Authors: Tom Toner
Night Shade Books
an imprint of Start Publishing LLC
Jersey City, New Jersey
Copyright Â© 2015 by Tom Toner.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Â Â The promise of the child / Thomas Toner.
pages cm â (Amaranthine spectrum; volume 1)
ISBN 978-1-59780-845-3 (hardback)
Illustrations by Patrick Knowles
Cover design by Claudia Noble
Printed in the United States of America
“Smiles form the channels of a future tear.”
“It was true that as one watched life in its curious crucible of pain and pleasure, one could not wear over one's face a mask of glass, nor keep the sulphurous fumes from troubling the brain and making the imagination turbid with monstrous fancies and misshapen dreams.”
EliÅ¡ka watched the rain outside while she waited, the windowpanes already misted with the steam from her sodden furs. The chestnut leaves brushing the glass were a rich emerald green against the dark sky, fat and luscious from a fourth summer of unceasing rain. Somewhere in the square a peddler was shouting, his calls softened by the downpour.
She let her eyes wander to the desk before her, carved from light wood and heaped with papers. Thick black and red seals of office dangled from some like dried scabs, snapped where the knife had slit them. If she stood from her chair she might perhaps see some of what was written, but she knew better than to think of disturbing anything on that wide table, instead looking to the shelves, her eyes settling on the fireplace. The dank day made it feel much later than it was, but the flagstones in the hearth were clean and swept, the andirons resting on them still unused. There would be no fire tonight in this fine, high-ceilinged room, not even if its master worked at his desk until morning.
On her walk across the mostly deserted Judith Bridge, she had seen a woman leaning against the parapet, vomiting into the swollen river. Two stray hounds on the far side had stopped in the driving rain to watch her with ears pricked, their eyes bright. EliÅ¡ka had hurried on, her escort clapping his hands to shoo the animals. The dog packs had a taste for children, but it couldn't be long before they started after larger prey in this starving city. People blamed the rotten meat thrown into the shambles for encouraging the packs, and perhaps soon they'd need to be hunted in the narrow streets like boar in a woodland.
Hearing the muffled bells of St Vitus sounding across the Mesto, she looked back to the window, watching the scrape of damp leaves against the glass.
The voice in her ear was pleasant, conversational, but she gasped nonetheless.
“Do not stand,” the man pleaded, holding out a ringed hand and smiling down at her look of alarm. He glanced over her furs and tutted. “You are wet.”
Bonjour Ã vous
, Aaron,” said EliÅ¡ka softly, composing herself and running a hand over the fur at her throat. She knew it pleased him when she practised. “I walked.”
Her husband's principal exchequer, acting ruler of Bohemia in all but name, nodded and smiled brightly, glancing out at the square. “I would have sent someone if you'd written ahead.” He went to his desk and papers, sparing them a cursory glance before moving to the window. EliÅ¡ka knew the glance was contrived to be casual, but those eyes took in everything; they'd have spotted a single moved or shuffled document, any item out of place. Not for the first time, she wondered if it might be a test, leaving his private correspondence for all to see while they waited in his office, and whether the sheaves of paper were even important at all.
At the window, the man stopped, taking in the view between the trees. “Praha looks splendid even in this rain, don't you think?” He turned to her, that face always somehow difficult to recall, kind and avuncular, just beginning to run to fat from years of sitting behind great tables.
“As lovely as Paris?” she asked him, trying her best to smile.
He laughed lightly, a breath from his nostrils. “Very nearly.”
Her eyes lowered to the newest chains of office around his shoulders, globular garnets winking from their links. John had rewarded his advisor well for his years of service, as had his father before him. The town house he kept on SeminÃ¡rskÃ¡ was no indication of Aaron's true wealthâthe man could have had a palace carved from blue Carrara marble or splendid quarters in the castle on the hill if he so choseâbut this modest building had served as the advisor's sole residence since her husband's coronation in 1310, before the years of famine and damp had scoured the city.
“They say the rain will continue all summer,” she said, sitting back in her chair and watching his reflection in the glass as their eyes met. “But Gascony and Aragon will be spared this year.”
Aaron's reflection continued to watch her, a spirit peering in at her from the window. He shook his head.
“Not England. I have a letter from King Edward; he writes that there was no bread for him with his supper when he stopped at one of his towns in June. No bread for their own
. Bohemia is not yet that desperate.”
Perhaps when it is, you shall take your leave.
EliÅ¡ka glanced to the thickly embroidered rug covering most of the pale floorboards beneath her chair, as if in contemplation. There might be letters from more illustrious men than Edward on that table, had she the courage to look earlier. A certain Pierre, a friend of Aaron's and a fellow Frenchman, wrote to him often. Pierre went also by the name of Pope Clement, when it pleased him.
“Have you been there? To England?” she asked, gesturing with a nod to the table and its clutter.
Aaron's eyes followed hers to the table. “Not for years and years, Princessâthough I would venture to say it was a finer place when I did, under the rule of his father.” He raised a hand above his head briefly. “Tall men are often more adept at governance, for some reason, and the Scot Hammer was exceedingly tall.”
EliÅ¡ka had travelled abroad just the once, to meet her new husband at Luxembourg when she was barely fourteen; Aaron himselfâfresh from assisting the Emperor in the wars against Florenceâhad arranged the union, and she remembered at first quite enjoying his company in a foreign court of strangers so far from home. He had made her feel safe, always sparing her the time to talk in confidence, no matter what the hour, and sometimes even making her laugh at a point in her life when she had thought she could not. Indeed, as she looked around the chamber, it occurred to her that there might be nowhere in the land safer than where she sat now, in this rain-battered town house. Thieves and rapists roamed the outlying districts of the city and her days finished well before the sun had set. Even her lonely rooms in the castle might not be nearly so impregnable as this dark chamber with its lingering stink of wax and varnish. Anyone at court could tell you who really ruled the city, but those who valued their noses kept their mouths shut and their eyes closed. They said Aaron the Jew kept no lovers, that he never slept; some claimed he seldom ate a morsel, the whispers among the diplomats he entertained monthly suggesting that he did not even deign to
things. EliÅ¡ka's eyes still went to the man's handsâpale and long and veined with blueâwhenever they met, despite her best efforts. The more she thought about it, the more ridiculous such whispers sounded, as if her husband's court were filled with children. Of course she had seen him eat, and drink. He had touched her shoulder just then, had he not? She couldn't remember.
Whatever the prejudices against the king's secretive atheling, his statesmanship and vision were legendary, and under his guidance Praha was promising to rival Rome one day as a seat of enlightenment. Heaps of silver Groschens stamped with the collared lion of Bohemia tumbled in daily from principalities as far-flung as Berlin and Frankfurt as the city vied to become, against the designs of countless kings and princes, capital of the whole empire. The princess might even admitâprivately, of courseâthat her husband's absence barely obstructed Aar-on's designs at all. Unlike John, the softly spoken chancellor seemed to live for his adopted city, and as far as EliÅ¡ka knew, Aaron hadn't left it since her father-in-law the Emperor's death in Buonconvento a few years before.
But she was not so naÃ¯ve as people thought, this princess, with her round, mole-speckled face and sleepy eyes. If Aaron came and went at leisure, or kept many wives, or visited all the brothels in the Holy Roman Empire, nobody would ever know. As with the affairs of state, he managed his own business behind bolted doors and heavy tapestries, in cold chambers where no fire blazed in the hearth.
He was watching her again when she looked back to the window.
“And so you are here to discuss VÃ¡clav, Princess.” He looked at her properly at last. “Begin.”
EliÅ¡ka felt a blush rise to her ears. She had tried to keep something from this man and he had embarrassed herâalbeit momentarilyâfor it.
“Yes,” she admitted. “My son is unwell.”
Aaron nodded as if it were old, familiar news, his eyes going to the floorboards at his feet. “As I said, you ought to have written in advanceâI am busy today.”
“You could come tomorrow.” She heard the young girl in her voice as she spoke but no longer cared. “Can you?” She kept her gaze on her hands, feeling his stare running the length of her body.
“Yes, perhaps.” He sighed. “In the afternoon. Don't let any physicians touch him until I am there.”
She glanced at him, relief fading the blush. Whether good magic or bad, she was glad of the chance of it. “Your â¦ payment this time, Aaron?”
The man turned his head briefly to think, a few strands of iron grey, thinning hair catching the day-dark light. There were no moles on his chalky skin or blemishes of any kind save the creases around his eyes. “He's to come here a year earlier than we agreed. When he is seven. I may choose to take the prince travelling with me.” Aaron looked sharply back at her. “Are we agreed?”
A year earlier was small coin. EliÅ¡ka knew her reputation as a methodical, industrious girl, and knew she had no choice. She would lose her son either way.