Prince Zachary tried to focus on the matters that the King’s Councilmen were discussing, but his chair was too hard and the room was too hot and the politics they were debating were too boring. His eyes kept darting to the window across from him. It was an east-facing window so he could see the shadows appearing on the land as the sun was beginning to set in the west. Soon it would be time for the evening meal, and he hoped they would adjourn so at least he could go into the Great Hall to sup. The previous week they had dined in the Council Room because his grandfather, the King, had deemed the matters being discussed to be of supreme importance.
He looked across the table at the twelve old men seated there. Each one more sour-faced than the one before. They all wore their long, white, curled wigs, which had been excessively powdered, for the meeting. The air was filled with tiny specks of the powder, joining together somewhere near the high ceiling to create a fog. Ever so slowly some of the flecks would drift down to land upon the long, highly-polished, mahogany table where they were seated. A fine layer of the powder had collected in front of Zachary, although his wig had no powder. The Royal wigs were made of finer materials and kept their color without the powder.
He took his finger and traced the letter ‘Z’ in the layer of powder in front of him. He felt a sharp kick on his right ankle, and startled, turned to look at his brother, John, who was seated there. Prince John looked in horror at the table where Zachary had written the letter. Zachary blushed and quickly looked to the Councilmen to see if any of them had noticed his lack of attention. It appeared that they had not, so Zachary slowly and carefully slid his fingers across the powder until the letter was obliterated. Zachary looked to John and saw that his face had relaxed.
He looked on his side of the table to see if anyone, other than John, had noticed. His grandfather, the King, was deeply involved in the debate with his Councilors. Zachary’s mind had wandered for so long; he wasn’t even sure what the issue being debated was. His father, the Heir-Apparent, was to his grandfather’s right side, as Prince John was to Zachary’s. His father took a drink from his wine goblet with hands that were shaking. Zachary knew that this was due to the issues at hand, not to Zachary’s inattention. There was an empty chair between his father and himself. The chair where his brother David used to sit. As the first-born son, it had been his rightful place. But David had died a bit over a year ago and now Zachary was considered the first-born son. He would not be allowed to assume the chair for a few more months out of respect for David, but the invisible mantle had been laid upon his head. Everyone in that room knew that one day Zachary would be King. This prospect filled Zachary with an almost overwhelming dread.
The chairs to the right of John were empty. Stewart was considered too young to attend such important meetings. And their three sisters- Christina, Madeline, and Anne, were excused based upon their age and their gender. Although Christina was next in age after John, there was no benefit to her presence. With the Heir-Apparent having three surviving sons, barring another plague sweeping across the land, one of them would rule.
Zachary noticed one of footman standing along the wall behind the Councilmen appeared to be looking in his direction. His eyes met Zachary’s and then dropped to the table top before looking away. Zachary knew that the footman had seen the incriminating letter that he had traced on the table. A blush streaked across Zachary’s cheeks, but he soon dismissed it. If the footman was stupid enough to mention it, he would be beheaded for speaking ill of the prince.
The door to the chamber opened and the King’s Attendant entered silently. He glided soundlessly across the room until he was within the King’s sightline.
“Yes, what is it?” the King demanded, seeing the man there.
“Your Majesty, Her Royal Highness the Queen wished for me to bid you to join her for the evening meal,” he said, bowing at the waist.
The King made a dismissal motion with his hand. “We will dine in here. We still have important matters to attend to.”
Zachary had to suppress a groan. He hated these meetings and they never seemed to end. He just wanted to escape the room and be free, at least until next week’s meeting with the Councilors.
A young page rushed in through the door that had been left open. “Your Highness,” he called, but before he could speak another word, the King’s Attendant slapped the boy across the face and sent him tumbling to the ground.
“You must not address the King directly,” the King’s Attendant hissed. “If you have a message, you give it to me. If I deem it worthy, I will bring it to His Majesty’s attention.”
The boy sat up, holding a hand to his slapped cheek. “The King’s High Guard sent me with a message.”
The King looked to Zachary’s father, “The High Guard is a brave man,” he said sarcastically, “To send the child instead of coming himself.”
“What is the message, boy?” the King’s Attendant barked.
The boy swallowed visibly. “He…he wanted me to say that a caravan has come into the Kingdom. They came from the East and arrived at sunset.”
“A caravan?” The King asked. “How large in number, child?”
The boy rose from a sitting position up to his knees. “The High Guard said it was very big one, Your Majesty. He said that scouts could hear music and spied many goods for purchase.”
“Music,” the King said in an awed whisper, then in a louder voice he ordered, “Tell the High Guard to send a small group of soldiers to their camp. Say that the King commands a meeting with a representative group of them.”
The boy nodded and hastily rose to his feet. He bowed to the King and then hurried to the door. Right before he exited, he shot the King’s Attendant a triumphant glare with a toss of his head. Zachary had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling.
The King rose. “We will continue this discussion at our next meeting. It seems We shall be receiving guests this evening.” With a nod of his head, he signaled his dismissal of the Councilmen. They arose from their seats and filed out of the room.
The King led the Royal family out of the door on the opposite side of the room. Zachary stepped out of his place and let John move up. Zachary hurried to the western windows to look for the caravan. Darkness had fallen so he could not make out the wagons. He could see the light from their fires and torches. He felt full of gratitude for these visitors for saving him from the deathly dull meeting. He stepped away from the window and hurried out the door to catch up with the rest of his family before they entered the Great Hall.
They had just finished their last course when the announcement came that the visitors had arrived. Once the King gave the signal, the door was thrust open by the High Guard who led a procession of four men into the room. Zachary gaped in surprise at their dress. Each one wore black fur trimmed, flowing red cloaks that reached almost to the floor. They wore breeches tucked into their knee-high boots like the peasants did, but they were made from the high quality materials that were only available to the wealthy. Their black boots shone from many hours of polishing. Immediately Zachary envied them their clothes. He hated the knickers and hose that he was forced by his position at court to wear. And he really hated his shoes which were satin with huge buckles; the thin leather soles were barely thick enough to keep the cold from the floors off his feet.
None of them wore wigs and two of the men had long hair, down to the tops of their shoulders, which was an indicator that they were foreigners. No man in the Kingdom, not even the peasants in the village, wore hair that long. One of the men with long hair also had a beard. Another of the men had short hair with a huge, long beard down to his chest. But the one that caught Zachary’s interest the most was the smallest man, with short blonde hair and no beard. Zachary could tell, just by the walk and stance of the man, that he was their leader. His feet seemed to barely touch the marble floor as he made his way across the room. He exuded all the manner and bearing of one who was high born which was not something one would expect to see as a member of a caravan. Zachary was fascinated by him.
The High Guard presented them to the King, starting the introduction first with the blonde man, giving further proof of his importance. “Your Majesty, may I present Conte Francesco delle Grandes ?”
Zachary instantly recognized the word ‘Conte’ meant ‘Count’ in Italian, although he didn’t speak the language, it had been a part of his education to learn foreign titles of noblemen. He had been right when he recognized that the blonde man had a regal bearing. The High Guard had introduced the other three, but Zachary had not paid attention to their names because he was lost in the study of the Conte.
He had a bundle in his arms, and once when he sifted a bit, his red cloak had opened enough so that Zachary spied a strap across his chest. He wondered if, somewhere beneath that huge cloak, a musical instrument was hidden. The page had said that the scouts had heard music from the caravan. To hear music again after it being so long absent from the castle would be such a treat. His heart raced at the thought.
The Count was given permission to present the King with a gift of spices: black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and nutmeg. The King graciously received the bundle full of the bags of spices from the Count. The King wasn’t a demonstrative man, but Zachary knew him well. He knew the King was well pleased with the gifts.
“Conte delle Grandes, is it true that there is music being performed by members of your caravan?” The King asked.
The Count bowed his head as he answered, “Yes, Your Highness. Many of our number play instruments. Myself and my three colleagues here are included in that number. With your permission, Sire, we would enjoy playing for you.”
The King gave a slight nod of his head, and the Count and his companions all reached into their long cloaks and retrieved their instruments from their folds. The man at the end, with the long hair and no beard displayed a drum; the man next to him, the one with the short hair and long beard, retrieved a flute; the next in line, the other man with long hair who had a short beard extracted a hurdy-gurdy; and the Count produced a lute. Zachary had been right that the strap across his chest had indicated an instrument. And such an instrument it was! Zachary was especially fond of the lute, and if he would have been a child, he might have jumped up and down and clapped his hands. However, he was not a child, so he maintain his seat, sitting perfectly still with his back straight. He kept his hands folded in his lap, but squeezed them together as hard as he could to try to contain his excitement.
The Count and his three friends played a selection of three songs. The first song was a song of heartbreak and loss. The second song was about the happiness of a great love. The third was a fast, happy song that was made for tapping ones toes to. In lesser societies, Zachary could imagine that people would actually dance to the song. He sighed as he thought about how freeing it must be to have been born in a society that would allow one to dance.
When the music ended, the King rose from his seat. “Conte delle Grandes, I would like to introduce you, and your fine friends, to my family.”
Zachary was shocked. He could not remember a time that the King formally introduced the entire Royal family to a visitor. This was the highest honor the King could bestow upon a stranger.
The Count bowed deeply to the Queen, then again to both of Zachary’s parents. When he came to the empty place at the table, where David used to sit, he placed his hand over his heart and bowed even more deeply than he had for the others. This was not the protocol in their country. A slight bow was all that was required. Zachary peeked at his parents to see how they were reacting.
Zachary’s mother had one hand on her heart and was dabbing at the corner of her eye with her napkin with the other. His father reached over and patted her arm, and she gave him a small, brave nod. Zachary realized that the Count’s foreign gesture was seen with gratitude and appreciation, not disdain and scorn.
As the Count was being introduced to Zachary, their eyes met a second before the Count bowed. The Count’s huge brown eyes peered deeply into his; Zachary was taken off guard by the attention. He felt a blush spread across his cheeks as the Count rose back up. The Count searched Zachary’s eyes again, before he stepped over to be introduced to John. At the last possible second, the Count darted his eyes back to take another look. Zachary could see the fun and mischief in his eyes and had to hold back a smile at the sight. Some trick of the candlelight reflected into the Count’s eyes and for the briefest of moments, the color changed from brown to red and then back to brown.
Each in their turn, the other three men were introduced to Zachary. Visconte Vittorio was the man with the long hair and short beard who played the hurdy-gurdy; Visconte Pablo was the man with short hair and the long beard who played the flute; and Visconte Giasone was the man with long hair and no beard who played the drum. They all seemed to be very congenial men. Zachary hoped that the King would grant them permission to stay in the Kingdom for a long time.
After the introductions had all been completed, the King called the four visitors back to him. He proclaimed, “We have been truly blessed to have such talent come into the Kingdom! We beg that you stay for as long as you wish! We look forward to many occasions of having you four troubadours share your music with Us. Now, We must ensure to your comfort.” The King looked to the High Guard who was standing at attention near the King. “Madison,” the King addressed him, “We will send an emissary to the field where Our new friends are residing, to see that they are wanting for nothing.” The High Guard touched the brim of his helmet as a sign he was ready to obey the order. The King gave a ghost of a smile as he ordered, “Have a carriage sent around for Prince Zachary. He will accompany them.”
Zachary looked in shock at the High Guard to see how he was handling this insult. Had he not been cowardly and came to the King himself about the news of the caravan instead of sending in his page, he would have been the one assigned to the task. The High Guard’s face was as if it were carved from stone, but Zachary saw a slight movement of his jaw as he ground his back teeth together. He gave a slight nod and accepted his dismissal to ready the carriage.
The King turned to Zachary, “You need to ready yourself for the visit.”
Zachary summoned up all the dignity he could and rose to his feet and exited the Great Hall. There were footmen lining the walls so it wasn’t until he reached the safety of his room that he allowed himself to show his excitement as he jumped around his room retrieving garments suitable for the chilly spring evening that was waiting for him outside. Outside. Such a wonderful word, he thought. As a child he had spent most of his waking hours outside the castle. As he grew older, less time was allotted for it. And after David’s death, the family had gone into mourning that lasted a year and a day, and the members of the Royal family were duty-bound to stay quietly inside, and spend the time in prayer and meditation. The mourning period had ended four weeks previously, but the King now monopolized his time by imposing endless meetings that as the now-eldest son, he was required to attend. When David was still alive, Zachary would attend them occasionally, if he were directly ordered to, but now they were mandatory. However, this night, he would have freedom, if only for a short while.
He was informed that the carriage had arrived. He put on his outer cloak and tried to keep his steps slow and measured as he made his way to the door. Once outside, the gravel crunched under his thin shoes and he could feel every sharp edge of them. A footman escorted him into the carriage and then took his place at the rear. The four visitors were already mounted astride their horses. The Count guided his horse to the front of the carriage, while the other three men positioned theirs behind it. The driver snapped the reins and they drove off into the night.