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shape it, won't you?

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I’m courting chaos in me. But you want to shape it, don’t you?

— Alice Notley, from Certain Magical Acts.

 

***

 

Andrés is taken from his mother when he is almost seven. Well, that’s not quite the right word, is it? Taken would imply that his mother had fought against the men the King had sent for him in any way. Taken paints a Maccabean scene, a mother tearing her hair from her scalp and rending her skirts. A mother forced to watch the son she holds closest to her heart be led to torment succumbing into madness. Eloise does nothing of that. She sends a maid to pack his possessions, kisses him on the temple, and tells him to make a name for himself.

 

Years later, once he studies Greek, Andrés will learn that his name comes from andros, meaning man. This discovery fills him with rage, hot and pounding in his blood. His name sounds, all of a sudden, ridiculous. Like naming a hound Dog. It’s a superficial name, a shallow name, the name of someone without any depth whatsoever. 

 

Andrés will learn to wear that mask like a facade. He will take up interests that can both be made into banal conversation - fabrics, paintings, any kind of art – and allow for cultivation of the mind. He will allow people to imagine that it is all there is to him. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. 

 

Andrés’ journey to Castile is extenuating and marvelous to his almost-seven-year-old self. However, he thinks he does a good job of being aloof and unphased by the rolling fields and the mountainous chains they cross. He’s had good practice at keeping his face impassive in Toulouse.

 

Once he arrives at Court, he is scrubbed clean and dressed in his best clothes before he is brought to his father.

 

He has known that he is the son of a king since he’s had use of reason. You see, his mother saw fit to inform him of what a bastard was and why he was one before the other children did. She’d told him that the rest of the world would call her soiled goods, but that she’d managed to obtain enough grants of land and favours for her not to touch another man until the day she died if she so preferred. 

 

“They all do as I’ve done, Andrés, but they have to put up with the man they got married to for the rest of their lives. I think I have the upper hand, no matter what they might say.” The noble circles of Toulouse had quite a lot to say about them, but his mother was the strongest woman he’d ever met – the only woman he’d find worthy of true respect for a very long time. The thought of lowering her head didn’t even cross her mind.

 

The only time in which Andrés will see her display vulnerability is when he turns his head back, his horse already following the Castilian entourage’s. Even then, he barely sees the glisten of a tear before she blinks it away and nods as Andrés, her only unconditional support, goes away.

 

King Jacobo seems, in comparison, much less impressive. He is a tall man, broad-shouldered, with a thick beard. Andrés thinks he’s never seen a man look so miserable. Later, he will learn that the King feels most like himself surrounded by violence, be it in his own council or on the battlefield. He will die on soil tilled with warrior’s blood. Andrés will smile at the irony when the courier arrives with the news. 

 

For now, he misses the gaiety of Toulouse. Everything’s grey, somber, and stony here. Color is rationed and Andrés sticks out like a sore thumb in his green overshirt.

 

The queen stands to the side. Andrés regards her coolly. His mother could have had her place and occupied it with much more grace. She is smaller than his mother, and stouter too, and – holding a child in her arms. It instantly betters his opinion of her, seeing that what must be his half-brother hasn’t been handed to a carer. It also worries him. Why am I here if the King already has an heir? It is not as though the boy is a baby, soft and easy to lose to Death’s milky arms. He must have seen at least the turn of one year, maybe two.

 

King Jacobo stands up. The room falls quiet. The king’s steps sound as thunderclaps, and he seems even taller up close. Andrés keeps his chin up. I am Eloise de Fonollois’ son. I shan’t tremble.

 

“Welcome, my son.”

 

The king’s hand is heavy upon his shoulder.

 

 

 

+++

 

Despite what the Castilian court might whisper, Andrés never harbours ambitions bigger than those afforded to him by his station. Even if he had wanted to, they wouldn’t have lasted. His father made sure to tell him, not unkindly, but clearly, that he would never be fit to become heir. 

 

“Not even the spare, I fear. Our Aragonese neighbours, and the Toulousains, by extension, aren’t very well regarded in Castile. No one would have your back, except to stick a knife into it.” Those are cold words to say to an infant, but Andrés understands this. A king’s love must come from the same distance that separates his throne from his subjects. Andrés absorbs this lesson fast.

 

If a prince is to be clever, a bastard is to possess a viper’s cunning. If a prince is to be good and revered, a bastard is to make himself amiable enough to compensate for his birth’s shortcomings. If a prince learns to turn himself into cold marble, a bastard must be like the chill of the coming winter, biting as a dagger to the throat.

 

Bastards are flaws that prove a king’s human nature, a queen’s failings. The ease with which corruption worms into everything. In his parents’ eyes, Andrés is a tool: a stepping stone to security, the dark mirror of a noble-born son. Clay, easy to mold.

 

His father’s wife proves to be as invaluable of an ally as she is an unexpected one. She is the one who treats him first like a child, and then like a grown man with worries and beliefs. Never like a son, of course. She never holds the circumstances of his birth against him, or at least he never hears of her doing so, but rather regards him as one would a nephew. She will remain, until the day of his early death, one of the two people to never hold herself back from criticizing the worst of his actions. That is, the ones she learns about. For all that he might be grateful, he isn’t as much of an imbecile to wholly trust her.

 

She is also the one to solve any possible animosity between him and his brother before it can even arise. The Court titters and exchanges many comments they think Andrés is too young to understand, but the queen is steadfast in her resolution of raising them together.

 

“I am sure that His Grace knows how the crown is to be best managed,” she says, her smile making Andrés sure that she finds the means with which she has ensured her son’s position effective, whatever they might be.

 

Andrés doesn’t suspect that she does this last thing on purpose, but thanks to the Queen’s decision, Andrés finds a cherished companion in his younger brother.

 

 

 

+++

 

While prince Sergio grows – slowly, like a stumped tree; sickly, like something kept from the sun – Andrés does as well. He is taught not to fight, but to kill. Not to make conversation, but to manipulate and unravel. Not to know his Bible verses, but his treaties and the tapestry of strings that hold the European kingdoms together or at war with each other. All of this turns him into a twisted man, an iron wall. He’ll break before he bends.

 

When he deigns to attend Court, he either stands alone, the space around him cleared, or surrounded by pecking nobles. He is said to have beaten a man to half death for disrespecting his lady mother, and that innate violence attracts and repels those near him. He is rarely seen without a young lady trying to goad some terrible story out of him. He has a reputation as a debaucher, though none can say in which manner or of which women. His time is often spent off on missions for his father, or with his one confidante – his brother, whom he privately thinks too soft for the crown. 

 

“Tell me, Andrés,” Sergio asks now and then on their strolls, “are you going to have dinner with your friends today?”

 

“Which friends?” he asks, for he is unknowable and aloof. An island of a man.

 

“Ágata, Ricardo, Agustín. You know you dine with them almost every –”

 

“Don’t be daft, brother. They are people with skills that are often useful to me. It is in my best interest to keep them close.” Close, but not too much. He is a bastard. He has no knights to fight his fights, no loyal guards to watch his sleep, no men who have his back.

 

He would also add that he is his own man, but that one’s barely true.

 

In the last years, he’s been forced to reckon that most of his contacts and knowledge come from his father. King Jacobo knew he was breeding a deadly kind of bloodhound from the start, so he made sure to leash him well.

 

It’d taken Andrés an embarrassingly long time to realize this. When he did, he had no way to prove his father wrong, no token gesture of self-assertion. This quiet epiphany hadn’t been enough to calm his boiling blood down, so he’d gone down to the butcher’s. The men appreciate the help, even though the way he thwacks through bone unnerves them.

 

 

 

+++

 

The three people Sergio calls his friends are an experiment developed over time. People with no ties to the king. People who owe him their petty lives. People able to be truly his.

 

Ágata is a gitana, which, this north, is enough to make her special, for better and worse. She makes a living from the air of mysticism inherent to her people. Ágata specializes in teas and herb mixtures that dull aches and help those with a rattled soul sleep. If you are a woman and ask carefully enough, she’ll lead you into the back of the store and make you wait for her to come back with a mixture to prevent the worst of the menses’ pains and a man’s seed from taking root inside of you. If, like Andrés, you become her protector against the Church and the Law, she’ll give you small vials marked with mm.

 

Memento mori,” she said the one time Andrés asked her, twirling the little glass container between his fingers.

 

“Didn’t peg you for the type to have an education on Latin.” She shrugged.

 

“It is irrelevant most of the time. I don’t talk about it.”

 

Her shop is littered with crosses. Andrés never knows whether they give her peace or if they’re just another piece of an elaborate background, a way to appease any who might think her knowledge unnatural.

 

She also acts as a midwife, and she holds the babes for a little too long before giving them to their mothers.

 

Agustín is a miner – a disemboweler of earth, he likes to say – turned smith of most metals because of his two greatest banes: his blackened lungs and his foolish son. He has a penchant for words and sayings that wouldn’t be amiss among philosophers or rabbis, and he is a good man. 

 

He is also an excellent forger of seals and maker of tunnels.

 

Ricardo came attached to his father. While Andrés didn’t initially want anything to do with him - reckless, loud, he laughs like an ass braying – he had proved surprisingly useful. He is the man to go to when Andrés needs someone threatened, someone beat up. He’d had Ricardo kill, once, had said he’d tell him when to stop and then… hadn’t.

 

Agustín’s fury is their third family member. Always underfoot like a dog, or a small child. Andrés had brought it up exactly once: he’d told Agustín that maybe he should have given the order, but Ricardo had been too happy to keep going. To breathe in that metallic-sharp violence. It had been a bad idea. Everyone is wary of the monsters underneath their bed, but they rarely want to turn around and face the one sleeping by their side.

 

That incident is also the reason why Andrés can’t forget that theirs is a lesser, bought kinship. Agustín and Ricardo have each other. Ágata has her little boy, growing up in that convent in Toledo from which she still believes she can steal him back. Andrés – Andrés has the Crown’s resources, the King’s trust, and the Crown Prince’s ear. He is his own man, isn’t he? He needs no one, even if he sometimes wonders what that would feel like.

 

 

 

+++

 

Time passes and, before he can realize it, Andrés has become an established courtier. A man of influence, even with the mar of bastardy hanging over him. When he speaks, people listen and nod along. Even when he knows he is wrong. Even when he speaks of things he knows to be laughable and of little transcendence. He doesn’t know if the feeling in his chest is pride or boredom.

 

Over time, he gains new additions to his ranks. Aníbal, raised in a scholar’s house and able to memorize the contents of any text written in any of the languages of the Peninsula, Latin, Greek, or Arabic. With him comes Silene. Northern, with a Northener’s disposition and a haughty manner. She insists that her family had come down from Galiza with the first kings of Leon. Andrés would love nothing more than to wring her neck, but Ágata has somehow grown fond of her, and she has an unrivalled gift for escaping perilous situations.

 

Lastly, there’s the two brothers from the Balkans. He doesn’t know how they came to be so far from their homeland, or what their true purpose might be, but they are strong men, and loyal to boot. Discretion can always be bought, but he likes it better when it comes for free.

 

Sergio is, of course, still focused on learning how to best serve his people.

 

“You must be the only nobleman who cares about such things, brother.” 

 

“It is the only way that makes sense to me.” Aristotle’s teachings, he says as an explanation when pressed, and offers to lend him his translation from a dissertation. It’d come from Toledo not so long ago, the translation school growing its speed and reach with each turn of the year.

 

“Will you ever do anything selfish?” Andrés sighs. When he goes, he fails to notice the way Sergio looks to the horizon. He fails to notice the noblewoman who just so happens to be walking in the same area of the garden.

 

“Well met, Lady de Vicuña,” Sergio says, but Andrés fails to hear his words, or the delighted way in which he says them. Andrés, for all that he is a clever man, rarely notices that which he has failed to predict.

 

 

 

+++

 

Andrés thinks himself a man that lives in conflict, a man whose soul knows no peace – but he is aware that he has never known war, either. When he starts to hear talk of the Aragonese setting their sights on Southern Italy, he knows that it could go very wrong very fast. It would mean that Castile’s greatest competitor thrusts its spear further into the Mediterranean, and that’s a possibility King Jacobo isn’t likely to take well.

 

Andrés knows that he will be sent to investigate the issue, because the Toulousans, even though they are Southern and quite removed from the Anjous, are still Gallic enough to be tolerated. He will also be tolerated as a commander on the battlefield if his father deems it necessary. After all, an honourable birth isn’t necessary to brandish a sword or die for a liege.

 

Andrés doesn’t plan to spill his life’s blood in such a brutish manner, which is why he must not only go to Naples and come back, but he must also relay his findings in a way that appeases his father. He is the king’s dog. The prince’s dark mirror, ever since he first stepped into the throne room, all those years ago. He has the dubious honor of watching his father stroll the length of his private solar, mumbling plans and resolutions Andrés barely catches. It’s unnerving, more so when he knows his father will look for any door to battle, same as he will always seize any opportunity to power.

 

So, he gets on a ship and trusts that the small retinue of servants he brings, and the courting gifts will be enough to let him get to Salerno without much fuss. He is, if anyone asks, storming to the Italic Peninsula in a fit of temper, going to watch art, woo beautiful women and sample the finest foods that side of the Mediterranean.

 

Halfway through the trip, Mirko and Radko make their presence known. They don’t even approach him, just take a tour around the ship’s deck for him to see them. Good men, he thinks, but never fully devoted to me. They have each other, and the memories of whatever horror that had chased them all the way across Europe. 

 

Aníbal and Silene are also onboard, which catches him by surprise, even if not unpleasantly. His Eastern soldiers are good for many things, but discretion isn’t one of them. The young lovers stroll around, absorbed more by each other than the unending sea.

 

He’s glad for the four of them. 

 

 

 

+++

 

At Salerno, the Angevins are nothing but the picture of hospitality. He is, after all, a decent match for many a lady. There is tension in the air, but Andrés doesn’t think they’ll see a war deserving of the name if they do at all.

 

He sends his crew off to gather information, while he lets himself indulge in wine and inconsequential flirting.

 

That is the first mistake he makes. The second is dismissing Mirko and Radko from their duty as shadow guards on the fifth day - he was invited by a lady to promenade around the gardens of the castle without a chaperone. The third is not noticing the shadows slipping behind him. The week has been boring enough for him to need any sort of release, and he intends to enjoy the night air and the delights of young flesh to the fullest.

 

Fortunately enough for him, the men following him make a single, crucial mistake: failing to be aware of a last, solitary figure that sees them, hooded, knives at the ready, twelve paces from the bastard of Castile, and decides to miss an important meeting to go after them.

 

When he narrates the ordeal to Sergio, back in Castile, Andrés will do so indifferently. I’m just irresistible, little brother. For both women and assassins. He will affect nonchalance, disdain. He is Andrés de Fonollosa, son of a King and a grand Lady, brother to the Crown Heir, and future uncle of future kings. Cheap killers are nothing of importance to him.

 

In that moment, though, his heart pounds. He barely has the time to hear the steps, to dart his tongue out to catch the thrum of violence in the air, before the shadows appear. Four men, and the glint of knives. Four men, and the thrill in his blood louder than any hunting horn. He can’t make out whether he is prey or predator, and he likes it that way. He has always liked chaos and messy violence, since he is so rarely allowed to have either all to himself.

 

He gets his dagger out – long, but nowhere near the reach of the sword he’d foolishly discarded before putting one of his best doublets on. It’s probably going to get soiled. What a darned waste.

 

He gets the first man, too eager, too caught in the bloodlust, in the shoulder, and then through the belly. I should be burying myself in some sweet girl’s cunt right now, he thinks sourly as he watches the bowels spill out.

 

Then the second is on him, but Andrés has been drilled into focus by hardened men and worse situations and slashes the inside of his knife-arm. He spins the assailant around, slits his throat, and pushes him into the third man in one fluid motion. 

 

That gives him maybe an extra second to deal with the fourth – he’s already on the floor, motionless. In his surprise, Andrés doesn’t see the third assassin coming, but someone else does. Before he can feel the cold kiss of a blade on his back, something – someone, for the weight is warm and moving – pushes him against the wall. He can barely make out a dark, smaller shape standing between him and death. The stranger dispatches the last man with two strikes, turns and kneels, head downcast.

 

“Now, now,” Andrés says, curious, but keeping his façade up. “There’s no need for such formality with a man whose life you just saved.” He resists the urge to wrinkle his nose at the pungent smell of dead men permeating the air.

 

“Wouldn’t dream to be too familiar without your Highness’ leave.” His saviour’s face becomes visible. The first thing that he sees is his eyes. Blue, unnaturally bright. Beautiful. “Allow me to introduce myself,” he says as he gets to his feet again. “Martín Berrote.”

 

His Castilian is sing-song, but more than understandable. The breathless way in which he says the title Andrés will never wear is more than enough to make him wary.

 

“And to what do I owe the pleasure of making your acquaintance?”

 

“Oh,” Martín smiles, like they’re sharing a private jest, “I wouldn’t want you to believe this is what passes for manners in Salerno. It wouldn’t do very well for our genteel reputation.”

 

Andrés claps his shoulder – and strengthens his grip. The outer layer of leather gives into a quilted material underneath. That and the rapier are enough for him to connect the dots.

 

“A mercenary.” Martín’s mouth contorts into three different expressions in less than a moment. He has full lips, for a man. More shapely than most women he has met.

 

“Soon to be a former condottiero, actually.” That snags Andrés’ attention more surely than any other word. As a bastard, he has always been aware of the many unscrupulous jobs available to his kind, should he ever need them. Commanding mercenaries isn’t the one he would have ever gone for – too transactional, too much of the war dog’s life he has always detested – but he can appreciate the nerve it takes.

 

“So you know your way in a fight and you have the head to lead. What could possibly drive you away from a business in which you are sure to flourish?” The corpses of the would-be assassins cool on the stone floor; the blood seeping into the sweet blooms of the gardens.

 

“I’ve been in the business since I could hold a weapon, your Highness. I’m done with the money and petty rivalries – if I am to kill, I want it to be for a cause I’m devoted to.” Andrés raises an eyebrow. The gesture usually drives men to reveal more than what they already have. “Is that too emotional? I should have talked about the impending chaos and the Aragonese’s soon to happen attempt at expansion, shouldn’t I? Well, there’s that, too. I’m not eager to stand on a sinking ship.”

 

Andrés clicks his tongue. A skilled fighter searching for a master to devote himself to, someone with knowledge of the political situation in Europe. Sounds too good to be true, he tells himself sternly, but his heart is already aflutter with all the possibilities this brings.

 

“And why would you offer me your services, Martín? What makes you think that I am a man worth such honour?” 

 

Martín simply shrugs.

 

“I have a feeling.” Andrés can feel his face turning into something cutting and disbelieving. Feeling is something he has never understood, never quite grasped, even if he can act it out. It is still something he cannot predict. “What? I speak the truth, I saw you – well, and the suspicious gaggle of men following you – and I thought your Highness deserved more than such a petty death.” Again that title, but this time it comes with a wave of heat washing over Andrés.

 

“And why should I believe any of that?”

 

“Well, I could be using you as a guarantee for safe passage to Spain and a new life in construction, or something of the sort.”

 

“But you know,” he says, stepping into Andrés’ personal space, the tip of his fingers tracing a line across his throat, “I think you feel it too.”

 

Andrés steps back, breathing just a little harder. Berrote has a spark of something wicked inside those beautiful eyes, a little twist in his smirk that promises anything but innocence. An unravelling thread he wants to pull and pull.

 

Oh well, he thinks, as he tells Martín a place and a time, I have always liked messy.

 

 

 

+++

 

Martín appears on the solar offered to them by the Salernitans next morning, spotting Andrés with ease and going to him as a dog would with his master. His soldiers, appropriately chastised after yesterday’s incident, make to stop him, but Andrés raises a hand.

 

“Your Highness,” he says quietly, nodding his head. “I brought what you asked of me.”

 

Silene gives him a strange look, probably because of the title, but knows better than to further remark upon it.

 

“Show me, then.” And show him he does. There are missives to the mother of the lady who had lured Andrés away from his men, promising rich payment. There are jewels – mere trifles, if the mind behind the assassination attempt is to be believed, in comparison to the reward once the mission was complete. Why they thought killing him would reap them any sort of benefit, he can’t even begin to fathom. Yet.

 

“What am I to do, your Highness?” Andrés should start training that form of address out of him, but he knows the right way to say it, all reverence and the final sound dragged breathlessly.

 

Andrés smiles. He can’t wait to see how far Martín will go to indulge him.

 

“You’ll have to be discreet,” he starts, crossing his right leg over the left one.

 

 

 

+++

 

Two weeks later, when Andrés and his entourage depart Naples, no one notices his new addition – and, if they do, they certainly know better than to comment on it.

 

“I’ve never been to Castille, your Highness,” Martín says, leaning against the railing of the deck on both forearms. The prolonged exposure to the Sun has brought up a dusting of freckles on his nose. It’s a good look on him.

 

“You really shouldn’t call me that. If someone were to hear, they might get the impression that I have finally succumbed to the plotting affliction of which all bastards seem to suffer.” Martín throws his head back with a peal of laughter far louder than the jest merited, but that’s how he seems to do things. Laughs hard, devotes himself hard, kills hard.

 

Andrés rubs the new gold band on his index finger. It’d belonged to one of the lords behind the attempt on his life, and Martín’d given it to him two days ago, specked with blood and accompanied by a list of the lords who have been conspiring with the Aragonese. King Jacobo won’t be happy to leave the South of the Italic Peninsula to their neighbours, but Andrés can hopefully spin it into expanding Castile to the South and East of the Iberian Peninsula.

 

“I’ll settle for Milord in public, as long as you allow me the other one in private.”

 

“In private, I’d rather have you call me by my Christian name.” Again the twisted little smile, the feeling that Martín is holding something of himself back. He wants to tear it out of him.

 

“Tell me about Castille then, Milord. You have no sea, do you?”

 

No, Andrés thinks as he starts to talk, but I’m taking a piece of it with me.