Carpe diem, young man! Seize the day!
– Burutzagi Zumaya
An Icon of Children’s Literature Reimagined in a Series of Novellas
4. BITTOR BALKS
“IT’S BITTOR.” Zagi stood at a window, watching a lank figure on the plaza striding purposefully in their direction. “In mufti, wouldn’t you know it.” He shot d’Ollot an exasperated look. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the boy. He’s a good boy, a sweet boy. But, our King? Heaven help us!” The Archbishop winced.
“Momentarily. He’s barreling along on those long legs. So, he’s come. I half expected he would not. He’s not pleased with you, sir.”
“He’s never been pleased with me.”
“I shall rephrase. Not pleased doesn’t begin to convey it. He is, to use Ametza’s colorful term, barking batshit. I must calm him tonight. He is exceedingly irritated, at both of us.”
“How you got him here, there’s a miracle.”
“I had to lean hard. Get set. Here he is . . . the gate . . . the steps . . . the stoop.”
“Here we go then.” D’Ollot headed for the entry.
“Pretend you don’t know him. Puts him in a grand mood. Thinks he’s a slick at disguises.”
* * *
A FIGURAL KNOCKER, the head of a big-horn ram, struck with a wallop. D’Ollot counted to ten and cracked the door. Resisting the impulse to spit Get in here, you idiot, he regarded a stranger sternly, then curiously, finally, fingertip to lip in astonishment. “Good God, Sir!” he murmured. “You certainly have gotten the better of one who prides himself on being on his toes.” He bowed elaborately and ushered his visitor past the threshold with a sweeping gesture. “Welcome, Highness, to my humble home.” Bittor grinned.
Zagi embraced him warmly. “Dear boy! Lovely of you to join us. Between Prince Bittor and myself,” he told Gustave, “ceremony is cast aside. This consultation demands privacy, not easily come by on high,” he motioned in the direction of the palace. “He graciously agreed to meet here. He had demanded to convene at my apartment. Unwise. Too much coming and going, and a certain delicious creature barging in on me at the drop of a hat. I’ve encouraged it, of course. I enjoy her company tremendously.” He winked at Bittor. “I am not alone in this, I believe.” Bittor flushed.
“Your secret is safe with us,” Gustave assured the unsettled royal. “We are on your side, I promise you.”
We don’t run into her until later in the book,
but I have the image ready so I’m putting it up.
The two Bixantas.
Left, Bixanta, as she portrays herself: the wealthy widow, returned home after many years in Paris. That’s her story. She’s not wealthy, and she’s not a widow. She’s led a hard life. She’s crawled home to lick her wounds. Bixanta-the-widow paints simple watercolors of the Virgin Mary to sell at church fairs, to benefit the poor box, though she gets a cut off each one sold.
Right, Bixanta, aka Buttercup. She needs to keep up appearances while she figures out what to do next. For that, she needs money. So it’s back to the old grind. (What does that grind consists of? Read the book.) Something’s gotta break her way.
Something does, thanks to Sly and his boys.
Chapter four continued
A KING-IN-WAITING feels fairly useless, no significant duties except for keeping out of the incumbent’s hair. Many a prince is a playboy, but Bittor’s allowance does not permit him to run wild in Paris, and it’s not his nature to do so. He might spend his time profitably, educating himself for his future responsibilities. Alas, this is not to his taste either. He might develop a line of gourmet foodstuffs, like Prince Charles has done, offering his subjects what passes, in that misfortunate realm, for advantageous employment. This is exactly what he’s chosen to get involved with. Bittor has taken charge of his destiny, in a small way. Life choices have never been his to make. He and the archbishop have that in common.
In the cathedral kitchen, under the tutelage of a top chef, he has experimented with seasonings and mix-ins. The girl from the bakery across the plaza, whom Zagi has taken under his wing, is happy to assist, chopping and mixing and chattering gaily. She’s vibrant, and witty, and cute as a button. Zagi has more or less adopted her. She does for him in innumerable ways. She fills his bachelor apartment with a warmth it has never known. She has inserted herself into his daily routine and, propriety be damned, he will not do without her.
There is nothing salacious about the relationship. He enjoys her energy. He studies her. He takes her down, her quips, that is. He asks blunt questions, she gives honest answers, she has no artifice, no agenda.1 His plays–I mentioned the plays, right?–consist of romantic farce, fare that, if he can get himself up to Paris, is the hot ticket. How do you conceive risqué romps when you have no experience with females but for graying matrons, blushing brides, and brats preparing for the first communion? A vivacious shop-girl is his muse, welcome at all times.
Zagi has begun to give a chit elocution lessons, to train deportment, correct grammar, smooth rough edges. A pragmatist, he sees a capable queen, a genuinely good-hearted one,1 who will be the salvation of another weakling Muruzábal king.
Bittor, also underfoot due to his culinary interests, is a likely lad, as they say. He’s amiable, charming in a lunkheadish way, but no thinker, that’s for sure, and, like his father, easily flustered. As with the Valois, weakness plagues the male offspring. Watching Bitts and Ametza interact, Zagi perceives a gentleness between them. They seem to genuinely like each other. The girl is strong-willed, potentially the equal of the She-Dragon, the Queen. This is Bittor’s term, Zagi does not dare employ it, though he agrees with it in every respect.
Let’s go in. Relax, we haven’t missed anything important. D’Ollot has been laying the groundwork for his pitch, a review of the kingdom’s financial woes, stressing the duress Bittor will be under in the none too distant future, praising his business acumen, his willingness to experiment, citing his cheese venture as the proof of a marvelously entrepreneurial spirit, showering him with the admiring encouragement we all love to get and too seldom deserve.
* * *
“YOUR HIGHNESS,” said Zagi, “You have the drive, and the brains, sir, that your father, poor soul, is something short of. Your cheese is a superior product; everyone who tries it loves it. What would you say to a steady stream of visitors to our soil? Thousands, sampling your wares, transporting portions home to every corner of Christendom, buying direct, no middleman to take a cut. Is this not a dream come true?”
“We have a plan,” crooned d’Ollot. “It involves a bit of fraud, but I call the crime insignificant compared to the great good that will ensue, as opposed to the very small harm.”
Zagi nodded vigorously. “M. d’Ollot has studied my proposal and has found it sound from a business standpoint. I have prayed over the ethics and I am at peace. Worshipers will be reconfirmed in their faith, an excellent thing, you must agree. Landowners supplying produce, merchants retailing, sojourners refreshed, all gain. You will own the monopoly on cheese, naturally.” Bittor perked up. His second glass of an exotic cordial has sunk him into a torpor which the mention of cheese penetrates as little else could have done.
“I propose,” said Zagi, “a piece of theater is the way I look at it, an inspirational event, a miracle play, an instructional pageant, a demonstration of the power of prayer to effect change. Put aside your naïve ideals. Here’s a secret: any number of Rome-sanctioned stunts are no more than feats of over-zealous religiosity. I take my cue from the higher-ups, who have approved many a dubious claim for the reason that it nourishes a passionate commitment to the faith. The actors I have chosen are plenty imaginative. I’ve overheard them pretend to interrogate a cat, supplying silly come-backs in a screech-voice. Charming.”
“You put it down to imagination, do you?” mumbled Bittor in a half-haze.
“Childish fun. What else?”
“My father is said to talk to a cat. Do you call that charming?”
“Your father, bless his heart, is a special case. His is a personal tragedy. Poor Jakome. His inherited yoke has been his misfortune, and ours. You are a hundred times more fit for the post. Prove it! Give your assent to this bold undertaking.”
D’Ollot, turning to a sideboard, transferred the evening’s pièce de résistance, creampuffs, to the main table. Lately concocted in the kitchens of Catherine di Medici,2 the recipe is nearly a state secret. Zagi’s chef had wormed it out of an old friend in the employ of the Comte d’Artois.
“Creampuffs, in your honor!” announced Zagi.
Bittor trembled at the sight of the fashionable delicacy. He’s become convinced that, like his father, he is going mad. He hears voices also. He has hours earlier had a new unsettling encounter. “How’s the creampuff, Bitts?” the cat had called from the reaches of a Hawthorn tree. “Down the hedgehog hole yet?3 Make your move, son. You’ve got a rival, my friend. There’s an Envoy on her tail. Not bad looking either. Find your spunk before it’s too late.”
He slammed his fist on the dinner table, knocking over one of d’Ollot’s goblets. It careened over the edge, onto the floor, where it shattered. “Details!” he demanded.
D’Ollot was speechless over the destruction of a prized piece of glass. Zagi obliged tout suite. “Surely. In order to draw the attendance we desire, the incident must be spectacular. I’ve thought hard on it. This will do, I believe: two boys in my employ will receive a visitation from . . . it sounds bizarre, but reserve judgment until I’m done . . . from Our Blessed Mother.”
Bittor looked at Zagi. “What’s this? A visit from my mother?”
Under the table, Zagi kicked his friend, who, having recovered his dislodged composure, was rolling his eyes. His sense of humor was intact, if not his treasured art glass, pridefully put into use on this special occasion.
“The Holy Virgin, sir,” d’Ollot explained. The Immaculata herself.” Christ, he thought, this one’s as bad as the Papa. But that might be for the best. He continued on. “Her presence suggested, sir, by the reactions of my actors. This will be a performance, an opportunity to experience the blessing of blind faith. I’ve chosen the site, level, plenty of room for a good-sized assembly. Two boys will fix their gaze on a promontory. The Virgin’s words will be heard by my two, no one else. It will be a powerful illustration of a central tenet of faith, the celebration of the unknowable. As Jesus remarked, a miracle is worth a thousand words.”
“Jesus said that?”
“He most certainly did,” confirmed Zagi. “Don’t you remember your catechism class?”
Bittor, not willing to admit he had daydreamed through that instruction, cried, “Now that you mention it, I surely do!”
Zagi took a turn. “An impromptu manifestation is open to uncertain understanding. A choreographed event can be a more dependable catalyst of a fuller appreciation of the divine, encompassing discussion groups, a lesson plan, sermons pre-written, ready to go, that’s the beauty of an enactment. I will be set to fan the flame of faith from day one. Which is my duty, is it not? I tend my flock as you do yours. I’ll have this city overrun with pilgrims. They’ll need to eat, to drink. They’ll need lodging. They’ll spend on souvenirs of the close brush with the divine, an experience far more intense than a visit to the alleged site of the alleged bones of St. James. I’ll run a lottery. A lucky few will speak with the youths who’d received the communication.
They’ll reckon it the thrill of a lifetime. We’ll beat the pants off those jokers in Compostela. I’ll advise anyone with a spare bedroom to let it out. I don’t know about you, but no one I know of can’t use the income.
“Unfortunately, there’s always the chance of a slip-up. Sir! If we are found out, Gusto may be prosecuted. I will certainly be condemned for an abuse of my office. My career will be ruined. In the dead of night, my courage wavers. But this realm is in such sad shape that something must be done. Gustavus and I have chosen to take the bull by the horns. Our nerves will be substantially calmed by a note to wave under your mother’s nose in the event of a bungle. We ask that you support us by signing a statement of approval.”
“Sign a statement? Are you mad?”
“No one will see it except, if it comes to that, your mother, who, unwilling to have her boy exposed to censure, will hinder any attempt to affix blame. Come, wouldn’t you love to show Her Majesty that her son has nerve she never suspected?”
Bittor sat stone-faced, arms clenched. “I have every expectation of a fine success on my own. I am well advanced in my own plans. I have my procedures in place, I am ready to start a true manufacture.”
D’Ollot let go with the hard-nosed analysis he was known for. “Long-distance shipping is a bad business. Tariffs. Regulations. Bribes. Thieves. Rather than dealing with the variables of foreign commerce, sell here, cash and carry. An immediate return on investment gives great peace of mind, I assure you.”
“You frame your duplicity in attractive terms, M. d’Ollot. I had half considered it, fool that I am, you are right about that. You are sly, sir, and you have done well for yourself off it. But you have no friends, and any venture you are associated with is suspect.” Bittor turned to Zagi. “How could you give this jackleg to believe I had agreed to throw in? I had doubts. I may not have expressed them strongly enough. I’m here this evening as a courtesy to you, Your Grace. I felt I owed it, for your many kindnesses. As for him,” he glared at d’Ollot, “I owe him nothing. I am astonished to hear that my name has been dropped. I have been used.”
“You refer, of course,” said Zagi, “to the scuffle in the council. Let’s sort this out. Who is your source?”
“I have multiple sources, damn it, all telling the same tale. I was not high held before, but most had the decency to hide it. Now, I pass through the halls, I hear snickers. And am forced to pretend I don’t. I am doubly demeaned.”
D’Ollot grunted. “Now you know what I live with every day of my life.”
“As you deserve, you villain! You’ve fooled this good-hearted man more than anyone. Shame, sir!”
“The business in the council. I’m sorry, I lost control. You and everyone know how I’ve lusted to be taken into the Ram. I’m nominated year after year, for sport probably, to see me humiliated anew. That group has it in for me. Well, business is business. Someone will profit off stupidity, why should it not be me? There’s nothing personal in it. Be that as it may, this year, with your advocacy, I felt I had a real chance.”
“I did recommend you,” acknowledged Bittor, “for Zagi’s sake, not yours, and, frankly, I was dumbstruck to find members open to the idea.”
“I’d best get this out,” said Zagi, “you will hear it eventually. I had tilled the soil, suggesting here and there that this fine young fellow, whom everyone knows I am close to, had indicated an appreciation of one or another marriageable daughter, and that it would be advantageous to build a bridge in that direction by assisting an inexplicable request that a rascal be embraced by the Ancient Order of the Golden Ram. No daughter, niece, granddaughter at home, my advice was to court future influence before rivals jumped on that wagon. I thought to kill two birds with one stone. Bitts would gain confidence he lacks, his odd request honored as a show of loyalty to the future monarch. Gus, you would have your heart’s desire at long last.”
“It worked,” spat d’Ollot, “or seemed to. Men who previously had nothing to say to me fought to have me to dinner. You a favorite of the royal family, I knew you were behind it.”
Zagi sighed. “The connection is closer than that, but I don’t talk about it. Here’s how it will go with me: I will be sheltered from disgrace because, as the saying goes, I know where the bodies are buried. Your Highness,” he continued, “M. d’Ollot must have his piece of paper. Should we be exposed, the wolves will eat him alive. You will be branded a through-going idiot. Console yourself that it’s no great diminishment from current opinion.
I will get a box on the ears, that will be it for me. Gus will have the earth cave in on him. The hounds will be on him, do you care? No, I don’t suppose you do. Try to see this from Gusto’s point of view. He’s built a fine life for himself. He’s risking all for the sake of the kingdom, for you, son, for you. Do you owe nothing in return?” Bittor did not reply.
Zagi pondered. Should he lay his cards on the table? What choice did he have? “I see I am forced to reveal what I have sworn to withhold. I occupy an office I am in no way fit for. Have you never heard whispers about me? I was put up for the church, advancing easily to the top spot despite being the son of a menial. My mother, a chambermaid, found herself inconvenienced. She was hidden away. When I entered the picture, I was handed off to a wet nurse.
I have little recollection of those early years except that I staged little plays and was pronounced clever by men who came to inspect me. I felt evaluated, I remember that distinctly. Age five, I was returned to the palace to be companion to Jakome and to help him with his lessons. I was lightning-quick. He was not. Gus accuses me of having cartwheeled through life, the path cleared for me. So it was, but I have paid a price. My own heart’s desire is to live life on my own terms in the period I have left. My time is running low. It’s now or never.
“Gus and I, we have a rapport. He has a vigor of intellect I much admire. We are peas in a pod on every issue. We have a fine time bashing arrogance without worrying it will be reported. We are both resentful of the indolence of inherited wealth. You, sir, are the exception, you have unusual initiative. The high-born, as a whole, take and take. They scoff at scholarship, deriving their joy from active pursuits, including the new fad for tormenting foxes. They resist contemplation in any form. Many can barely read.”
“My father reads books, orders them by the dozens. It is a major point of contention with my mother.”
“A mania of his, yes. But that is a discussion for another time. Gus here is a great reader, one of nice judgment. He claims to think a good deal of my silliness, my plays, you see. They are a trifle spicy, written for my own amusement, you understand. I never expected to have them performed. He likes what I’ve done so much that he encourages me to try my luck in Paris, where – lady luck smiles on me already–he has entré to smart salons. Look here, I have my once-in-a-lifetime chance, and you have yours. Believe me, my outcome among Paris sophisticates is far less certain than is the opportunity we offer you. Give me your paw, my prince.” He grabs Bittor’s hand and raises it triumphantly, before the young man has time to decline.
“What say you and I jump off this precipice together, into glory or into the abyss. You are a proud Muruzábal, a throwback, after many diminished generations, to the greats of yore. The blood of heroes runs in your veins. Be a hero to your people, as in days of old.” Bittor is charmed by the notion. In his mind’s ear he hears crowds cheering. In his mind’s eye he sees pennants fluttering.
Zagi boomed gaily, “Carpe diem, young man! Seize the day! You may never get the chance to embark on such an adventure again.” Then he gives a truly unfortunate piece of advice. “Find your spunk, son,” he implored, “before it’s too late.”
Bittor reacted to the line by collapsing into his chair, leaning back, and staring at the ceiling.
- Yeah, right.
- If not absolutely true, at least true myth.
- Hmmm, hedgehogs don’t burrow. They do, however, install themselves in the previously occupied holes of others. Is Sly casting aspersions on the morals of the muffin?