As Conrad Scalese came down the gangplank he heard dogs barking for the first time in months. There had been no dogs left in Naples. In front of him Roberto Capiraso turned unexpectedly to the right and he quickened his pace to catch up easily with the slow limp.
“Where are you going?”
“To find lodgings. I’ll send a message when I’m done.”
Conrad pushed in front of him and turned round. “And when the landlord wants paying? We’d established that an opera can be written from debtor’s prison, but it’s inconvenient for all concerned. There’s a bed at the villa, three meals a day, a piano and all the pen and ink you need, Roberto. Whatever other luxuries a nobleman might be used to is your problem.”
Roberto’s eyes had darkened. “I’m hardly in a position to tell you to go to hell.”
“And whose fault is that? This way.”
He’d barely had a chance to see the new house before they’d left for Naples. As they reached the door in the darkening gloom he could see a low light through the windows. The knock brought Isaura - or possibly Paolo-Isaura still, since no skirts were apparent- and a hug so enthusiastic it made him temporarily forget his troubles.
“Corradino! We didn’t expect you for weeks- months, even.” She bowed with a hint of restraint to Roberto, who nodded back.
“Plans changed,” Conrad said with deliberate vagueness, and stepped forward to embrace his brother-in-law coming up behind her. “Are the guest rooms free?”
“Yes. I’ll get Maria to air them.” Isaura said.
“And what would you have done if they hadn’t been?” Roberto asked in a low voice from behind him.
“Put you in the servants’ quarters.” Conrad said without hesitation. “Are we too late for supper, Tullio?”
They were not too late. Supper was civil but no-one said very much. Afterwards Roberto disappeared into the hastily aired guest quarters and Conrad unpacked his few belongings into what was his own bedroom, though he’d never yet slept in it, while Tullio sat on the bed and watched.
“So how is she?” Tullio finally asked.
“Well, as well as she can be given her condition. Busy. They have accepted her for now, but if she fails them there will be little tolerance.” He shuddered at the though of what might happen then.
“And what are you doing here rather than there, Corrado?”
Conrad smoothed out a tunic one handed and hung it up. “She says that she cannot spend her time on both the dead and the living, not for now. We have been banished, temporarily, as too much distraction, until her permitted season for music starts.” There was more than that but not for other ears, even these ones.
“We, is it still?” Tullio asked.
Conrad suppressed an automatic wince. Even the Returned Dead had judged them, but when he looked up he saw neither disgust nor scorn in his friend’s face but genuine concern and a little amusement.
He managed a smile back at the latter. “Still we, and not likely to change.”
“I can’t help but have a little curiosity. About the logistics.”
“You’ll have to stay curious, then.” Conrad told him. “I don’t enquire into the secrets of your marriage bed.”
That was a sudden and glorious smile that had nothing at all to do with Conrad. He felt a brief and unfair stab of envy for it, then relief that at least something was going well.
The summons to the court came early the next day. Conrad was laying out his best clothes when a flustered Maria came knocking at his dressing room door, both Paolo and Tullio being absent.
“I’ll deal with it,” he reassured the servant and he pulled an old jacket around his shoulders as he walked down to the wash room in the servants’ quarter.
The sight of the Conte di Argente with his arms up to his elbows in soapy water was oddly fascinating. Conrad waited a second too long to announce himself and Roberto looked up to catch him watching. A slight blush crossed his features.
“I’ll pay for the soap,” he said.
“Do you have any idea at all of what you’re doing?” Conrad asked. The sodden material looked like silk to him, and ruined.
“Of course not.” the Count said sharply. “Why would I know how to wash clothes?”
There had been years when Conrad had been short of the money for a laundress more often than not. He walked forward and took the dripping silk tunic out of Roberto’s hand. “I’ll see what Maria can do with this. For now you’d best borrow something of mine. We represent the Governor-General of Naples; we can’t come before the King with one of us looking like a tramp.”
Roberto limped up to his room behind him, unusually wordless. By the time he’d found the man a black tunic that might moreorless fit, Conrad had had time to consider the potential cost of his amusement.
“Signore Conte,” he said formally to the man frowning at slightly too tight seams in the mirror. “You are a guest in my house and all its resources are of course yours to draw upon as you please. I must ask you to accept my apology for not making this clear earlier.”
Roberto considered Conrad’s reflection. “No.” he said slowly. “I don’t think so. Not this time.” He tugged at the tunic, ”This will have to do. We should not be late.”
The audience with Ferdinand II, King of Two Sicilies was brief in public, and much longer in private. Conrad thought that he had never seen the man as impatient.
“Now, Corradino. Tell me about Naples! Every detail!”
Conrad frowned at that. “You can trust Luigi’s reports, Sire.”
Ferdinand snorted. “My problem with relying on Luigi Esposito’s reports is not that he is Returned Dead but that he is only one man and Naples is a whole city. Now I have two more intelligent eye witnesses and I need your accounts of everything. How much of the city has now been restored?”
It was over three hours before Ferdinand finally sat back, laying down the pen that he had been using to take detailed notes and stretching out his fingers. “Thank you.” And to Conrad. “The Institute will be glad to have you back, Corradino. At least I hope that some of them will.”
He turned to Roberto. “Does that leave you at a loose end in my city, Signore Conte, with your librettist engaged on his other duties?” His tone made it clear that the ex-Prince’s man at a loose end was not at all desirable.
“Not at all, Sire. There is the final score to be made from L’Altezza and Reconquista.”
“And what will this chimeric opera be about? Moors or Aztecs?”
Roberto didn’t glance at Conrad. “L’Altezza is the later work. It has structural elements that were undeveloped in the first. Besides, it is more convenient to get the libretto for the Princess altered where necessary.”
Roberto’s intention didn’t surprise Conrad. The man had, after all, two almost master-works; he was hardly likely to be able to resist the call of perfecting them. Nor was he likely to praise the libretto of L’Altezza over that of its rival, not in his current mood.
“So will anyone be paying you for this work?” Ferdinand asked, without any obvious emphasis. What it was to be a King and to be able to ask questions like that. Even Conrad wouldn’t have prodded the man that way.
“No.” the Count replied, similarly blandly.
“Then you will be continuing to live off the charity of your ex-wife’s lover while you are in Palermo?” His tone hadn’t change from that of quiet enquiry.
Conrad reconsidered, fast. That question wasn’t just open and frank. Could the King be regretting his earlier leniency; did he now want the Conte di Argente dead or in exile? He drew a breath to speak against all protocol and Il Superbo lifted a hand to silence him without taking his eyes off Ferdinand. His back was unnaturally stiff.
“Would your Majesty prefer me begging in the street, or lifting barrels? There would be no new music, either way.”
“Taking a commission to compose music is a long way from working the docks.” the King said with a slight smile.
“Not for me,” il Conte said in an absolute tone.
Ferdinand glanced over at Conrad’s deliberately expressionless face, then stood up. “Bring me a copy of the finished L’Altezza as soon as it’s done.” He nodded dismissal to both of them.
The Conte di Argente was swearing under his breath as they passed out from the palace. Conrad felt s certain amount of sympathy.
“He wants the score, but no word of reward for it!” Roberto finally spoke aloud.
“A King’s forbearance is a currency, of sorts. And a poor man with few friends cannot afford too much pride.” Conrad suggested.
Roberto whirled on him. “I am not a poor man! I merely have no money.”
“That’s usually how poverty manifests itself. I should know.”
“But what do you know of pride, or self respect? You choose to maintain the ex-husband of your lover!”
Conrad could tell how deeply Ferdinand’s words had cut the Count by the way the man threw them back at him. “If you were truly her ex- husband I would sleep better for it.” He’d tried a lightness to the words and realised that he’d missed.
Roberto’s expression changed slowly from anger to a malicious delight. “So you don’t accept the situation, then?”
“I accept it, absolutely,” Conrad told him. “That doesn’t mean I have to like it.” He turned without waiting for the rejoinder and strode up the road. After a few minutes he stopped and waited for Roberto’s slow limping stride to catch up but neither of them said any more.
The Institut Campi Ardenti absorbed virtually all of Conrad’s time and attention from the moment that he walked through the door. There were three dozen letters waiting for him from philosophers of four continents and twice as many religions, all with more or less polite variants on “what the hell happened in Sicily?”
Two month’s time passing hadn’t dulled a single detail and Conrad could put together a compelling narrative blindfold. He wrote the draft account in half a day then settled down grimly to the long task of getting a form of words that might be agreed by the Cardinal and Ferdinand Bourbon-Sicily before it could be sent.
As well as that there was the task of finding out how the things in his account had truly been brought about and what if anything had changed. Were the Dead still Returning as they had been? Were the miracles still occurring in the same way? For that matter, how had the Black Opera controlled its very specific miracles?
There was deep concern about the suppression of gunfire among those in the military who knew about it and they were pressing the Institute for answers that Conrad simply did not have. There should be trials of all the miracles, conducted on a true philosophical basis, but the Church had no interest in lending its Sung Masses to such a blasphemous purpose and secular miracles could not simply be conjured up with a wave of the hand. What was left of his opera company were mostly scattered across Europe by now.
It felt to Conrad as if he were drowning in detail and achieving nothing. He got to his office early and left late and tired, for the first time in years with a complete absence of music in his head.
Walking back into the villa one evening he heard real music, familiar strains played on violin. The Count had co-opted Isaura for his composition and they were generally to be found together in the music room in the evenings with Tullio sprawled on the sofa with a glass of wine, watching. Conrad couldn’t quite decide whether the man suspected Roberto of designs on his wife or whether he simply liked to spend as much time as he could in her presence.
As far as Conrad could tell, Roberto had been as uninterested in the revelation of his sister’s sex as he was now in the presence of her husband. Paolo-Isaura was a musician and he had a score to be worked on.
Conrad stood at the door, listening, every changed note clear in his mind. Roberto glanced up and caught sight of him.
“Here.” A small pile of papers on the desk were pushed towards Conrad, who tried not to look too disheartened. He’d been dealing with papers all day. He came forward to pick up the scores and leaf through them, translating the lines to music in his head automatically.
“You’ve been a great deal more productive than I have today.” He tried not to sound bitter. He’d wanted the Institute job; it was important and it was paying for the house they were living in but he found that he missed the days when he could simply write verse and have his own pile of finished papers to show at the end of it.
“And when do you intend to do some real work?” Roberto asked. “Or do I need to get someone else to write my alterations?”
Conrad scowled. “Tomorrow. All day tomorrow, for a start.” There went his plan for some rest for the first time all week.
“Are you telling me that the Atheists’ Cabal doesn’t desecrate the Sabbath with their work?” Tullio’s lazy voice came from the sofa. “I know a fair few people who will be disappointed at that.”
“The what?” Conrad demanded?
“Atheists’ Cabal. It’s what they are calling your institute. Didn’t you know?”
“Che cazzo! But his Eminence the Cardinal is on the board!” Conrad protested.
“Yet you’re the face of it and everyone knows about you. What else could the atheist miracle-worker Signore Scalese and a bunch of philosophers be doing in there but trying to bring down Mother Church?” Tullio had sat up and seemed serious now.
“I was the King’s appointment!”
“People say that kings have been wrong before.”
Keeping track of rumours and scandal was Tullio’s job now. Conrad couldn’t afford to dismiss his report outright but he was tired and had no idea what if anything to do about it right now. He glanced around the room. Isaura looked worried. Roberto had gone back to scribbling, apparently uninterested in any of Conrad’s troubles that had no direct bearing on opera.
“Very well. I will add public education to the list of the Institute priorities, before someone decides to burn us down. Now, if no-one has anything else to add to my workload, I’m going to see if there is anything over from your supper.”
Conrad’s days had been so busy since he arrived back in Palermo that it was only the nights that he spent lonely and longing. Even then, he told himself, nights alone here were far preferable to the ones he’d spent alone in the Governor’s Palace in Naples, almost physically writhing in the knowledge of where his absent lover was. The assurance that the next night would have her back in his arms had been little comfort, since for every night they spent warm and loving there was another when tempers would rise and tears be shed as he came up again and again against her utterly determined refusal to choose.
He bitterly regretted the way those nights went, watching her sleep at last after their quarrels and their fierce, angry lovemaking. He would tell himself that next time would be a night for delight and tenderness, one where his rival was not so much as mentioned, but jealousy was not always amenable to the best of his resolutions.
Conrad did not know for certain whether similar quarrels rent Leonora’s nights with her husband. Nora never volunteered anything, Roberto said nothing and he had at least enough self respect not to ask either of them. But Roberto was by no means a generous, forgiving man nor inclined to calmness and even temper. The Comte di Argente had seemed no more surprised than Conrad had been, though equally dismayed, when they were both abruptly banished for a season.
No new answers came to Conrad as he lay alone, thinking of his distant lover and the man asleep next door. They had both agreed to the twice Returned Dead woman’s solution, given no alternative but to lose her, but living with it was turning out far more difficult than taking that initial step had been. It was a while before he slept.