No man shall prosper
Ni malvat, armat, galiador
Ni mensongier, guerrayador
Ni encara gentilhom
They say that when Dieusa, our Goddess, made this world and all within, She created women and men equal. It was an age of peace and prosperity. Yet in time, some amongst the number of men were dissatisfied. From greed and lust for dominion, they quarrelled with their fellows: and so began the age of war and petty kingdoms.
And if none could tolerate the mastery of another, still less would he allow any woman to be Mistress of him. So in pride and jealousy men dismissed the gifts of women: exchanged peace for the honour of conflict; and turned woman from partner and equal to obedient bride.
So the story is told, in whispers, mostly, wherever women gather to gossip and bemoan their lot. For there must be some reason for the pain, the sorrow, the unfairness of it all. Surely no just Goddess would inflict such suffering on her own?
In Cassonne — renh sant, the sacred realm: the Goddess’ realm — they tell another story: oft times openly, though there are men would punish you for so doing. They speak of a woman and a gift given secretly: of how Goddess, seeing how her work was gone astray, resolved to put things right. What was this gift? Many have guessed: but none there are now that know. Yet there followed a Golden Age when woman once more took up the reins and joined together with man in governance.
It is a pretty story: a fine story with which to cheer a daughter. And it is myth: merest myth. Since who could ever imagine such a world? Myth it must be. Though none there are who can quite explain why, to this day, the crown in Cassonne passes through the female line. Nor why in Cassonne, of all the Ancient Realms, men tread slightly lighter, that bit more cautiously. As though they, too, know there is more to this tale than meets the eye.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“Aa-a-aargh!” For those unused to the ways of the Royal Palace in Cassonne, the scream that rent the early morning air might have given cause for alarm. As it was, neither the sound of a young woman venting her frustration on the world at large, nor the loud crash that followed, as Mercè, Princess Royal and Queen Apparent, tipped over the table on which her chamber maid had, so very recently, laid out her breakfast, caused more than a slight raising of eyebrows in the corridors and apartments adjacent her own.
In the courtyard, a flight of doves took fright, rising into the air to a scattering of fine white feathers. Outside the door to her chamber, two guards, each kitted in the pale blue livery of Cassonne remained at ease and did not come running. Though one did glance nervously across at the other, signalling, perhaps, concern at the dilemma posed. Because standing by and doing nothing while your monarch was being assassinated was never a good career move. But nor was disturbing the Princess when, as now, she was in a rage. Awkward!
Easily sorted, though. Not five minutes since, Bertran, elderly chamberlain and adviser to three generations of Cassonne Royalty had exited the apartment at some pace. The Princess’ tantrum kicked off moments after. Why? If the specifics of the conversation had not penetrated the thick oak door separating Princess from her guards, it was nonetheless open secret that relations with her “trusted advisor” had been strained of late.
Soon, very soon, her 21st birthday would signal two significant, inescapable facts. First, that Mercè was of an age to rule in her own right. No longer would she be subject to the restraining influence of a Regent Council, set up to advise and govern with her over the last four years, ever since the tragic and unexpected loss of both parents.
Second, and closely related: she would be old enough to marry. Alright: in theory, the Council could have required her to marry sooner. But they were happy enough to put off any final choice for as long as politely possible. Better, they reckoned, to keep suitors, as well as potential friends and enemies, guessing .
This worked for Bertran, happy to weave his convoluted diplomatic way between the Kings and Princelings of half a dozen nearby states, using Cassonne’s exceptionally late age of majority as excuse. It worked for his fellow- and rival — statesmen, who, for all the complaining that THEIR Prince had not been picked for this rich and powerful alliance, could yet console themselves with knowing that none other had, either. And it worked for Mercè, who had no desire whatsoever to be prize in an auction in which Cassonne’s needs came first, second and last: and her own wishes counted for next to nothing.
At least: so it had been. But just two months now separated Mercè from her new and grander status. Queen she would be: a power in the land. But no sooner Queen, than also wife, and subject, so the Law affirmed, to the rule of a husband. A Prince Consort. For alongside many another Cassonne curiosity was tradition, seemingly unassailable, that the throne should pass from Queen to Queen. Never to King! Though, since the idea of a woman ruling without the aid of wiser masculine counsel by her side was both offensive and unthinkable, there was always a Consort. Always a man there to hold her hand and guide her.
Some there were, in Cassonne’s long history, resisted the demand for many years. In the end though, almost all succumbed. For if they wished their daughter, in turn, to ascend the throne, there must be a wedding. There must be a pretty ceremony whose purpose, sublimely concealed behind the flowers and ribbons and feasting and dancing and well-wishing, was to legitimise the next Princess. “The elegant trap”, Mercè christened it when first she was of an age to understand all that her birthing implied.
“Aaaargh!” Mercè gave vent a second time, casting an eye about, as she did so, for something new to eject from the window. She was in the process of weighing up the merits of throwing what remained of the fruit plate from her breakfast when she was interrupted by a gentle knock at her door.
She paused, a bowl of oranges and apples neatly balanced in one hand. “Enter!”
The door opened cautiously upon a slight, if portly, older woman. Seurine, childhood nurse, tutor and, in recent years, more and more her closest confidante stood nervously in the entry.
“Seurine!” In a moment Mercè’s anger dissolved, giving way to relief that her friend had arrived in her moment of need.
“Dòmna”, Seurine nodded her head as mark of respect: then looked quizzically at the fruit assortment. “You were learning to juggle?”
Mercè laughed. “Oh, Seurine: I wish!
“But no. If truth be told, I was hoping that if I threw the apples fast enough I might catch Dom Bertran, that maldit, that cursed …MAN, as he scurries back to his lair!”
“Why, dòmna: you should not waste good fruit. If you must throw something…just throw the bowl. It is infinitely more replaceable and, I dare say, would hurt twice as much.”
“That it would! But Seurine: what am I to do?”
“In what sense? Are you asking me to advise on which projectiles would make the greatest impact on the good dom Bertran’s head? Or is there some other matter on which you require counsel today?”
Mercè replaced the bowl on the table next to her . “There is much to commend your projectile plan. But no, Seurine. Bertran was just here to remind me that there are but two months remaining til my birthday and after that…
“Well, you know what comes after.”
Seurine nodded. “I do. But surely there is no need for you to be married the day after.”
“Oh, absolutely. He was good enough to suggest I might want to ‘undergo’ a period of courtship. ‘Undergo’, for Dieusa’ sake! Like he was preparing me for the dinner table! But ‘events, dear girl, events!’ Such ‘events’ as I could not possibly understand — by which he meant the usual petty squabbling amongst the Kingdoms! — mean it would be advantageous to Cassonne to settle the question of succession at the earliest possible.
“The succession question! As if I am some philosophical topic to be debated and settled by the menfolk on the Council!”
“He can’t make you marry, my dear.”
“No. That he can’t. But he made clear that he can make life considerably less pleasant. Because even after I attain my majority, the Council can grant or withhold any number of privileges. He as good as gave me an ultimatum!
“Worse, he started quoting quotes at me!”
“How do you mean?”
“Oh. The usual. Those things a woman must understand if she is to be dutiful wife. A bint ans qui boli. A bint è cinq…”
“…qui trobi. A trento qui me bol. The cheeky devil!” Seurine stared open-mouthed at the Princess.
“Yes: ‘at 20 whosoever I want. At twenty five, whoever I find. At thirty, whoever wants me.’
“You know, there was a time there were Queens, the old High Queens, it is said, would have had Bertran’s head for that impudence.”
“My thought, too. And if he’d said that to me, I’d have thrown much more than a bowl of fruit!”
“I’m sure you would.
“But for all he is oft times a bore with the manners and the odour and the sexual appetite of a goat, he knows what he does. He has helped keep Cassonne prosperous and outside of war for nigh on 50 years. I owe it to my people …and to my mother who was Queen before me…
“I…I have a duty.”
“You do that, koro meu! My heart! These last years have been hard on you: your mother would be proud.”
“Tsk!” Mercè dismissed the kindness with a click of her tongue. “My life is good. More privileged, I daresay, than any other young women in Cassonne today. Should I mourn that it cannot be perfect?
“My dear, no: just, there are times when you should make space for yourself.”
Mercè nodded. “Perhaps. Though first, I am Princess, and Queen to be. That is my lot. And I shall not be found wanting.”
* * * ** * * * * * * * * * * *
When it comes to suitors, Time is the ficklest of them all. Slow and majestic when you need it to run ahead of your desire. And swift as the wind when you want it to lag. Two months passed in the blink of an eye, with scarce a day gone by without some new thought given to Mercè’s impending birthday celebration.
It was to be a grand occasion because how could it not? The coming of age of a Queen in Cassonne was rare enough: for many, a once, twice in a lifetime affair; and Mercè, for reasons she could not quite fathom, was popular. For the most part, she guessed, because she had not had chance to rule in her own name. Yet. Just you wait! She whispered to herself at least twice each day: when the people find out what an imposter you are, they will not be cheering.
Still, preparations for the grand feast went smoothly. The great and the good from amongst Cassonne’s neighbours and next-to-neighbours received their invitations and back came an avalanche of good wishes and acceptance. Even Ammerschwihr, whose king Geseleic was on his death bed would be sending a delegation. Also, and slightly more to Mercè’s taste, a wagonload of the excellent wine for which that otherwise insignificant statelet was famed.
In Cassonne, as the formal hour drew near, Seurine was exasperated with the young Princess. “Dòmna mia! You are not wearing armour to your coming of age celebration!”
“Whyever not? There’s a few princes I imagine will be wearing ceremonial breast plate. Why must they alone be allowed such niceties?”
“Mercè: you know well why not! The wagging of tongues and, my! Do you imagine any young man taking interest in a Senhora who besports herself in such a way. You might as well turn up with a sword and dagger by your side!”
“You mean I should not?” Mercè teased. “I have a very fine sword: a gift from my father on my 12th birthday.”
Mercè sighed in mock disappointment. “Alright. I promise. I shall, as you advised and — as I see you have already laid out for me — put on my beautiful blue birthday gown . No armour. No cuisse: no greave. Nor even a simple vambrace!”
“Vambrace?” Seurine eyed Mercè suspiciously.
“It is worn under the gauntlet. It would make a fine bracelet.”
“Then you may as well help me into my gown and…There are two girls due any moment to fix up my hair. I would appreciate if you stayed to dissuade them from whatever monstrosity takes their imagination. You know, at my mother’s coronation, my great-aunt arrived with her hair formed into the shape of a two-tier galley!”
“So I heard. Thankfully, I was not on hand to witness such horror.”
“Lucky you.” For a while the two women worked in silence, punctuated by occasional protest from Mercè, and as often, an exclamation of exasperation from Seurine. “So many ribbons!” Mercè complained.
“I believe it is the law”, Seurine responded, with mock solemnity. “The seriousness of a woman is directly proportional to the yards of ribbon with which she is restrained. The greater the ribbon…”
“…the greater the Senhora! I know. I know.” Mercè sighed. “At least I am to be presented in blue. A good womanly colour. And the colour of Cassonne. How is it that men can bear to deck themselves out in pink so much?”
“Pink for blood, Mercè: I understand it is intended to demonstrate their boldness. Or bravery. Or something.”
Mercè laughed. “They do so like to wear their bravery in public. Still, I tell you now: I am not marrying anyone who arrives dressed all in pink !”
“Indeed.” Seurine stepped back to check her work and to adjust Mercè’s girdle, pulling it tighter as she did so.
“Ow!” Mercè protested.
“Complain as you will. A Senhora has a waist. And hips. Even if you would rather pretend otherwise. Riding out to hunt in such shapeless, shameless habits!”
“And this fine dress would not last two hours a-horseback!”
“ So”, Seurine deemed a change of subject might be politic: “who might you be up for marrying tonight?”
“Tonight? I hope not. I am speaking with Bertran once more, and only occasionally tormenting him with fruit. There are, it seems, but three suitable candidates for my hand. Two, if we rule out the somewhat effete son of King Peire of Alvernhe.
“When I say suitable, I mean, of course, suitable for Cassonne. Since I am sure there are many more young men out there of marriageable age who would no doubt leap at the chance to marry a Princess. But there is no gain to be had in allying to any kingdom too distant. Nor with any too powerful, since that might cause others to imagine we are become too ambitious.
“So I must choose a princeling from some place not too far, not too near. Not too grand, nor yet too poor.
“I must choose, in the end, twixt Tomàs of Auvergne and Bernardon of Ortès. In so doing I shall make the Regent Council most happy.”
“And you, my dear?“
“I shall be happy — ecstatic, even — to serve my people. What more is there to say? I have enjoyed every advantage in life and passed a golden youth. Now I must pay the price.”
“ Truly?” Seurine sought out Mercè’s eyes with her own: seeking the acceptance the young woman’s words belied.
Mercè looked away. “Truly, dòmna”.
Seurine remained unconvinced.
“If it is good for Cassonne, then it is good for me. And what is not good, must yet be endured.
“Besides,” Mercè shrugged: “I might even fall in love with Tomàs or Bernardon”.
Seurine stepped back for one last look at her precious charge. Where, she wondered, was the sweet blonde-curled infant who’d come to her with knees scraped, and pleading some place to hide from the palace guard for this or that childish transgression? Where the girl, desperate for tales of days gone by, seeking even then, Seurine understood now, to escape the “elegant trap”: the trap that, in a matter of a few hours, might close on her for life?
When, indeed, had she grown to be this tall, strong and — yes! — commanding Princess? What need a Consort with one such as Mercè on the throne. But the Council and the nobles and the men of power would not have it. So Mercè must submit.
“Only,” Seurine offered up a small prayer to the Goddess: “Only let it be with a man who understands and respects her. Any less would be cruelty beyond words.”
She sighed and spoke aloud once more. “Fall in love? You might indeed, my dear. Stranger things have been known to happen.
“But come: let us have the girls in to see to your hair, and then: well, then you have a party to attend to.”
If you would like to continue reading, the second part of this story is here.
Many thanks, in advance this time, to Thibaud Ducros — also known as Tibaud Delcròs (in Occitan) or Tebôd Ducrôx (in Arpitan)- though better known to me as @PersonaPositiva: a Twitter friend and speaker of modern day occitan, who has guided me greatly in the Occitan language.