“Isabella wants to come home,” my mother says cheerily as she crosses the room to join Gwen, Rupert, and Catherine, who are waiting for me to finish the day’s business before we join the court for the evening meal.
“Why not?” I remark offhandedly, continuing to sign the documents my secretary has left on my writing table.
“Why?” The immediacy and vehemence of Rupert’s response draws everyone’s attention and causes me to drop a large blob of ink on the pristine document in front of me. This will cause my secretary no end of grief, for the poor man fervently believes that history will judge our reign on the quality of our records. Personally, I hope we will be judged on the quality of our achievements, though I have no doubt that future historians will relish as much as I do the ease of reading his immaculately prepared documents. No doubt, there will be a clean version of this one awaiting my signature tomorrow; and, though he will say nothing to criticize his king, his dismay at my carelessness will be palpable. I like him enormously and am grateful for his diligence so I shall offer him some words of consolation, even if a full royal apology would be something of a breach of court etiquette.
Looking up, I notice that Rupert’s expression is one of serious concern, his brow furrowed. “Why shouldn’t she come home, Uncle? After all, she’s a member of this family. How could I object?”
“It isn’t a good idea, Alfred.”
“I’m going to need more than that, Uncle. Would you feel the same way if it were Beatrix?”
“Would that it were Beatrix.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“Alfred, just leave well enough alone. Father sent her away with good reason. Let’s not resurrect the ghosts of the past.”
“Sent her away?” I ask. “I thought he arranged a good marriage for her into the nobility of the Kingdom East of Rome.”
“One and the same thing.” Rupert is uncharacteristically taciturn. Catherine has said nothing, but now reaches for her husband’s hand in what appears to be an attempt to soothe him.
“As I told Alice in my letter, my Lucia is recently widowed. I had been living with her and her husband since I lost my own dear Pietro. Lucia was not blessed with children, I’m sad to say; so when her husband died, we had nowhere to go. I appealed to Pietro’s family, but they had no place for us and suggested we go to a convent.
“Why should we go to a convent, I ask you?” her tone thoroughly indignant. “Lucia is yet young enough to marry again. Even I, if I were to find a man of my age and station who had lost his wife.”
“I’m told by Sister Constancia,” I say, “that it is quite customary for women of your rank to retreat to a convent for a time of contemplation . . . or to determine how to approach a new phase of their lives.”
Isabella looks puzzled. “Sister Constancia?” Her question sounds almost plaintive.
“God’s teeth, Isabella!” Rupert fairly spits the words. “You know as well as I do that he’s talking about Roesia. And you know equally well that she’s asked us to refer to her by the name she chose when she took the veil.”
Isabella manages to look chastened and tries to sound apologetic. “Oh, yes, of course. How silly of me to forget,” she says with an attempt at an embarrassed laugh. Then she rounds on Rupert. “But you shouldn’t swear like that, Rupert. It’s unbecoming in the son of a king.”
“Not nearly so unbecoming as your feigned naïveté,” Rupert retorts. There is clearly no love lost between these two—something I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of. But now is not the time.
“So if what Sister Constancia says is true,” I address Isabella, “I fail to see why you consider the suggestion of your husband’s family so abhorrent.”
“How is Lucia to find a husband if she is not out in the world? Are we to live the rest of our lives dependent on the charity of nuns? I, the daughter of a king?”
“Surely your husband made provisions for you.”
“Ah, my dear Pietro.” She shakes her head sadly and looks down at the hands that she’s wringing in her lap. “He was a kind man,” and then, looking up, “but he was hopeless with money. Why else would I have been living with my Lucia?”
“Perhaps you enjoyed her company or the society in which she moved.”
“I was not unhappy, but it was not the same.”
This is going nowhere, so I change tactics. “Tell me how you came here. It must have been difficult if you have so little means as you would have me believe.”