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The Plague Tales Excerpt Page 3
Ann Benson
Delacorte Press, 474 pages
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        Princess Isabella managed to stay away until the following morning. Alejandro, awakened on his cot in the nearby gatehouse, sighed heavily when a soldier advised him of the Princess' presence outside.
        "Good morning, Doctor Hernandez," she chirped gaily. "I would like to ask you some questions about the terms of Master Reed's confinement."
        As tired as he was, Alejandro knew that he could not put her off; she would continue to pester him until she had the information she wanted. "Yes, Princess, how can I advise you?" he asked, more politely than he felt.
        "I would like to know how closely I may approach the chapel windows, or if I might pass through sketches of my ideas for new dresses for Master Reed's perusal. Surely it will shorten his visit here if he can do some preliminary work while remaining in his temporary 'suite'. I am not of a mind to bring him too much inconvenience."
        As if a fortnight of confinement were not inconvenient, he thought. "Your sketches may be given to Master Reed," the physician stated rather coolly, "but not by your own hand. We will pass them through the serviette. I will be happy to arrange for their delivery if you will give them to me."
        Elated, the Princess advised him in a happy tone that she would send a folio of parchments of her own creation, which she said should be treated with the utmost care and given directly to her tailor as soon as possible. Does she even remember our bitter disagreement? he wondered as he watched her walk away. She behaves as if this entire undertaking has been a pleasant and cooperative effort towards a mutually agreeable end. She finds it completely normal for this much fuss to be made in reaction to her demands.
        Not long after Isabella left, Adele arrived with the rolled drawings. Alejandro was delighted to see her, for she afforded him a momentary escape from him vigil. As he took the scrolls from her, he said, "Lady Throxwood, your presence warms my heart."
        "It is my heart which is warmed, Monsieur; I readily offered my services when the Princess sought a messenger for her drawings. She was at first hesitant to send me on what she deemed to be a menial errand, but I convinced her that such important works should be carried by someone who understands their value."
        "Adele," he said, boldly using her first name, "I can think of no one better suited. I regret that we have so few opportunities to meet, for your company is most pleasing and welcome."
        They conversed briefly about recent events, cherishing the rare stolen moment. Then Adele excused herself reluctantly, saying that Isabella awaited her, and would soon send another lady to find her if she did not return.
        "I regret that our paths cross so infrequently," Alejandro said sadly.
        "Then we shall have to find reasons to change those paths so that they are more to our liking," she answered. "I bid you good afternoon, Doctor, and I look forward to our next meeting with much anticipation."
        His heart pounded as he watched her walk away; he had to force himself to return to the business at hand. After checking on the condition of Matthews and Reed, Alejandro found Sir John and told him, "All seems to be well and calm here; please pass these scrolls through the serviette to Master Reed. I am in great need of cleansing and refreshment, so I shall leave you now for my own quarters."
        After thanking the knight for his diligent efforts, the physician walked back toward the south wing of the castle, where he could bathe in the privacy of his own apartment. He dismissed the manservant who had prepared his hot bath, then removed all his clothing and lowered himself into the tub of steaming water. He scrubbed every inch of his body vigorously as if to wash away his distaste for the ludicrous exercise in which he had just participated.
        Months after his branding, the circular scar was still an angry red; soon it would begin to fade. Although the scar would never completely disappear, he might someday, if I live, he thought, wear the collar of his shirt open again.
                                * * *
        Just after dawn on the fourth day of the rider's confinement, in the middle of yet another dream of pursuit by agitated ghouls, Alejandro was roughly shaken awake by his manservant, who poked and shook his arm like an anxious child requiring its mother's attention.
        "Monsieur! Monsieur! You are summoned to the gate! Arise, for Sir John requires your attendance!"
        Still groggy, Alejandro rubbed his eyes and peered through his mental haze at the toothless elderly man whose hearty breath betrayed his proximity. He arose quickly and dressed, then followed the guard through the labyrinthine corridors to the main courtyard. The quickness of the soldier's pace indicated the importance of the mission; evidently something of great significance had occurred during the night.
        He returned the knight's brisk salute with a quick bow, and asked with trepidation if the cause for his summons was Matthews or Reed.
        "Neither," replied the distressed man, "it is the horse."
                                * * *

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        Matthews' horse was prancing about the pen for no apparent reason, wildly snorting and frothing; he would turn in a wide circle, then abruptly rear up and down and head in the other direction. Now and again he would run up to the railings of the low fence and rub his lathered neck against the rough wood, scratching himself until his neck was raw and bleeding, but finding no apparent relief from his agony. His ankles were visibly swollen; each movement caused the poor animal terrible pain.
        "How long has this behavior been going on?"
        "I noticed last night before retiring that the animal was skittish and nervous, but it is not entirely unusual for a stallion to behave so, especially if he catches wind of a mare in season. I thought little of it then and went to bed without concern. But this morning he saw still prancing. I have not seen this odd behavior before, either in the water-dreading malady or the twisted stomach disorder that so frequently torments even the strongest horses. I do not understand this animal's strange dance. But I am certain he is not well; I fear that this one behaves as if he had the plague, and I thought to consult you immediately."
        "And well done," Alejandro assured him. "If this animal is pestiferous, I fear the worst for Matthews and the tailor."
        Sir John glanced at the chapel, then turned back to Alejandro and said, "Then surely I have sent him to his death, and it will be on my head."
        Alejandro looked at him, pitying his untenable position, and said what the man could not untreasonously say for himself. "It is not on your head or mine, good sir, but that of the Princess and her overindulgent father. And time will give us the answer we seek; if we are lucky, there will be no blame to be borne. Let us watch this animal carefully; perhaps he will recover soon, and our fears will be put to rest. For the time being, let us keep this between us."
                                * * *
        Their fears were not put to rest, but only increased. For the next few hours, the horse continued to prance about in a similar manner, but his already frantic pace had quickened, and the frequency of his neck-rubbings increased until there was barely any skin left intact. Soon he began to slow down, but the change of tempo could not be attributed to any improvement in the animal's condition. He had simply exhausted all of his energy. Finally, the horse was calm, and stood still in the middle of the small pen, his rasping breath quite audible even from the small gate window. His sides heaved erratically with each shallow breath. The animal began to sway slightly, and tried valiantly to maintain its balance, but was finally forced by its own fatigue to give up the brave fight. The sickening sound of a snapping bone accompanied the horse's crumpling fall to the ground, and Alejandro covered his hands with his face, unable to watch the final death throes of the once magnificent stallion.
        "Keep this to yourself yet, Sir John." He left the old soldier standing there, his head bowed in shame, and headed toward the chapel. There he found Matthews standing with his face between two of the wooden bars, staring out into the courtyard, watching the activities of his comrades as they practiced at swordplay. The man looked well enough, and had made no specific complaints, but Alejandro didn't want to rely on Matthews' ability to recognize a symptom worthy of report. He greeted the man, and inquired about his condition.
        "I feel quite good, thank you, Sir," was the soldier's quick response. "Mostly I feel envy that my fellow guards are out there practicing without me. My belly grows fat from this inactivity and I am as sluggish as an old worm."
        His interest piqued by the report of sluggishness, the physician queried him further. "Are you feeling tired, or lethargic?"
        "As I said, Sir, I feel sluggish, but I am certain it is from the indolent life I lead in this small cell."
        "Has your head ached, or is your neck stiff?"
        The soldier replied, "Thankfully, no. I assure you, Doctor, I am unafflicted."
        Alejandro ended the interview with Matthews, and looked around the dim cell for signs of Reed. His eyes finally settled on a round figure bent over the table, intently studying what looked to be the Princess's drawings. He thought to call out to the man, but hesitated, not wishing to alarm him unnecessarily. But he stayed in the area for the remainder of the day, and kept a close eye on the men's activities, just in case their conditions should suddenly change.
        When he was summoned again the next morning, he knew it was not to attend to the horse.

Copyright © 1997 by Ann Benson. All rights reserved.
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