A screech owl sat on the highest branch of an ancient cedar tree and swiveled its head, scanning the twilight for its next kill. Inside the great room at Adler Kralle castle, the servants had lowered the chandeliers. A fair-haired girl of eight proudly took to her task of lighting the candles. Her two older brothers hoisted the chandeliers back on high and tied them off. Other servants readied the table for dinner setting out plates and glasses. A fire blazed in the fireplace and the soft light it gave off played on any reflective surface throughout the room. Cecilia played a beautiful rendition of “Amero non amero.” Her voice was crystal with a slight tremolo. As she played, Rosanera, Roland, and Catharina descended the stairs and took seats near the fire. Roland and Rosanera shared a settee and Catharina sat on a chaise.
Catharina made it a point not to join in with the others, and took out her rosary and started to mumble her prayers. Luis and Angelo were already sitting at the table. They turned their chairs around so they too could watch and hear Cecilia play. Even the servants took a few seconds to listen.
When she finished, everyone clapped, and Cecilia stood and smiled. “Bravo, bravo!” Angelo and Luis clapped. The two men engaged in conversation and Catharina kept to her sanctimonious praying.
“She plays very well,” said Roland.
“Yes.” Rosanera was proud of her friend’s abilities. Roland followed Rosanera to the table. Rosanera pointed that she wanted him to sit next to her. Cecilia and Catharina took their regular seats. Luis looked at Angelo and whispered, “Look, now he sits next to her. That is my place.”
Antonio shrugged and answered philosophically, “Not for long. All of us will have to leave. The duke can never win his war.”
Rosanera snapped her fingers at her two cousins. “Boys, please, be polite. Do not embarrass yourselves. Be kind to our guest. If it were not for him, we would all be locked up in our rooms.”
While the servants served the food, Rosanera gave everyone a stern look and put her index finger to her lips as a sign for everyone to be silent.
It was a simple dinner of venison and celery soup, bread, fruit compote, and one roast capon and wine. Rosanera took Roland’s and Cecilia’s hands, bowed her head, and said a short blessing.
Angelo looked at the fare on the table. “Only one capon for the six of us?” He gave Roland a dry look.
“Be truly thankful,” said Catharina.
“Yes, do be thankful,” agreed Rosanera. She bid them lean in close and spoke just barely above a whisper. “I spoke to the Exchequer; the coffers are almost empty. Our people are starving and sick. Gunter and his tax collector will never stop. This bounty before us is so much more than most people have in a week.”
Luis raised his hand and got Rosanera’s attention. “Dear sweet cousin, why do you refer to them as our people? They blame you for everything bad and do not give you credit for the good you do.”
“That may be true, but a hungry baby knows no politic. The people need hope, someone they know cares for them.”
Catharina kissed the silver crucifix on her rosary and put it in her pocket. “It is God’s will that our Lady Rosanera help them.”
Luis rolled his eyes. “Yes, God’s will. That is all well and good. How will you get this collection of bumpkins on your side?” Luis took his knife and cut the leg off the capon and put it on his plate.
“People will follow a leader who is just and kind,” answered Rosanera.
Angelo sighed at Luis’s lack of tack. He looked at Lady Rosanera. “Dear cousin, I am afraid to say that they follow a leader with gold in the coffers.”
“Which do you think is more important, Roland?” Cecilia wanted to enjoy the dinner and hoped a new voice might add novelty.
“Surely this is not his concern.” Angelo teased the bulbous tail off the capon and put his little prize on his plate.
“That is enough from you two,” Rosanera said impatiently. “Nor was it his concern to keep me safe or his concern to try and save the little orphan girl from that brute.”
Rosanera’s outburst brought everyone to their senses. Roland sat back in his chair hoping to remove himself from the fray.
Catharina put her spoon down and cleared her throat to get everyone’s attention. “Lady Rosanera, dear friends, bickering opens the door for the devil.”
Cecilia agreed and added something that was on everyone’s mind. “Catharina is right. We should not argue. Soon all of this will be gone. Gunter is at war with everyone. His mind is not his own; his soul is not his own.”
Luis added sardonically, “It seems the Il Papa bet on a sick horse to win.”
Catharina flinched at the remark and fired back. “The Pope does not bet on horse races.”
Luis softened his tone. “Sweet Catharina, we are one of the last dukedoms under the Papal flag. We are the doorway the Pope has into Germany. If the duke loses, the Pope loses.”
Catharina felt mollified and nodded her forgiveness.
Rosanera spoke, “I for one do not want to lose. Gunter has no heirs, no sons. By rights, I will be duchess at his death.”
“Duchess of what? A broken land full of starving people? You will not have the Pope to protect you. The Reformist have all but won.” Angelo was pessimistic.
“What do you suggest I do?”
Luis looked at the others before he spoke, “Sweet cousin, it is gold that you need. With gold, you can feed those… your people. They will follow you then. You could even wage war against the duke if you wished.”
“You are correct, as usual. We definitely need gold. As for a war against the duke, I have no appetite for that.”
Roland listened and ventured into the conversation. “Please, is there anything I can do?”
All at the table gave a surprised glance at Roland. Even though he was scolded earlier by his cousin, Luis still spoke to Roland in a condescending manner. “Please dear guest, this is clearly not your concern.”
Rosanera championed Roland. “Well dear friend, I…we…all appreciate your concern. But there is only so much anyone can do.”
“It is said that one person can change the world if the world is not too big.” He thought of Sofia and smiled.
Clotilda stood in the doorway with a silver tray of fritters and spiced fruit and nuts, not wanting to move. She reluctantly entered and approached her mistress with downcast eyes.
“Speak,” Rosanera said in a flat tone.
“Does your Ladyship wish to have dainties?”
“Set it on the table.”
Clotilda set the tray down, bowed several times. Each one took what they liked best. There was a friendly tussle between Angelo and Cecilia over the hazelnuts that were sautéed in butter and drenched in honey and sesame seeds. Rosanera wanted to speak to Roland alone, and she was getting impatient with the others for being so persnickety. Finally, she clapped her hands. “Clotilda, take the tray and go,” she said. The little servant picked up the tray, and scurried away like a frightened mouse.
“Ah my pets, to your beds or other distraction; I will take the air with Roland.”
They said their goodnights. Angelo stayed at the table and called for a chess game with Luis. Cecilia returned to the harpsichord and Catharina to her missal.
Outside, the night was moonless and dark. The air was cool but pleasant. Rosanera and Roland walked the perimeter of the courtyard. The exercise did Roland good. He was overly pampered by Catharina and Rosanera and other than standing out on the balcony and a walk to the stables with Rosanera this was the first time in over a week he was outside.
Roland looked at this beautiful woman next to him and wondered what kind of privileged life she must live. “If I may ask, what is going to happen? What is this war?”
“The poor state of the people will lead to, I know not what. This endless war has reduced us to no more substance or future than a shadow.”
Roland nodded. “I have seen how badly off the people are--hungry, destitute and sick. Sofia and I stopped to help a poor soul who was too weak to stand. We gave him our food and water. But that only could help him for a day, maybe two.”
Rosanera slowed her pace. “Who is Sofia, and what is she to you? Friend? Lover?” Although her tone was benign, she felt a surge of jealousy at the mention of another woman.
“She is the daughter of Rene Hermes. I do not know yet what she is to me.”
“Oh yes, that Sofia, Rene’s daughter… may he rest in peace. I so enjoyed his company.”
“He is a very interesting and wise man.” Roland did not think before he spoke.
A quizzical look crossed Rosanera’s face at Roland’s use of the present tense regarding Rene. They came to a bench, and she took Roland’s hand, and they sat. “And how did you come to know him?”
Roland stretched and yawned to gain a few seconds to think. “Well, we exchanged books and letters.”
Rosanera moved a little closer to Roland. “And how did you come to know Sofia?”
“He mentioned her in his letters.”
Rosanera crossed her arms and spoke in a dismissive tone. “I believe I met her once or twice, years ago. I saw her at her father’s funeral. She was skinny as a rake, ill-dressed and ill-mannered.”
“She is all grown up. She is thoughtful and no longer skinny.”
Rosanera clenched her jaw. She guided the conversation to something more important. “Tell me, how can you change my world?”
“You mean…what can I do to help you?”
“It is my duty to help the people. We have no coin for foodstuffs, or I would send out the Jew to broker a deal and buy what we need.”
Roland thought what both Sofia and Rene told him about the possibility of changing base metals into gold. He was a bit hesitant and, with some reservations, spoke. “I did not want to say this in front of the others, but I may be able to help you with gold. I may have a way to get a fair amount of it. You could use it to buy the things you need for the people.”
Rosanera’s immediate skepticism was tempered with hope. Could this guileless man really deliver her from the darkness she had lived under for almost half of her life? She could not keep up with the ideas and visions of the future that flashed through her mind in quick and dizzying succession. She imagined herself as duchess. She would bring Gunter down along with his toadies and henchmen. She would be free to do whatever she wanted. Who knew? She might even gain the loyalty of the peasants. “Yes, I could use gold to help the people.”
Roland remembered Sofia’s words about his purpose and both Rene’s and Sofia’s mention of connecting with the divine self. It prompted him to say, “I think that may be why I am here. Perhaps this is my purpose, to help you.”
His sincere words brought tears to Rosanera’s eyes. She was glad they were in the dark so he could not see her face. “You would do that? You would truly help me?” she said breathlessly.
“Yes, I will help you.” Something swelled in Roland. He felt confident and strong, and now that he believed he had found his purpose, he was able to lessen the doubt that came from his lack of a past.
Rosanera took his hand. She spoke softly. “You saved me. You tried to save the little girl at the orphanage. You want to help me and give me gold. Thank you, thank you, Roland!” She pressed his hand against her cheek. “And what might your reward be?” She turned his face toward hers and kissed his lips.
Roland was surprised, but welcomed her ardent kiss. “I was not even thinking of a reward.” The two sat on the stone bench in an awkward embrace. He felt her warm breath on his cheek and an almost imperceptible sighing moan each time she exhaled. “Come to my bed,” she whispered. Before he could answer she kissed him, and he felt the tip of her tongue pass over his slightly parted lips. They kissed several more times. Each kiss was longer and deeper than the one before until she gently pushed him away and stood. She took Roland’s hand, and they returned to the great room.
Angelo and Luis were in deep concentration over their chess game and gave a quick nod to Rosanera. Cecilia sat under the chandelier and read from the Decameron. She glanced Rosanera and Roland. Her eyes opened wide as she correctly surmised what the two were up to, and she gave Rosanera a knowing smile and a wink. Apparently Catharina had gone to bed.
Rosanera and Roland quietly ascended the stairs. After they had entered her chambers, she locked the door. The fire gave off a faint golden glow that left the room more in darkness and shadows than light. Rosanera led him to the bed. Roland studied her serene and mysterious smile as she unlaced his shirt, pulled it over his head and let it fall to the floor. She guided his fingers to the tail of a ribbon that secured her over bodice. She smiled as she helped him discover the hooks and eyes, laces and ribbons that needed to be unhooked, untied, and loosened to free her from her clothing.
And though the thought of making love to this purposeful and attractive woman was unexpected and exciting, Roland could not keep Sofia out of his thoughts. He found it confusing. After all, he had only known Sofia for a little more than the two days he had spent at the farmhouse. Here at Adler Kralle Castle he had been under the diligent care and gentle hand of Rosanera for almost two weeks. Lady Rosanera may well have saved his life. He recognized and respected Sofia’s depth of character and soul, and the effect her papa’s wisdom and perception had on her. With Rosanera, he saw her maturity and confidence, and her position. He could not deny he was attracted to the beautiful woman and sumptuous surroundings. It would be hard to refuse her.
Roland felt a slight twinge that he took as guilt when he looked into Rosanera’s alluring and playful eyes. He reminded himself that Sofia told him to think of her as his sister. He thought how convenient it would be to do just that, to think of Sofia as his sister and thus end his inner conflict. For an instant, he felt he was watching this undressing ritual from afar and the players, he and Rosanera were little more than actors performing an imitation of life.
He could not speak for all men, or for that matter anyone but himself, but he knew that this intimacy would make him somehow obligated to Rosanera and cost him something.
Rosanera wore only her inner skirt and her lacy, sheer chemise. She leaned close to Roland’s face. He took that as an invitation and leaned in to kiss her. Rosanera moved her head back in an unexpected tease. They stood by the bed. She pulled back the covers, turned back to Roland, and began to unlace his britches. When he tried to help, she pushed his hand away.
“No, you must not. I will do Cupid’s labors for both of us.” Roland was bewitched by the confident and self-satisfied way she spoke. She knelt and pulled his britches down to his ankles and then, ever so softly and slowly, ran her hands up the backs of his legs and caressed his buttocks. Rosanera found the string to his small clothes and pulled it. The last of his garments fell away to the floor. He stood there naked. She pressed her open palm against his rising manhood. Her eyes narrowed, and she sprung up, roughly grabbed Roland’s arm, turned him, and pushed him down into the cool silk sheets. He laid on his back with his legs hanging over the edge of the bed. She nudged his feet with her foot until his legs were apart, and she stood between them. Rosanera fell on top of him and attacked the left side of his neck with a quick succession of little wet kisses and love nips that bordered on being painful. Roland tried to slip his hand under her chemise. She turned her love bite against him.
“Ow!” Roland stopped his efforts and rubbed his earlobe between his thumb and forefinger.
“Now, now, you must obey your Lady Rosanera,” she said playfully. She pushed herself up and slipped the chemise over her head and tossed it away. She straddled Roland and impatiently pulled her skirt out of the way and rocked back and forth until Roland was deep inside her. She leaned forward and pinned Roland’s shoulders down on the bed, closed her eyes, and began her slow, rhythmic, rocking dance.
Roland looked up at this willful woman. Rosanera threw her head back with each rise and fall of her body against his. When she threw her head back, the dim light released her face from the shadows, and he saw a small strawberry birthmark on her neck just below her ear. Something shuddered in Roland. He was awash with the primal heat of their bodies, in the electricity of their touch, in the taste of her flesh and the smell of her sex. There was nothing but the moment, and the driving need to satisfy the senses. In that abandoned state both of them, in that last sweet, aching instance of the act, transcended their carnality and for a fleeting instant almost, almost connected spiritually.
Spent, satisfied, and breathless, she dismounted and fell back on the bed next to him. He put his arm around her shoulder. She rolled toward him, put her arm across his chest and crooked her leg over his thigh. Roland pulled the silk sheet and blanket over them. She cuddled closer. “Goodnight, my love.” Rosanera pulled his face to hers and kissed him.
“Sleep well.” Roland closed his eyes.
“Am I not your love?” she whispered, nuzzling her cheek against his chest.
“Yes, yes, of course. Sleep well… my love.” Roland was physically spent but not at ease. He lay there for a while and listened to her breathe until he, too, surrendered to sleep.