleopha seeped like a mist through the open window. Agnes bent and gathered up the shards of broken glass in her skirt.
“Cleopha always threw things and broke things,” Agnes explained. “Your majesty, mind you don’t step on those sharp bits.”
The strong-room door shook with heavy pounding. Agnes hastily unbarred the iron portal.
Ugolina swept into the strong-room, together with four of her husband’s mail-clad men-at-arms.
“May-God-preserve-Your-Majesty,” Ugolina recited hastily, “We-crave-the-boon-of-entrance, and you there, yes you two, go set that chest of linens there. You there, the tall one, put her majesty’s new wash-tub in the corner. Who brought those roast pigeons and the goat cheese? There had better be six of those squabs in there, or I’ll have your fingers off.”
Ugolina set her fists on her satin hips. “Now, all of you, run straight back to your lord. And no fighting with her majesty’s men-at-arms! Don’t you even talk to those Cypriots! That will only lead to you boasting and drinking, then gambling, and then it will lead to some knife-work—yes, I’m looking at you, you rascal, you’re not hiding anything from me. You scamper right along, or I’ll have all four of you peeling turnips with the Casselle kitchen boys.”
Visibly crestfallen, Ugolina’s armed retainers crept away in a body.
“You must be Amedeo’s sister, for you look so much like him,” said Carlotta.
Ugolina curtseyed deftly. “I do have that honor, your majesty.”
“Well, since you are only a Baroness, We cannot call you Our ‘sister.’ But you are the sister of Our dear cavaliere servente, so let Us give unto you some token of Our favor.” The Queen of Jerusalem searched distractedly among her various rings and bracelets. “Wait,” she said. “We have a bracelet on Our foot. Unlace Our shoe and remove that jewelry for Us, Agnes.”
Agnes knelt and deftly slipped the golden cuff from the Queen’s plump foot. “This looks Egyptian.”
“It is Egyptian. It was pirate loot off some Mameluke felucca that Sir Amedeo robbed for Us on the high seas. Sir Amedeo always brought Us such pretty things from his voyages. We forgot this trinket was his gift to us, but all the better you should have it now, Baroness.”
“Saints above,” marvelled Ugolina, “this is fit for a Sultan’s concubine! I’ll always treasure this Egyptian curio in Turin! Thank you for your kind largesse to me, your majesty.”
“Where is Our seneschal, your brother?”
“Sir Amedeo is with my father. They are establishing a line of credit for you with the local Jews,” said Ugolina. She waved a flowing green sleeve at her purchases. “I bought your majesty a few things just now—things any lady would need, although they’re scarcely worthy of your high station, of course.”
Agnes examined the linens and the rolled straw mattress. She industriously set to making the bed.
Ugolina gazed from her mother to the Queen, visibly torn between helping the one or the other. “Your majesty,” she finally blurted, “I must tell you this bad news at once. My lord and master, the Baron my husband, knows that fast riders have been sent to Chambéry. When the Savoyard nobles, your cousins, learn that you are here in Turin, they will march to Turin with an army.”
Shooed away by Agnes’s bed-making, the Queen of Jerusalem stood in a wobbly, barefooted fashion. “Well, We knew that the Savoyards would greet Us here with an army.”
“We did? I mean, you did?”
“The army of Savoy is Our only hope! We know they will try to arrest Us—or even reunite Us, against Our will, with my worthless husband, Louis of Geneva. But—We are still the Queen of Jerusalem. So if they are true Knights of Christendom, they must help Us on Crusade! We will swear the Savoyards into Our retinue. We will sail to Cyprus for a massive counter-attack.”
Agnes and Ugolina exchanged unhappy glances.
“Don’t you two people look that way at each other,” the Queen of Jerusalem commanded. “When Savoy gives Us every feudal man-at-arms, and also some money for warships, We can conquer Cyprus. These doughty Italian fighters are excellent soldiers. They will scatter James’ rabble of peasants and freelancers. We will hang all of them from our battlements. Except Our royal brother James, who must die beheaded, as is proper.”
Agnes and Ugolina were silent.
“As yet, you women do not know the whole of Our royal strategy,” said the Queen, weaving a bit on her one laced shoe and her bare foot. “When the Savoy soldiers come here to greet Us, We will confront the army with great, sacred relics! We will rally those men with the Holy Shroud, which is the burial cloth of our Lord—and also, We will use the True Cross! The True Cross, discovered by Helena, the Byzantine Saint and Empress, and the namesake of my own queenly mother, Helena Paleologos. The True Cross is hidden here in this city of Turin. All I have to do is find it.”
Agnes absently plumped up the bed’s new bolster pillow. “Your Majesty must be hungry now.”
“Let’s all eat something tasty,” Ugolina suggested. “The food-stand in the Piazza Castello has the best squabs in town.”
“Agnes of Chambéry,” declared the Queen, “as the woman who sold the Holy Shroud, you must know where the True Cross is hidden in Turin.”
“Well, yes,” Agnes said reluctantly, “of course I know where the True Cross is hidden.”
“Once We bear the Shroud and the True Cross—two ancient relics of tremendous virtue, both baptized in the shed blood of Our Lord—what knight of Savoy will dare refuse Us aid?”
“Your majesty,” said Agnes, “the knights of Savoy have always strongly desired to conquer Jerusalem.”
“That’s very true,” said Ugolina at once, “they sing about that every Sunday, without fail.”
“The knights of Savoy have heard Crusader songs and sermons for three hundred years,” said Agnes. “They have given much to the Great Cause of Christendom, but…Well, your aunt Anna ran up some big debts here in Savoy.”
“We Royalty are allowed our debts!”
“My Anna wasn’t a queen like you, she was just a duchess.”
“The knights of Savoy drowned Anna’s favorite banker in a lake,” Ugolina said. “A Swiss lake, because he was a Swiss banker.”
“How did the Duchess ever disburse so many funds?” said the Queen.
“Oh, my husband Ugo knows all about that,” said Agnes. “Universities, libraries, art and music, and my Anna had eighteen children to raise…It all adds up.”
“I’m just an Italian baroness, myself,” said Ugolina, “but believe me, I can understand debts. You should see what happened to my marriage dowry.” Ugolina snapped her fingers.
“Is it all gone already?” said Agnes, her face wrinkling in pain.
“He spent my dowry on horses, mama. He bought very good horses, though. Those colts bring us a nice market price.”
“Our Holy Cause does not need mere coins of gold,” said the Queen. “Sir Amedeo said the hills of Savoy swarm with angry men who are half mountain-bandit. Hard men spoiling for a good fight!”
“Well, yes,” said Agnes. “That was certainly true when my son left us—but he was only sixteen then. My dear Anna so loved her husband, and he was so kind and loving to her in return, that the people named him ‘Ludovico the Peaceful.’”
“Ludovico was kind to his peasants,” said Ugolina. “He lowered their rents and taxes until his own court went broke. There are so few bandits left in Savoy that my husband hasn’t hanged a robber in years.”
“No wonder my Swiss husband was so useless to me,” said the Queen.
“Your majesty, it pains my heart to tell you this, but I must tell you your royal duty,” said Agnes. “You must reconcile to your cousin, the Savoy lord, Louis of Geneva. Louis is the son of my Anna. Bear the heir of his body, and you may yet regain your throne. Do not despair over your barrenness. Any witchy midwife can find some way to fix that.”
“Oh mother, please don’t say such dreadful things to her!” Ugolina cried.
“I will drink poison first,” said the Queen of Jerusalem.
“Your majesty, I married a Cypriot, so I know you are a stubborn people,” said Agnes. “But the Savoyards are Italians! To abandon your marriage allegiance to the Court of Savoy is an insult to their honor! How can they aid you in your battles when you spurn a blood relation with them? Every queen owes her fealty to her consort and her lineage.”
“Oh mother! Don’t say that! Don’t do to the Queen of Cyprus what you have already done to me! Carlotta is a Queen, Carlotta is royalty! Is no woman ever to be happy in this world?”
Agnes blinked. “Well, I am happy in my world. I’m your mother, and my parents married me off to your father, and they did their duty just as I did for you! I scarcely even look at other men. What is wrong with you girls these days?”
“Mother, how can you talk in that cold way about my many miseries? I can only thank the Virgin Mother that I bore the Baron’s heir. At least, Camillo is respectful to me nowadays…No, it’s worse than that. Camillo treats me like his mother now. Some day I’ll be just like his mother.”
“Is his mother cruel to you, my darling?” said Agnes, stricken. “I wish I were allowed to speak to her.”
“Well,” said Ugolina, “sometimes Madame was somewhat cruel to me, until I learned court speech and better table manners…But now that I understand how hard it is not to be all low, vulgar, and disgusting, I truly respect Madame Mother. She knows how to enforce high standards.”
“We are doomed,” decided the Queen of Jerusalem. “We are going to poison Ourself.”
Ugolina was scandalized. “A self-murderer will fly straight to Hell! What would Dante say?”
“What are we saying here, ourselves?” mourned Agnes. “All this dreadful talk about poisoning and betraying our husbands! Just this morning I was shrived and ready to fly to heaven, and now my salvation is at risk.”
“I would love to confess myself to a priest,” Ugolina agreed. “But never to my priest, though. He’s my husband’s little brother. He’s useless.”
“The Queen of Jerusalem should confess herself to a great Lord of the Church,” said Agnes. “Pope Pius would receive the Queen of Jerusalem with kindness. The Pope would take heed of the woes of all of us women. Pope Pius understands our weaknesses. He has three natural children.”
“That plan sounds good,” said the Queen of Jerusalem, brightening somewhat. “Does the Pope know that the world is round?”
“Well,” said Agnes, “I never heard that he decreed that it was flat.”
The family met for council within the narrow tower of the Inn of Saint Cleopha. The square brick turret, with its archer slits and its slots for dropping boiling oil, was not much wider than a closet. However, inside this very small tower of Turin, in the darkness, at midnight, no stranger would hear them confiding their most precious secrets to one another.
“So, then,” said Amedeo, “before dawn, we break out of Turin. We gallop through the gates in a body, and we slash down any fool who bars the way.”
“Make haste slowly, my son,” Ugo counselled. “One last bribe to good Constable Egenz, to hold his gate open for us. Then, an escort across country from the Baron of Casselle, who is keen to trade his horses for ours. Once we cross the Savoy border, then you take command. Then we burst off at the gallop with swords drawn, and we don’t draw rein until the Queen of Jerusalem is safe in exile at the Court of the Pope.”
Amedeo whacked the brick wall with his mailed fist. “Any plan that is bold and forceful is always better than a coward’s plan.”
“My dear ones,” said Ugo, “we possess the Queen of Jerusalem. We may have lost, or sold, or traded everything else we once owned. The Queen of Jerusalem may be all we have now—but what a prize!”
Ugolina gazed from her brother to her father. “I never thought you’d say that Amedeo made a sensible plan, dad.”
“My daughter, I am no brave knight. I am a bourgeois. I have sold many things, and maybe I sold too many things that I loved. But now that I have sold everything that I ever possessed, I am free! I live as a sacred pilgrim, with an oath to take to the road! If I’m denied my Jerusalem in Cyprus, then I will take my Jerusalem to Rome.” Ugo patted the medallion beneath his pilgrim’s cloak. “My own dear father would have done just as I do.”
“Once in Rome, we must loyally serve our dear Carlotta,” said Agnes, “for a Queen in Rome requires so much! She needs her regalia, her robes, her many shoes…”
“And a palace to keep them in,” said Ugo.
“A Roman palace fit for a Queen of course, with a royal kitchen, with a cellar, a salt-store, a smoke-house, a bake-house, and a fruitery…”
“Mother, please don’t be vulgar. She needs a royal library and a royal art gallery.”
“I smuggled Carlotta’s crown from Cyprus,” said Amedeo. “That little bauble’s worth a fortune. No one knows I took it.”
“You stole her crown? You seized the legendary crown of Jerusalem, the iron crown of Baldwin the Leper?”
“Dad, I’m your son. I’m not stupid.”
Ugo widened his eyes in the flickering candle-light. “We must create a fake crown for Carlotta’s everyday use.”
“Everyone who favors the Crusades will seek out Carlotta’s palace in Rome,” said Amedeo. “Even the pagans will seek to appease her with gifts.”
“Those people will make interesting house guests,” said Ugo. “They will have to be fed and sheltered, and treated with all due respect.”
“The Roman people love great feasts,” said Agnes. “They love parties, balls and masquerades. If you can frighten them and also entertain them, they will do anything that you say.”
“Now that,” said Ugo, “is the truth about any capital city. That is just as you say, my dear.”
“Then we have all agreed,” Agnes decided. “My family conveys the Queen of Jerusalem to the Eternal City of Rome. There, we will serve her to the end of her days. Or until Armageddon, the Last Day of this Round World. Whichever is first.”
Ugo and Amedeo gazed at one another in the candle-light. They opened their mouths, then they closed them silently and smiled at one another.
Ugolina wailed aloud. “Oh mother, you have uttered a prophesy! I know it is true, because, poor me, I have to live here in Savoy, and I will never get to see Rome, or Jerusalem, or Constantinople, or China, or any other place but my pokey old castle where I have to wear silks and bear children!” She wiped at her tears.
“Your younger sons will become princes of the Church in Rome,” said Agnes.
“Mamma, stop all that prophesying! You are the great witch of the Queen of Jerusalem now. You are scaring me.”
Ugo reached out in the flickering candle-light, he chucked his wife under her chin. “My children, look here: the wisdom of your mother is a wondrous thing. Every word she utters is freighted with destiny! If I owned ten Holy Shrouds, I would make them all into a pillow for her pretty head!”
They raised their wine cups in the flickering candlelight. “To you, mama.” “To your health, dear mama.” To you, my bride.” Then they all drank.