The decision to wear a somewhat restricting dark blue outfit was one I simultaneously regretted and knew I had to make. It compromised my reach somewhat, assuming I didn’t want to tear the stitches, but I was still attempting to meet with the Viscontessa, and for that I had to be appropriately dressed. The night was pleasantly cool, but I was still boiling with exertion and hoped the dark color would hide my sweat.
Captain Dumas had assigned another guard to perform the distraction below and Tiago had claimed a fever starting a few hours ago. He was a natural, I had to admit. Toward the end of our ride, he had begun to complain of nausea and headache and I saw him constantly adjusting his shirt to allow fresher air. He barely touched his dinner and looked truly miserable the entire time, excusing himself early. I explained to the Viscontessa that he had been feeling poorly and she had, as expected, offered her personal maid to assist in his recovery. I hoped he was being spoiled in some way for his efforts.
I reached the top of the wall and found the shutters latched. Of course. Easy enough to remedy – I drew a short dagger and wiggled it through the slim opening to snag the catch and lever it open. My other hand and arm were screaming with the additional weight and my sweaty palm brilliantly performed the accidental drop that sent my dagger soaring downward to land, impressively, blade-first in the grass. I stared after it for a moment as irritation bloomed.
Over the sill and into the maid’s chambers, I latched the shutters anew and took a few moments to settle. My arms were shaking; it had been some time since I’d exerted myself in that way. I wondered if I should do something to maintain the strength that netting the canal had built in me, but put those thoughts aside. There was a basin of water and I availed myself of its use, cleaning my hands and face and neck with relief. The stone had shredded the top layers of my hands, but I wasn’t bleeding anywhere and I had, miraculously, managed to keep my clothing in one piece except for a scuff here and there.
Ready, I knocked on the maid’s chamber door and heard the not-sound of someone pausing in a quiet task. After a short pause, I let myself into the Viscontessa’s chambers, which were fashioned similarly to mine on a grander scale.
“Good evening, Pietro.”
I made a shallow bow. “Good evening, Viscontessa. I hope I have not caught you at an unfortunate time.”
She held up the needlework in her lap. “Only a quiet entertainment to soothe me.” She glanced into the room I stood before. “I expect Tiago’s illness will soon fade?”
“It is my sincerest hope; I have little doubt that he will be feeling perfectly well by morning.”
“You’ll forgive me, I’m sure. I had not intended to take guests this evening and so the tea service is quite minimal. I expect you’re parched. From your journey. Do sit.”
I served myself a short glass of tea and sweetened it with the available honey, then took the seat to her left. “I have always been fascinated by the intricate designs in the handcrafting I see. It is such a time-consuming endeavor, and precise; it must take quite a lot of patience.”
“No more than any other. I see it come together under my hands, and that serves as its own reward. Besides, the precision is easily corrected if no one knows to look for the mistakes. You said you never learned an instrument; what kind of art do you create?”
The question made me pause. “I can harmonize and I do know how to craft a fine letter.”
She was clearly dissatisfied with my answer. “Pietro, anyone who wants to lead humanity must understand humanity. You cannot do that if you do not understand its art.” She again held up her unfinished piece. “The desire to create is in all things be it children or governance or superstition. We wish to fill ourselves with the unknown.
“The cobbler uses techniques passed down from the original shoe-maker who was unsatisfied with their nakedness and today’s cobbler will alter the form until a thousand years from now we see boots of such quality and comfort it is so far unimaginable. But the lineage of those shoes can be traced directly to the first unsatisfied shoe-maker.
“I make beautiful pieces such as this with the techniques my aunt taught me, as her mother taught her. The subjects change, however, to whatever beautiful or ugly or sweet thing is in my mind. Those who do not create will find themselves drawn to destroy because they have no understanding and appreciation for the art they encounter.”
“You worry I’m going to be a bad king,” I said softly.
She waved a hand dismissively. “Everyone worries that; you worry it, Tiziano worried it. The mere fact that it worries you will help keep you on the path of mediocrity. Our laws and requirements have not changed in hundreds of years. Are you proud of the country you see?”
I felt frozen in my seat. I hadn’t even considered it. Though we’d passed near the occasional town and encountered bandits I took it all in stride. I was awed and disgusted with the city I’d entered from my boat, but I hadn’t given it a second thought since leaving, and only to recount my short experiences there.
“People fear change,” I said to myself. Tiziano had said it often enough.
“Change is inevitable. People fear what they do not understand, and what risks their lives and that of their families.”
“If a man is starving, shouldn’t the law be altered so that he can always eat?” I argued. “Why would anyone fear that?”
She laughed. “Because he knows that tomorrow will guarantee starvation. He has lived his life with this knowledge and has methods of fighting it. Alter the law so that he somehow has food on his table and you’ll find him living in fear of that law changing again. What if he grows complacent? What if his children never learn his methods and when he is too old to train them, the food again disappears, but now his children will starve.”
I twisted the glass in my hands. “I want to make a better world,” I told her.
“I applaud you. We all wish for a better world. Give me an example.”
“I would lower taxes for the peasantry.”
“Your nobles will be furious at the loss of income.”
“I will improve the roads and bridges.”
“With what money? You’ve lowered the taxes.”
I grit my teeth. “A tier, then. Those lowest will pay nothing, those above will pay more. The relief will allow those below to improve themselves until they reach a tier to pay.”
“Why would I better myself if it only guarantees that I will risk returning to where I once was?”
I released my furious grip on my glass and set it beside me. “Viscontessa, what do you suggest?”
She smiled. “You must change the culture, Pietro. Change the beliefs. Change what brings pride. Who is proud to support their neighbor when it is easier to judge their lower status? You were raised with the peasantry and so you belong neither to the nobility nor to the lower classes, but what you have, or will gain, is an understanding of the desires and needs in both. And you know what brings them pride.”
I drummed my fingers on the arm of my chair and the Viscontessa continued her needlework. We sat in silence as the fire burned lower. A heavy knock sounded and a house guard entered. He spotted me and said, “Viscontessa, are you well?”
She didn’t look up from her stitching. “Quite well, Julien. Please fetch Lucile from our guest’s rooms and tell her she is welcome to end her day.”
He hesitated, eyeing me again, and then bowed and left. “Your people are very loyal,” I said.
“Thank you. I do my best to provide for them, and respect the effort that they expend to keep me in comfort. There would be no noble class if the commons did not allow it.”
I nodded. “Thank you for your guidance, Viscontessa.”
She acknowledged me with a hand gesture. When I did not rise to leave, she smiled thinly. “No, Pietro.”
“May I ask why?”
“I do not yet see in you the kind of man whose changes will bring prosperity. I see that you will implement many, all with good intentions, and when they are too much to bear and you are assassinated without an heir, nothing will change except the doubt on my House. I will not risk my people for your untethered dreams.”
“It is my right of birth to sit on the throne,” I said.
“It is. But only by the will of those you rule.”
I stood and went to the hearth. A stack of logs and kindling sat ready and I stirred the flames to life and fed them.
“I am unable to hide my disappointment, Viscontessa. My time with you has been illuminating, however short. I hope you will accept my letters so that we can continue our discourse.”
“It will be my pleasure, Principe.”
Tiago was full of questions when I returned to our room, and I explained that the Viscontessa was not offering fealty and why, as best as I could. I slept soundly and we spent the day preparing to leave. When the next dawn saw me shivering against the cool morning on our way to the next destination, Captain Dumas handed me a gift. It wasn’t claimed by any note, but I smiled to see the Viscontessa’s offering.
“What is it?” Tiago asked, leaning in his saddle to see.
“Needles, threads, canvas,” I showed him.
“For handwork?” he looked confused.
“For art.” His skeptical look had me continue, “Fighters who dance are more effective killers. Governors who create and more effective leaders.”
“Do I have to learn?” he asked.
“It’s this or the harp.”
He grimaced. “I bow to your wisdom, Don.”
“However slowly it grows…”
May 06, 2021