Imperius had seen each letter after the first, sealed with blood-red wax bearing the Bishop of Aquila's signet. A day's greatest dread lay in the announcement of couriers; the Lady d'Anjou could but refuse them and wait. This suitor fell short in virtue, but never in politics: any claim made to harassment would be branded a witch-harlot's slander. Seductress! the ink had damned her already, words hot with madness bound in a careful clergical script. In my dreams the Devil whispers with your lips--
Isabeau spoke of her own dreams in confession: that she fled Aquila at dusk knowing some shapeless evil snapped ravenous at her heels; that she kept to the warmth of Navarre at her side until she turned at last to meet his gaze and saw instead the snarling jowls of a wolf receding in the night. That when she tried to scream a small, inhuman screech tore from her throat, and all at once the sky was spinning, wheeling, falling darkness swallowing the sun. That when she woke in the moonlight some lingering thread of the dream bade her fear even the slow break of dawn.
Imperius could not even pray for her, for in truth he feared to think on it, nor on how the heavens might receive him in his state. Even through the numb haze of drink he could sense the cold hand of evil at work, and even still he knew the envy lurking at his own heart's bitter edges. "You are married in the eyes of God," he was all that he could offer. "He will know your innocence should the world turn from you both."
Isabeau was never impressed with this hollow condolence. For all her delicate features, she was as frank in her feelings as Navarre. "I'm afraid."
As am I, he dearly wished to tell her. As am I.
In the end there was little Isabeau had left to confess to her god, and so mostly he could but overhear the confessions she shared with her husband instead. Imperius could watch them from a window as they parted in the courtyard, where she held to Navarre so long that he began to laugh into her hair. "It's hard enough to leave you," he would tease, while she pressed her face to his neck as though to reassure herself with his pulse. These moments they stole were scarce, but the moments the tight coils of foreboding finally loosed their grip from Isabeau's fair throat, and she seemed to breathe freely again. The flush of life in her was mesmerising. "Only I fear one night you might not return," she would say in that dizzy rush of air. "That he might have you killed at last."
Imperius could find no fault in their match to justify the hardships they would endure. Navarre believed in Isabeau just as he believed in a boundless divinity beyond reach of this rotted arm of the Church, so that Imperius felt at once awed and wholly superfluous. Navarre combed a hand through her hair and plainly, purely, he loved her. "No trifle like death will keep me from you," he would say, and Imperius understood him completely.
Still the letters came. Still nightmares gave Isabeau no peace, but tempered an answering resolve unlike any Imperius had ever known. When Navarre's duties kept him from her side Isabeau would watch at the window herself, and her hands were like talons twisting restlessly in her skirts. The tension was unbearable, a storm that refused to break, but she weathered each night with the same ferocious grace of those raptors she dreamt. Imperius could not comfort her, for she would have no comfort. He could not comfort himself, though he could forget for a while in his drink. He would be called on to confess his own sins to God, and he knew even then he was not so strong, to stand alone against that gathering wind.
So he did not expect her to come to him, after--certainly, her keen eyes had known her betrayer. She needed no explanation, from him or from any other. Somehow they each had an instinct for their fates, and she had known in an instant that dark wolf pacing at the horizon. She said, "At first, I wondered whether I could not wake from the dream."
Imperius did not answer her now. He could not bring himself to look at her.
"But in my dreams I could not touch even the wolf. As you know."
What apology would be more than empty words? What platitudes of scripture?
And so Imperius swallowed the stone in his throat, but it settled in his heart instead, so heavy now it was he who could hardly breathe. "You will never live as man and wife," he told her, each word like a lash on his own flesh. "You will never know his embrace as your vows intended. You will wake each night and never know where you have been before sunset."
"I will know."
When he looked on her at last the sight was an arrow which pierced flesh and blood and soul. He thought in one wild moment that the lamp's golden light on her face was the nearest a mortal man would see of the angelic, and he felt nothing but a sick sense of empathy for the Bishop.
"He said even death could not keep him from my side. I do wonder, Father, would that have been easier?"
Was it that the shadows of tragedy only made her more lovely? He averted his eyes, tired and wretched in soul. "I could mix such herbs to make it nearly painless," he managed, in a whisper. "If that were what you wished."
"No," she said. "Not that. He left his post, and we will leave Aquila. He has already packed to set out at the first light of dawn."
Imperius had presided over many sickbeds in his time, and so he knew that dying men described their last view of the sunrise as the most beautiful sight of their lives, that they reached for it in the encroaching dark as though they might close their hands on the divine. Indeed there was incalculable beauty in the ephemeral, the tragic, the true. He would never forget her expression, searing his memory with that resolve both fierce and profoundly futile. "How do you know?"
"I will have been at his arm, Father. I will know that even in the deepest night he will be near at my side just the same."
She spoke without pity or censure, and so he had no chance to beg her forgiveness. Was this to be his punishment? He felt shamed to doubt her even now, yet helpless to find in himself such faith. Imperius had never been so strong.
Yet she seemed to read his very soul with those gleaming amber eyes (hadn't they been blue?). "You will keep looking," she said. "I know that much, as well."
It was true that if the light could favour any, surely it favoured this Isabeau of Anjou. If he might ever right his wrongs, if he might ever believe that any were to see another dawn--
We will live and we will keep our vows, and they will someday lead us home.
"God willing," he murmured at last, but she had already gone into the night.