Good lord, two and a half years since I last updated, 8 years since I first uploaded this version, and 22 years since I wrote the first draft of the first chapter for a friend. My first ever fanfiction. I suppose it really is time I got on and finished the damn thing, isn't it? Well, it´s not going to be tonight, but I think we're on the home stretch...
Countess Cliché, Chapter 19
"How dare you!" the groom exclaimed, stamping his foot at Domingo, who had decided to stay on the floor for now. "How dare you insult my Lady so!"
"I'm confused," Sala admitted.
"You're confused? I just kissed a man in a dress!" Domingo pointed out. "I hate to ask, but... why are you dressed like a lady in mourning?"
"Because... oh, it's a long story. Here... you don't half look like that posh Italian lad that was here before!"
"Domingo Cardinale, yes!" he exclaimed. "And this is my steward, Sala."
"Oh. Er, pleased to meet you. Sir. Well. I suppose you're wanting to see Lady Betha, but... I'm not sure I should let you, if you're going to do something like that."
"I was overcome with joy, at seeing what I thought was her," Domingo explained. "It's been a rather emotional couple of weeks. I am more composed now. Thank you."
"Oh. Right. Well... come on, then. I'll explain all this on the way."
Íñigo had often wondered how on earth the Revenge ever made port, and now he knew. The Revenge didn't, but a ship which looked suspiciously similar but which was called Snowdrop did instead. It took about ten minutes to fit the Snowdrop's figurehead and swap out the boards the ship's name was painted on.
Roberts had made it quite clear that if any of the group told anyone that they'd been aboard the Revenge that he would ensure that they were never safe again, on land or sea, before returning them to the very port they'd originally left from. The Snowdrop wasted no time in leaving port once more, making sure that nobody had time to ask any uncomfortable questions.
The merchants were keen to be somewhere else as soon as possible and disappeared at once, but Giulietta needed to sit down for a few moments, finding it strangely difficult to walk on a surface that stayed still. Íñigo sat next to her while she composed herself, and couldn't help feeling that something more was bothering her.
"I don't want to go home," she admitted. "If he isn't there..."
"He'll be there," Íñigo replied with a convicition he didn't feel. "I have to go to him, Giulietta, as soon as I can. Come. We must try to find a way..."
"You there," Giulietta called, and a member of the port staff came over. "A coach for Countess Cardinale," she demanded. The man bowed, and ran off to organise it. Íñigo looked at her.
"How do you do that?"
Giulietta shrugged. "Act like a noble, you get treated like one, most of the time. Things happen when you're travelling, that's understood."
He couldn't help thinking that it probably had rather more to do with being a beautiful woman, but he knew better than to say so.
"A visitor for you, my Lady," the groom announced. Betha stared.
"Am I going mad, or is that a groom in a dress? In one of my dresses!"
"Sorry, my Lady," the groom said. "But everyone thought... well, you had to be seen out riding, but we didn't trust Humpedinck not to try something, and..."
For the first time in what felt like forever, Betha laughed, but just moments later, she was doubled over in her chair sobbing.
"I've started seeing things," she said as she rubbed ineffectually at her eyes. "I thought I saw..."
"Betha?" Domingo said, kneeling beside her. "Hello, my friend."
"No," Betha whispered, and Domingo took her hand.
"I'm here," he assured her. "I swam to shore, then made my way here as soon as I could... now they tell me that Humpedinck is planning to take you as his bride..."
Betha threw herself into Domingo's arms and kissed him, passionately. "Marry me," she demanded. "Now. He said he'd kill any peasant I married, but if I marry an Italian noble, well, he wouldn't dare, would he? He might be all for a war with Guilder, but he'd not stand a chance against Italy and he knows it!"
"My friend, I can think of nothing I want more."
"This is excellent work," Cook said happily spooning out sauce. "Why, I shall be more than happy to write you a letter of recommendation when Rosa comes back."
"I, er, rather hoped to stay with my daughters..." Signora Sala mumbled.
Cook glanced over to the daughter who was putting the finishing touches to one of her beautiful desserts, oblivious to the footman watching her. "Even when they're married?" she smirked.
"Him? Really? But... isn't he...quite highly placed?"
Cook nodded. "Oh yes. He could have the pick of the girls here, and he knows it. Your girl, though, she barely gives him the time of day. Nothing so attractive as disinterest, to a man who knows he's a catch, believe me, and she has the mystery of the stranger too. I dare say the other girl will make an equally good match. Where is your husband, if you don't mind my asking?"
"He has gone with the young gentleman," she explained. "His price for the use of his horse was work for all of us, he asked to be the young gentleman's steward."
"Ah, well, when they're home I dare say they'll arrange something. They're good people, the Cardinales, not like some I've worked for. My goodness, such a racket, I wonder what... well, never mind that, there's work to be done. Now, for tonight I was thinking..."
As the coach approached Castle Cardinale, Giulietta held Íñigo's hand tighter and tighter.
"Giulietta..." he said, wincing and trying to subtly loosen her fingers. "Whatever we find... will you be my wife at last?"
She nodded, but didn't reply. As Íñigo looked at her, he saw that she was crying. "Come," he said, finally managing to retrieve his hand, and trying to surreptitiously shake some life back into it. "Compose yourself. Would you have your servants see you like this?"
"You speak to them," she said, drawing back into a corner. "I can't."
The coach pulled up at the gates and Íñigo leaned out. "Hello, is Domingo Cardinale at home?"
"I'm afraid not, Sir," the guard said. "I believe he's gone to Florin."
"I see," Íñigo said flatly, his heart in his boots. He knew he should say more, tell them that Giulietta was with him, but the words wouldn't come. He felt her hand on his shoulder, and she leaned forward.
"Get Giulia for me," she said quietly, and the guard bobbed deeply and rushed off. Giulietta sank back into her seat. "I knew it," she whispered. "I knew he would not be here."
Suddenly, the door of the coach flew open and Giulietta disappeared under a huge pile of black fabric which presumably contained her daughter.
"Mother! Oh, Mother, we thought you were drowned!"
"No," came Giulietta's muffled voice. "No. Not I. But Domingo... there was a shipwreck..."
"Another one?!" The pile of fabric drew back, and as the veil was thrown back, Giulia formed on the seat beside Giulietta. "Oh, no!"
"Another?" Íñigo asked.
Giulia turned, noticing him for the first time. "Oh, hello Sigñor Montoya. We heard about the ship you were all on and that you were all dead, then some new servants turned up with a letter from Domingo saying that he had swum ashore and was the only survivior and was going to Florin, and now you're home... where is papa...?"
"I'm sorry," Íñigo sighed. "He was injured in the storm. There, I am afraid, there is no hope; he never made it off the ship. We were adrift nearly two weeks, he would surely have died in that time even if he had."
Giulia shook her head. "I should be sad that he is truly gone... but to have you home, mother... oh, I didn't dare hope!"
"And... you're sure Domingo's alive?"
"Well, I haven't seen him but the letter is in his hand, I'd swear to it. I'll show you. Let's go inside, everyone will be so happy to see you."
The group left the coach, which the guard paid - such concerns were beneath a woman of Giulietta's station - and headed for the house, sending a passing maid to run ahead (running was out for ladies as well) and spread the good news. "Oh, I'm so confused. I want to celebrate because you're alive, but it's just not appropriate, when we're still mourning father!"
"All I really want is a bath and some clean clothes," Giulietta admitted. "And... well... it's about your father, in a way... he asked Signor Montoya to take care of me."
"And he has done, it seems. I shall have my husband arrange a suitable payment for that service."
Íñigo winced. "Actually... you see... the thing is... your father made me promise that I would, uhm..."
"OH!" Giulia said, clapping her hands delightedly. "Of course! You're that Íñigo! You're going to marry mother now? Oh, that's wonderful! Can I be a bridesmaid?"
Giulietta stared at her daughter. "What do you mean that Íñigo?"
Giulia blushed. "Oh, well, I... I thought you were dead! I wouldn't have looked through your things if I'd known, but I missed you so, and found your old sketch-books, and there was an old journal at the bottom of the box."
Giulietta tried desperately to remember if she'd written anything too inappropriate about Íñigo. She knew that quite a lot of what she'd written when she was that age was really quite horrific, her prose extremely purple. Hopefully it was only Giulia who had read it, and not one of the younger - and more sensible – girls, who she was certain would have lost all respect for her if they had.
She was fairly sure that she'd not been stupid enough to admit that she'd ever done more than dance with Íñigo, but perhaps she'd written enough somewhere that someone with the right sort of mind wouldn't have needed it said. There was nothing for it, she was going to have to read the damn thing herself. And check the sketch-books. It was always possible that she hadn't removed and hidden all the drawings she'd done of Íñigo from memory in the weeks after he'd left.
"How long have we been here?" Buttercup asked. It was not the first time.
"I'm not sure, my love," Westley sighed. "I think it's around three weeks."
"I miss the children."
"I miss the servants' children," Fezzik admitted. The giant hadn't said very much while they'd been hiding. "But not as much as I miss Inigo. Do you think Betha will really have to marry Humpedinck?"
"Well," Westley mused. "Normally I'd say she'd find some way out of it, but she seems to have given up. I wouldn't mind the chance to challenge him again..."
"No," Buttercup snapped. "Not now he's King. He's not as bad as some, and you know it's always the common people who suffer most when Kings are disposed of. There'd be all sorts of fighting all over Florin, because if he's killed in mysterious circumstances now then there's no clear successor... unless you want to take crown for yourself? No? I didn't think so." Buttercup had learned a lot, while she was in training to be Queen, most of it about politics and royal succession, though mostly only because someone had got mixed up and given her a lot of the training for being a prince by mistake.
"Naturally not," Westley said. From what Buttercup had told him, being a pirate seemed rather safe by comparison, and even if he'd been greedy enough to want a country of his own, he didn't much like the idea of his children having to live that way.
"If he married her then died, would Betha be Queen?" Fezzik asked.
"Well, yes. I don't think that's a very good idea either, do you?" Buttercup complained. "I don't think she'd last very long. If not some noble here who wants the crown for himself, Guilder would attack. People always think Queens are weak without Kings."
"Hello, Sir," came a voice from the stairs. "Thought you'd want to know. The Countess is getting married."
"Who to?" Buttercup asked. "Humpedinck said he'd kill anyone she married, and it isn't time for their marriage yet, surely?"
"He'll not off this one, Ma'am," the groom said with a grin. "That Italian lad's just turned up. Swam ashore! Came straight here, and they're off to the village chapel now."
"Humpedinck won't dare kill Domingo!" Buttercup crowed. "It would mean war with Italy; France and Spain would side with them. Not even England are stupid enough to stand up to those three together."
"Oh, I think he will," Westley sighed. "It's thought he died in that shipwreck, and there's no way to get news that he's alive past Humpedinck's men."
"Actually, Sir," the groom pointed out, "he has his steward with him, so he must have been home."
"You said he came straight here!" Westley snapped.
"Well that's what he said," the groom complained. "I expect he meant as soon as he'd recovered enough to travel again."
"Inigo must still be recovering," Fezzik mused. "I wonder how long it will be before he comes back?"
Westley winced and Buttercup closed her eyes, unsure whether it would be kinder to not let the giant hope in vain. She couldn't bring herself to say anything, though. It would have been worse than telling their children the truth about where their dog had gone.
Once Giulietta had got clean and rested a little, she summoned Mrs Sala and quizzed her about the boy who she'd seen with her husband, and so she was fairly sure her son was alive – or had been, at least. Of course, he'd gone charging off to Florin all but alone, and goodness knows what might have happened to him since.
Plus, for the sake of propriety, she couldn't marry Íñigo, at least not yet. They only really had Íñigo's word that Alessandro had wanted the two of them to marry after his death, and a swift marriage would have set tongues wagging, everyone would have assumed she'd been having an affair with her son's swordmaster the whole time he was there.
Besides, with no body, Alessandro wasn't actually officially dead yet. They'd turned up alive, despite the odds, and other people had unexpectedly turned up long after a shipwreck or their supposed demise while at war, so it was generally held to be best not to remarry for a year at least, just in case. The trouble was, they couldn't go to Florin after Domingo themselves, either.
Firstly, while it was just about acceptable for her son's sword-master to be living under her roof – and they'd put him back in the room he'd had before, of course – while her son himself was absent, at least unless they heard that he wouldn't be returning, travelling together was quite out of the question. She couldn't really leave Castle Cardinale without a male relative, and the only one she had was Giulia's husband, and he had to stay to see to the running of the state.
Secondly, she wasn't entirely sure what Íñigo's status was right now. He'd been a nobleman so long as he was married to Betha, but their sham of a marriage had expired now, and she was fairly sure that the protection from prosecution for Rugen's death it had given him would have expired with it, and so the moment he set foot on Florinese soil, he would be arrested. She didn't think there had been a case of the sort before in Florinese law, and the courts would do whatever Humpedick wanted.
Thirdly, she had, quite frankly, had enough of ships and travelling, and for that matter, of that awful damp little country, to last her a lifetime. But, oh, she ached to see her son again, and the prospect of spending goodness knows how long doing next to nothing while she waited for word from Domingo, unable to even take any comfort from Íñigo, barely able to see him, even, lacking any real excuse to socialize with him, was terribly depressing. They couldn't even really do anything about Alessandro's will, yet, unless by some miracle his body washed up on the shore, and even then, they'd most likely have to wait until Domingo came back, seeing as the estate was probably going to be his.
Giulietta sighed and glanced up as a maid drifted in, carrying a tray.
"I'm not hungry," she murmurred and sighed again.
"Very good, Ma'am," the maid said with a curtsey, putting the tray down anyway. "Don Dagnino is here to see you."
"Send him away," she snapped, angrily thinking that as the name was vaguely familiar, he was probably someone who'd tried to court her when she was young and had turned up for another try.
"Are you sure, ma'am? He said it was important business."
"I'm sure he did," she grumbled. "My son-in-law deals with all business."
"Very good, ma'am."
Giulietta glowered at the tray for a few minutes, annoyed at how very beautiful the little tiny cakes looked. Every one was a work of art, she thought. It would be rude not to, she supposed. They tasted as good as they looked. Damn. She was just finishing off the last crumbs when Enzo, the aforementioned son-in-law appeared, trailing an elderly and very serious-looking man.
"Apparently this is a delicate matter that only you can deal with," he announced, looking somewhat put out. She knew it irked him to have to run an estate which would never be his, but Alessandro had asked it of him, and so he would do it. To have the man Giulietta now remembered had been her husband's lawyer refuse to deal with him was quite a slight.
"My apologies, madam, it gives me no pleasure to disturb you at this no doubt most difficult time," the old man said with a rather unsteady bow. "But I am afraid my instructions on this were most clear: to present this to you, and you alone, as soon as I received news of my client's passing."
"Without a body..." Enzo began, but the old lawyer shook his head sadly.
"As soon as I received news," he repeated. "Count Cardinale was most emphatic on that point."
"Very well," Giulietta sighed. "Please, take a seat. Thank you, Enzo."
"Ma'am," he nodded, and marched off. Oh well, she would just have to hope Giula could un-ruffle her husband's feathers.
She took the envelope the lawyer held out to her and was surprised to find that rather than indecipherable legal documents, it held a letter, addressed to her in her husband's handwriting, and with his seal. She nodded, and laid it aside.
"Can I offer you a drink?" she asked.
"Thank you, Countess, but no, I have no stomach for it now. But please, do feel free to take one yourself."
She nodded and floated over to the decanter, poured herself a sizeable glass – really she should have called for a servant, but it seemed like far too much effort – and sat back down. For a few moments, she simply stared at the letter, running her fingers over the seal and occasionally sipping. Eventually she got up the courage to open the letter and read.
My Darling Giulietta,
I hope I have never given you cause to doubt that you were the love of my life. I say were, because if you are reading this, then that life is over. As I write this, I am much diminished by illness, and you are, as you have always been, as devoted and faithful a wife as ever a man could wish for, and moreover, as full of life as ever.
Many men seem to feel that, once their life is over, their wife's life too should be over, that she should be but a shadow of her former self without him, and exist as little more than a ghost. My love, that idea is one that I find horrifying, and I fear that I could not go peacefully to my final rest if I thought that you would lose the very vivacity that has given me such joy for so many years, and, indeed, that I have drawn strength from these last few weeks.
Of course, some hold that it is not possible to love more than once, that love is not true unless it is unique, and yet those same people are keen to tell us that God loves each and every one of us, just as every man and woman loves each of their children. We do not cease to love our first child when the second is born, and nor do we love that second child less than the first. Love is not a divisible thing, for love is infinite.
Never for a moment have I regretted marrying you. From the moment I first laid eyes on you, I have felt romantic love for no other, but I must confess that I had loved before we met, and, if fate had been against our union and my heart had been broken again, I do not doubt that sooner or later, my heart would have healed, and I would have loved again. I find myself unable to believe I would have been as happy with any other, but, of course, I would not then have known the bliss of a life with you at my side.
Truly, it is my most fervent wish that after I am gone, you will love again and, if it so suits you, marry again. I know it would break my heart to see you in a condition such as that which afflicts me now, and I could see in your eyes after my accident that you were preparing to lose me. When a heart prepares itself for loss, it also opens itself up to gain, and so I think it likely that, if I have lingered long in the world in this sorry state, there is a good chance that by now you are ready to love again. Perhaps you already do. I beg you, my dearest one, do not wait, if that is so, not for a single day.
Oh, how I wish that I could not see how unhappy my illness makes you, for I know you try to conceal it from me. I want that sadness to end as quickly as possible. I would rather you marry again the very same day as my heart stops beating than imagine you weeping in a widow's weeds for even one day.
You promised to be faithful and to love me until death parted us, and that I know you have done. You never promised fidelity after my death however, and, my dearest, I would never want it. I want nothing but your happiness.
And so, as I can no longer provide that for you, I must demand that you find one who can.
Your devoted husband,
The lawyer sat as still as a statue while she read, and for a few minutes while she cried into her drink after she had finished. Eventually, she got herself back under control and wiped her eyes. Once she had, the lawyer seemed to come back to life.
"I am not privy to the contents of the letter, madam, but I spoke with the Count shortly before your, ah, recent trip. He left instructions that, in the event of an incident at sea, or any other eventuality that would ordinarily cause delay, taking into consideration of the state of his health and how very unlikely that would make the possibility of, shall we say, an unexpectedly fortuitous return, that the usual delays in carrying out his wishes be dispensed with. Including those wished expressed in the letter. I do hope that he has not tasked you with anything too onerous."
"What? Oh. No. No."
"If it is anything you might need my assistance with..."
"No. No it... a personal matter."
"Ah, quite, quite. Well. I understand that your son is currently away on business?"
"Something like that."
"Well then the official reading of the will have to wait, but there are a number of other matters to attend to, for which I believe, I should be consulting your son-in-law."
Giulietta rang for a maid and had her take Dagnino to Enzo, and bring Giulia back. She needed to have a word about how much her daughter thought she knew, and who, if anyone, she'd told.