— Chapter IV —
Helena first saw the knight at a league’s distance. Jörg Spiess was a nobleman from one of the surrounding counties. With his significant holdings, he was well known by many within Innsbruck proper, although Helena had never met him. Astride his smoky mare, Spiess seemed to tower into the mist-filled sky. And her heart rose with him.
Then he was gone; the feeling dissipated and Helena was alone again. But this time, she didn’t even have Abella for company. The halls of their estate were less inviting than ever before. Sebastian was off again in some far-flung location, supposedly near the city of Algiers – another destination that Helena supposed she would never see. She attempted to busy herself with books, rereading The Decameron, and even took to her own compositions, something she had put aside several years ago. But the days still went by with agonizing torpidity. And it wasn’t until Sebastian came back two weeks later that things began to once again move forward.
During her marriage, Helena’s life had been defined by a reliable pattern. When Sebastian was traveling, the estate was barren, the conversation static. Whenever he returned from the road, the household came alive: banquets were the norm, and the fires stayed lit well past midnight. In these periods, Helena felt both close to and distant from her husband. She considered herself lucky that, due his relative wealth and influence, Sebastian brought the world to their door. Even still, their personal interactions with one another always remained muted and stiff; they were kind and respectful to one another – but never for a moment passionate.
It was, by all intensive purposes, a relationship that was largely companionate in nature. And the couple was fine with that. He shared few of her intellectual pursuits. And she was nowhere near as well-traveled. Sebastian had seen many things that she only encountered on the page. He would share his experiences with her, opening up about touring Damascus’s city square known colloquially as the “tower of heads” or describe the ornate beauty of the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. But for the most part, their lives were their own.
A few weeks after Helena first encountered Spiess, Sebastian returned from northern Africa flush with contacts and sizable portions of gold and silver. A lavish dinner was soon scheduled with Innsbruck’s notables, sparking a frenzy of activity throughout the household. Madam Magpie managed the cooking, while Sebastian himself oversaw the rest of the preparations. But Helena primarily stayed out of the way, finding such domesticity unfulfilling at best and aggravating at worst.
Eventually, the night of the event arrived. The house was abuzz with the chatter of guests and the delicious odor of roasted mutton and onions. Helena wore a long dress of deep jade, her dark brown hair pulled back in intertwining braids. Descending from the upper floor of the manor house, she scanned the guests milling about. There were clerics and trades people, merchants and knights, many of whom Helena had met several times before. Nobody of interest, however, jumped out at her. There was not a place for her here.
But then Jörg Spiess stood up on the opposite end of the room. He towered over the rest of the visitors, his light brown hair shining in the candlelight, hand twisting itself through his goatee. His cream-colored doublet was immaculately clean, and at his side hung an enormous rapier sheathed in a beautifully-crafted marvel of leather and metal. As he moved through the crowd toward where she was standing, the flashing blue-green of his eyes became more brilliantly apparent. Helena was rooted to the spot, frozen in place by something deep and indescribable.
Their eyes met and Helena was transported. She teetered on her heels, but then the sensation passed. Sebastian had appeared. He took her arm, and they walked together toward the dining hall. Their cadence was stiff, their bodies essentially separate. Formality was in abundance, and their chemistry wanting.
“You look beautiful,” he said dryly close to her ear, his breath thick with pipe smoke.
She smiled weakly, a tidal wave of guilt washing over her body and mind. Allowing her limp form to be steered to the head of the table, she craned her neck, trying to keep an eye out for Spiess. But her vision was obscured by the other guests. She sat down and waved Sebastian off, as his presence had become smothering. The seat to her right was still open, and in a moment of euphoria, she imagined Spiess taking the spot. But it was soon occupied by the Lady Ada Aimar, the insipid wife of another local merchant who had never heard gossip she didn’t want to circulate or a rumor she didn’t want to fuel.
The dinner began and seemed to stretch on for hours. Helena played with her food, building shanks of mutton into a tower before knocking them down again. Ada kept talking until she eventually tired herself out, a process helped along exponentially by her downing a half dozen glasses of mead.
After the pudding was served, the dinner ended and the party broke up into separate rooms. Helena wandered from one side of house to the next while sipping wine absentmindedly. Her wandering drew her to the upper floor balcony, which looked out onto the western section of Innsbruck. The moon was full, and the night was cool. Adjacent to the balcony stood an apple tree, its branches weighed down by an abundance of ripe fruit.
“Enjoying the night?” came a voice behind her.
She turned to see that Spiess had appeared on the balcony behind her.
Up close, the knight was even more striking. His skin was fair and seemingly spotless, his eyes brown. The goatee that covered the bottom half of his face was closely trimmed, and she could just barely make out that it was a nearly equal mixture of brown and grey.
“Ah, Sir Speiss. We’re so glad you were able to come.”
The knight was moving fully onto the balcony, his towering frame nearly grazing the top of the wooden door frame. But upon hearing her words, he stopped short and looked at her with wider eyes.
“Am I addressing the lady of the house?”
“Well met my lady!”
Speiss twirled his hand in a circle, dropped his eyes and bent a knee, nearly touching the course ground of the balcony.
“Please sir, rise,” Helena responded, her cheeks growing hot. Speiss’s flamboyant gesture was indicative of courtly procedure. But she could not fathom why he was doing it in her presence, as Helena was certainly no noblewoman.
“The eyes of such a fair hostess are not to be met directly.”
Fanning herself slightly, Helena saw, to her horror, that other members of the party were now beginning to notice them on the veranda. Any moment now, Sebastian would become aware that something was off. His wife was alone with another man, a compromising position that would almost assuredly bring about embarrassment.
“You must rise, Sir Spiess. This is most improper.”
The knight righted himself. His hand grasping the hilt of his blade.
“My lady, I have traveled to every end of the Empire, seen things you couldn’t believe. The last thing I’m concerned with is what’s proper.”
Helena felt herself grow quiet. Speiss walked forward and extended his hand, and she felt a small but visceral thrill move up her spine. But he passed by her, his hand stretching out until he grasped the nearest apple from the adjacent tree and plucked it free. He took a greedy bite, the juices of the fruit running freely into his beard. Helena was both horrified and fascinated, transfixed at this man and his dismissal of all provincial decorum.
Minutes ticked by and Speiss regaled her with stories of his travels. Unlike Sebastian’s tales, which were often static and stodgy, evocative of stone and memory rather than present day flesh and blood, Speiss spoke from a place of raw passion and curiosity. With wild hand gestures, he brought the peoples of the East and South into clear and vivid focus. He described agrarian cults that lived and flourished deep in the Alps, isolated communities that lay beyond the hand of Rome. His musings were marked by evocative imagery, of idols and traditions suggestive of a cosmology grander and wilder than Helena could possibly have imagined. His words painted a picture of lands apart from time, free of the rigid orthodoxy and hierarchical formations that were part and parcel of the world as she understood it.
After a moment’s pause, Helena slowly exhaled and said, “You’ve seen much, Sir Speiss.”
“I’ve seen enough,” he said quietly in response, moving gradually closer to her, “But have you?”
The night was passing by, and yet Helena didn’t want it to end. Drunken shouts and laughter emanated from inside the manor. He was taking her away from everything she had known; the house and the city and the life were falling into darkness. Her path had diverged. She took the apple from Speiss’s hand, biting into its fibrous flesh, her teeth brushing over Speiss’s own marks. And its sweetness engulfed her. Speiss had a look on his face that was impossible to discern, and her future appeared to be anything but set, instead now resembling the perfect distillation of raw opportunity.