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Fortune's Fool

Fortune's Fool

Book excerpt


Lyons, France

1 October 1316  

So red they might have been made of actual flame, the banners snaked out, unfurling with hearty cracks before whipping back under the fury of the mighty wind called the Mistral. Oarsmen swept and heaved in rhythm with the choir that sang holy songs in both Latin and French – but not Italian. The gentlest hint of things to come.

The banks of the Rhône were teeming with onlookers. It was almost a holiday, an impromptu festival along the river’s edge. Some hapless souls plunged in, pushed by those eagerly seeking a better view. When again in their lifetimes could they lay eyes upon Saint Piere’s heir? Especially as there was so much pressure to return the papacy to Rome, making Clement’s transplanting of the Holy See a temporary aberration, a Gallic hiccough in the history of the Church. So French citizens between Lyon and Avignon now flocked to the riverbank to watch the new pope pass, that when they prayed they could attach a face to their pleas.

Not that anyone could see his face. Aboard ship, the throned figure was practically swallowed by his hat and gown, despite their being tailored to him. A gnome of a man, delicate and diminutive. Even the throne itself, high on its pedestal, was cleverly designed to hide the fact that his feet couldn’t reach the deck. A step pretended to be a footrest for the most mighty man in all of Christendom.

His might was more frightening because as yet no one knew how he planned to wield it. Pope for less than two months, as yet there was no sign of his nature. Would he be benevolent or tyrannical? Waiting for some sign, his fellow cardinals were growing uneasy. In the absence of a pope these last two long years, they’d grown used to life without an overlord. Added to that was the unimpressive stature of the new Holy Father, more suited to a foole than a prince.

Disappointed by the dwarf on the papal throne, several young ladies on the shore cast their eyes about the massive barge for a sight more pleasing to their eyes. Almost at once they found a most deserving figure tucked away on the lower level, far from His Holiness. The young man’s naturally fair complexion was tanned but not burned, his fashionably long black hair whipping in the wind from beneath his square, feathered cap. Dressed to perfection in demi-cape, high boots, and hose cinched so tight it showed the muscles of his thigh, he was the very ideal of the modern knight. More, his slight air of suffering made him all the more attractive. And the cut of his doublet was so high as to be almost scandalous – just below the richly embroidered hem, girls could see the faintest curve of his firm buttock. How daring! How delightful! How French!

Had he known he passed for French, he would have been deeply gratified. Nineteen years old now, married for over a year and still yet a virgin (a status which many French maids had attempted to correct), Ser Mariotto Montecchio was the epitome of chivalry. And true chivalry, as everyone knew, began in France.

A youth stood near him, just twelve years old last July. He was rather plain, with drooping eyes and a face that was still sorting itself out. Dressed in a drab second-hand gonella and a floppy cap that was woefully out of style, the lad gazed at Mariotto as if he were a god.

Summoning his courage, the boy pointed to the girls on the shore. “They’re staring at you.”

Mari was pleasantly startled. The lad had an Italian accent! Was it Florentine? Too honest to pretend he had not noticed the girls, Mariotto chose to be generous. “Perhaps they’re staring at you.”

The boy looked ruefully at his poor clothes. “No. You’re like the sun. I’m just a cloud blocking their view.”

Mariotto felt a curious pity rising in him. “Very poetic. What’s your name?”

“Francesco. Though I suppose it should be François. We live here, now.”

“Me too,” said Mari, hiding his sadness behind a smile. He had no inkling how long this noble exile would last.

Young François surprised Mari by nodding. “I heard the story.” He pointed at the girls on the Rhône’s bank opposite them. “If they heard it, they’d drown themselves like the Donna di Scalotta did for Lancelot du Lac.”

Mariotto winced. The reference to Lancelot was apt. As Lancelot had betrayed Arthur with Guinevere, so Mariotto had betrayed his closest friend by stealing his betrothed.

Aloud he said, “That would be a shame, as I’m married.” Though not yet a husband, he reminded himself.

The boy continued to nod wisely. “Some men say you did wrong. I don’t think so.”


“No! If chivalry is all about the wishes of women, great deeds in their names, hardships for their sakes, you did the right thing. You made her happy by marrying her.”

To Mari that argument rang false. “Alas, François, chivalry is about pining from afar, the idea of an unattainable woman. Dante never wed his Beatrice.”

“Dante is an idiot.”

The youth pronounced the words with such certainty that Mariotto had to laugh. “Be careful! I’m a friend to his son.”

“And my father is friends with Dante himself.” The twelve-year-old shrugged. “I don’t mean to smear his poetry. Just his notion of love as an idea. Love is real, and real love makes you act. That’s why you married your friend’s betrothed.”

Mari didn’t want to answer that, so he argued for love. “It’s the relationship between Beatrice and Dante that’s legendary, a love that transcended the physical. Ideally, love and marriage are not meant to be joined. Marriage soils love’s perfection.”

“So why did you marry her then?” asked the young man with direct simplicity.

Gazing out at the cheering folk on the shore, Mari was silent. His unspoken answer was equally simple, and eternally shaming. I wanted her. I couldn’t bear to be a great lover, to love from afar. O, Gianozza...

Yet Fortune had conspired to make theirs a great tale of love after all. Fate, in the guise of the Lord of Verona, had separated them, sending Mari here to the papal court on the very day of his wedding. His exile from his bride made him pine, and long, and dream. From her letters, Gianozza felt the same. Theirs was indeed destined to be a great love, like Dante and Beatrice, Antony and Cleopatra, Odysseus and Penelope.

“My son isn’t troubling you, is he?” asked a grave man, dressed exactly as young François.

Mariotto recognized the exiled Florentine as a notary to one of the cardinals. “Not at all, Ser Petracco,” said Mari with a winning smile. “We were debating the nature of chivalry and the love of poets.”

The notary’s chin lifted as if to remove from his nose a foul smell. At the same moment his son shot a reproachful glance to Mari. With apologies for troubling the Veronese knight, Ser Petracco took his son off, a firm grip on his shoulder. Not an admirer of poetry, mused Mariotto.

A burly cardinal approached, a smile bursting through his beard. “I know that look. Has little Francesco been reciting verses again?”

Mari bowed. “Cardinal Orsini. My fault, I’m afraid. We were discussing courtly love.”

“Ah. l’amour.” With that polite acknowledgement, Cardinal Orsini took up station beside Mariotto to stare out over the water slipping by.

Mari knew that most men on this ship thought him a damned romantic fool. During the past year, as he grew more and more worldly at the leaderless papal court, he’d been forced to rebuff – sometimes physically – the attentions of dozens of girls. This drew laughter from many prelates, and earned him a few equally unwelcome advances from his own sex.

The only man who had never mocked him was Cardinal Napoleone Orsini. In spirit both the lion and the bear his name indicated, he was a generous, gregarious, and bluntly gracious man. Upon arriving in the summer of 1315, Mariotto had attached himself to Orsini’s party. Back then the cardinal had been rumoured as a favourite for the papacy, and as they spoke nearly the same language (Veronese Italian differed from Roman Italian, but only in dialect), it seemed a natural move. Mariotto had orders to lobby the new pope in Verona’s favour, and if he had a friendship with that new pope before the office was granted, so much the better.

The election of Jacques d’Euse had come as quite a shock, and not only to Mari. After two years without a Holy Father, the latest French king had bullied and bribed all the cardinals together and forced them into a castle to do their duty and choose a pontiff. It gave new meaning to the term conclave – con clave, literally, ‘with key’. While they held the key to God’s heir on Earth, Philip V held the key to their freedom.

Mariotto remembered waiting with so many others outside the castle, watching for the telltale smoke that would signify Orsini’s election. But when the white smoke had come and the doors had opened, it was instead a cordwainer’s son who had mounted Saint Peter’s throne. The little man had taken them all by surprise, doing the unthinkable and nominating himself. Trained in both law and medicine, his career in the clergy had been mostly spent presiding over the seaside See of Frejus, a pleasurable duty, and in Avignon, providing advice more legal than spiritual. How he had swung them around to vote for him, no one quite said. Certainly Orsini had been mute on the subject. But rather than look displeased, Orsini appeared quite content.

Now looking out over the water, Orsini softly murmured, “Illyria, I am coming.”

“Pardon?” said Mariotto.

Abashed, the cardinal rubbed his whiskered chin with the back of his hand. “I have a cousin, prince of a city on the coast of Anatolia. It’s called Dubrovnik, but he has renamed it Illyria.”

“Illyria? After—?”

“—Ilium, yes, the fabled city of Helen and Paris.” Orsini smiled smugly. “He’s a fanciful fellow, for all that he’s a good prince. In fact, he’s rather like you! He pines. O, how he pines! He writes of a young maiden for whom he would eat every apple in the world. Her father is a great man of the city and her brother is one of the handsomest men in the land – by report, he would even rival you,” added the cardinal with a cheerful wink. “Certain that with such men in her life already he would pale in comparison, my cousin has talked himself into loving the lady from afar.”

Mariotto pulled a face. “That’s falling off the horse before you get to the rail.”

“I told you, fanciful. Come to think of it, he’s not at all like you. You abandoned convention and seized your moment. That’s the difference between true love and this airy popular nonsense. True love demands action. Only in false love can a man wallow, peak, and pine.”

“You and young Petracco see eye to eye. But it’s contrary to what the poets—”

“Pfah! Poets love words, not women. It’s like the Church. There are men of the cloth who mouth the words of Christ, and those who live them. Love of Christ demands action. Misguided as many of the crusades have been, one cannot fault the passion with which the crusaders spurred off to fight. Christ himself was a man of action – his love of his Father made him perform miracles, and he beat the craven moneylenders. I tell you, if I have been tempted to any violence in my life, it has been to emulate him in that act. For I swear to you, Ser Montecchio, I detest even the smell of money!” The steel in Orsini’s voice underscored his vehemence.

Mariotto paused, then returned to his original query. “So why do you say you are coming to Illyria?”

Again the cardinal looked abashed. “Your fault! I was thinking about courtly love – desire as the be all and end all. To me, my cousin’s Illyria is all about desire. An ideal, a mythical state, a place where one pines for the thing one wants most in the world. And therefore that thing is most often denied.” Orsini chucked Mari on the shoulder. “We all know what your Illyria is – your Gianozza.”

Mariotto grinned. “And yours?”

“Rome,” said the cardinal simply. “As Rome has been denied us these many years, Rome is my Illyria.” Orsini released a huge, happy breath. “But at last we are returning.”

Mariotto perked up at once. This was news! “His Eminence is returning the Holy See to Rome?”

Orsini nodded. “There is no harm I think in speaking of it, now the election is past and he is enthroned. Our new Holy Father has sworn an oath to me, upon the consecrated Host and before all the entire conclave, that he will never again mount a horse or mule except in the direction of Rome.”

Mariotto lacked a lawyer’s mind, but this seemed a convoluted oath to take. “Is that why—?”

“—we float instead of ride? Yes,” answered the cardinal. “He is keeping his word. Rightly, he points out that Avignon is the current site of his authority, and he must attend to matters there before he makes such a drastic change.”

“No disrespect, but he is very old, and quite frail,” observed Mariotto. “What if, God forbid, he does not live to see his promise carried out?”

“Then we shall elect another who will. But that won’t be necessary. Jacques d’Euse is famous for being a man of his word, else he would not have been elected.”

They sailed on for hours, the cardinals and bishops and knights waving and smiling to the throngs along the Rhône. There was great cheer, particularly among the Italian clerics – they were at last to return to San Pietro’s true throne. They were going home.

The sun was low in the autumnal sky when Avignon came into view. With great decorum the little pope lifted himself from his throne and crossed to the rail where Orsini and Montecchio, along with many others of their nation, had congregated.

“Mon frère!” cried the wizened pope to Orsini. “See how vibrant the heavens are above my beloved France.”

“Indeed!” agreed the cardinal warmly. “I am certain it seems all the more lovely, as you contemplate leaving it behind. If death is indeed the mother of beauty, then exile is the father of patriotism.”

“What you say is both profound and true,” said the pontiff in his curious style of speech, both headlong and monotonous. “I find in me no inch that is not filled with love for France. And it is for that reason I have decided that I must delay preparations for a return to Rome.”

Orsini’s generous spirit was devoid of the suspicion that Mariotto, listening intently, felt all too keenly. “For how long?”

“Indefinitely,” said the little pope, his sorrowful expression not reaching his eyes.

For a suspended moment Cardinal Orsini wrestled with the meaning of this word. Then like a thunderclap the pontiff’s purpose was made clear. Orsini looked as though his ribs had been levered open and his heart removed before the gaze of all the world. “You do not intend to return the Holy See to Rome?”

The little man in the grand hat and gown blinked several times. “You wish me to leave my own country for all eternity, to lock myself away in that ruined country you call Love? No. I fear Roma is not Amor for me.”

“But – it has been the home of the papacy since the first pope, the blessed Peter himself. He chose Rome as the finest and grandest city in all the world!”

“But is that true today? The world has shifted away from Rome, mon frère, and we must follow the world’s lead.”

“Holy Father, you are charged to lead, not to follow.”

“And so I am, by leading us away from blind adherence to tradition. But in one way you are mistaken. I must lead my flock, but I must follow God. God has led the papacy to Avignon. Where He leads, I must follow.”

Orsini kept his voice level by sheer force of will. “My Lord, one of your titles is Bishop of Rome.”

“I have so many titles, I can do without that one. My dear Orsini, the same Lord that gave the blessed apostle Peter the power to bind and loose – he is everywhere, is he not? Certainly he is as present in this lush and vibrant land as he is in the decayed maw of the seven hills. I am afraid this journey has quite determined me to stay in Avignon. No, I pray you, do not protest! Your Italy smiles to you, but for me it would only be a land of exile and despair.”

Struggling, Orsini’s obedience lost to his need to protest. “Your Grace, Rome is the capital of the Christian world.”

“The Christian world needs no capital, mon frère. The Lord our God is everywhere, ever present. He will forgive the whims of an old man too tired to travel so very far.”

“But your Holiness, your promise – you vowed upon the sacred Host—”

Jacques d’Euse held up a hand. “My dear friend, I promise you I will not be forsworn.”

Mariotto spied a litter awaiting the pontiff on the quay. A litter that had already been arranged, did not have to be sent for. He had sworn never to ride again, unless it was towards Rome. And as Cardinal Orsini had said, Jacques D’Euse was a man of his word.

Jacques d’Euse, now Pope John XXII, possessor of immense – and irrevocable – power.

As Mariotto Montecchio joined the procession that followed the dwarfish Pontiff back onto French soil, the bear-like cardinal lingered behind, as bereft of words as of recourse. Like his cousin and namesake in distant Illyria, all that remained in Orsini was his longing.

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