Zsaka sighed impatiently as she placed a gleaming silver chaplet upon her head. Set all around with square-cut emeralds, rubies, and diamonds, it seemed the perfect complement to the dark green gown and deep sanguine-red mantle she wore, both trimmed in brilliant white miniver fur. Her waist-long auburn hair cascaded loosely down her back. Her shoes, though completely hidden by her floor-length hem, raised her already-considerable stature to a startling height.
“Zsaka, I can’t tell whether you intend to impress the Count or intimidate him.”, Baroness Anna cautioned.
Zsaka’s intended response was interrupted by a rapping at the door.
At the Baron’s affirmative gesture Laszlo promptly spun around to open it revealing a tall man with vividly red hair and a long red mustache, wearing a rich doublet and trousers fashioned of black velvet, sewn with gold thread and embroidered with pearls. His boots of tanned elk hide came to his knees and he wore an ornate coronet that denoted his rank as a Count. Laszlo then turned and announced the visitor.
“Presenting His Excellency, Viktor Piros, Count of Kolozsvár.”
Viktor’s long stride had him almost to the center of the room in three steps. When he saw Zsaka, his jaw went slack, his expression suggesting that he had been smacked soundly in the nose.
Baron Lázár rose from his chair and walked over to Zsaka. Placing her arm within his own, he escorted her to meet the Count where he stood.
“Count Viktor, I would like to introduce you to my daughter, Lady Zsuzsanna of Tatár.”
Viktor stood rigid and unblinking as if spellbound. Not until Zsaka raised her outstretched hand deliberately into the path of Viktor’s frozen gaze did the trance appear to be broken. Viktor hastened to recover from his lapse of attention, took her hand, and with an apparent and deliberate act of will asserted a smooth demeanor. Bringing Zsaka’s hand gently to his lips, he leaned forward slightly to kiss it tenderly, then released it; a series of movements he performed with a seemingly well-practiced intensity.
“I find myself quite captivated by your beauty, Lady Zsuzsanna. I shall be the envy of every man in the King’s company tonight.” He offered his arm to Zsaka, but she refused it.
“My apologies, Your Excellency, but I just remembered one more thing. May I meet you outside?” Both the Baron and Baroness paled slightly at the breach of etiquette.
“Of course.”, Viktor replied through a disappointed smile as he turned and walked out of the room. Laszlo closed the door behind him.
Zsaka then picked up a dark green silk coif, also trimmed in miniver, from a nearby table, placed it on her head and tied it beneath her chin with the attached white ribbon. Baroness Anna’s face flushed in anger.
“Head coverings are for married women. Why do you insist upon being so provocative, Zsaka?”, she spat.
“But I am a married woman.”, Zsaka replied as she headed to the door. “I am married to the blood, and you have forgotten what that means.”
As she exited the apartment, she found Count Viktor waiting. His expression twisted into confused anger at the sight of Zsaka’s coif.
“What is the meaning of this?”, he asked, gesturing toward it.
“I expect a cold evening, Your Excellency. Surely, you would not begrudge me every possible means of protection from the frigid winter air.”, she replied.
“Remove it.”, he commanded. “I will not have everyone thinking I am dining with a married woman, and particularly not the king.”
“I refuse to be made uncomfortable and I’ll do no such thing.”, she replied.
“It is a woman’s lot to be uncomfortable.”, Viktor countered. “Remove it, or I will.”
Zsaka withdrew a thin stiletto from the bodice under her gown. “Raise a hand against me and you will lose it.”
“You are making a grave misstep. I am poised to offer you wealth and power, and you would treat me thus?”
“I am not lacking for wealth and if you balk at allowing me to even dress as I please, then I doubt you would offer me power either, Viktor.”
“You are an exceptionally rare woman.”
“You have no idea.”, she agreed.
Viktor leaned his back against the wall and thought for a moment. “Very well. I will escort you to dinner and introduce you as an acquaintance, but if you bring shame to me you will regret it. Understood?”
Zsaka smiled back at him. “Oddly enough, I was about to say the same words to you.”
Viktor flushed with rage. “You are a damnable creature!”
“Perhaps. Shall we go?”
Viktor held out his arm and this time she took it. As they walked through the various interiors that led to the Baron’s Hall where the monarch and invited guests dined not a single word passed between them until they were in sight of the Baron’s Hall.
“The board His Majesty sets for most of the nobles is fine fare indeed, for the king refuses to be labeled a poor host. But compared even to that the food you are about to feast upon will be an exquisite pleasure.”, Viktor boasted.
“I look forward to it.”, Zsaka replied.
The doorman smiled as they approached.
“Good evening, Your Excellency. How may I announce your guest?”
“This is Lady Zsuzsanna Tatári, daughter of the Baron of Tatár.”, Viktor answered.
“Very well, Your Excellency.”, he replied as he ushered them both inside.
“Presenting, His Excellency, Viktor Piros, Count of Kolozsvár, accompanying Lady Zsuzsanna of Tatár.”
The large room was filled with four long rows of covered tables placed end to end with a wide aisle in the center, and also by about two-hundred people who quieted as their names were called out. After a few awkward seconds, conversation gradually restarted and she and the Count were seemingly forgotten as people in the room returned their attention to where it had been before.
Viktor turned to her and said in a low voice, “I’m sure you can fend for yourself. When dinner is called, look for me so we can be seated together. Do try not to impale anyone with that javelin between your breasts.”
Before she could reply he was gone. Several pairs of eyes within her field of vision seemed to notice, following Viktor into the crowd then returning to look at her with an expression of [pity]. Scanning the perimeter of the room there were many low, padded benches. She chose the closest available seat and sat quietly, then scanned the room looking for Viktor.
Locating a man of Viktor’s height took no time at all. He was standing on a long dais with a very long table that stretched almost from one end of the dais to the other, talking with a small group of nobles. They were clustered together several strides away from a pair of unoccupied thrones centered along the back wall which was directly beneath a large tapestry depicting the Hungarian Royal Arms. Shortly after she located Viktor, he noticed. Once their eyes met across half the length of the large room she folded her arms across her chest and gave him just the hint of an amused smile. Judging by his expression, Viktor was far less amused, but she kept her eyes on him. Viktor returned his attention to the conversation and occasionally would leave one group to speak with others. No matter where he moved or with whom he spoke, she kept her gaze fixed upon him, and each time he looked up from his conversation to look at her, she smiled just a bit more.
After some time, a set of double doors near the front of the room on the right side of the dais opened and the room fell quiet. A man whose dress and insignia suggested that he might perhaps be a Chamberlain shouted, “Clear the dais! Clear the dais!” As people on the dais complied, a herald donned in a surcoat blazoned with the Royal Arms emerged from a small group now clustered at the door to take a spot directly front and center in front of the dais, took a very deep breath, and filled the room with his voice.
“Presenting His Royal Majesty, Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Rama, Serbia, Lodomeria, Cumania and Bulgaria, Prince of Silesia and Luxembourg, Margrave of Moravia and Lusatia; and His Royal Consort, Her Majesty, Catherine Corvinus, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia!”
Everyone in the room bowed their heads in deference to the royal couple as they entered and stepped up onto the vacated dais. Moving to the center of the table, they stopped and faced the room. Two royal guardsmen followed behind and stood a few paces away from the thrones along the back wall. Two pairs of courtiers came behind the guardsmen and moved the thrones up from behind Their Majesties so they could sit to the table on their thrones, after which they left the room.
Zsaka noticed the gathered nobles and courtiers making their way to stand behind various chairs, with a calm and orderly struggle for those closest to the dais, and two lines beginning to form along each side of the room. She spotted Viktor moving into the line along the same wall where she was sitting. She stood and walked over to meet him.
Viktor spoke as soon as she came near, “Stand next to me. They’ll be placing us in our proper position for the High Table very soon.”
She nodded in response. Looking up toward the head of the line, she saw the Chamberlain placing people into a pre-determined order according to a written parchment he carried. On the other side of the room, the herald was doing the same with the other line. Viktor and Zsaka’s place was near the end of the line.
Once the order was properly sorted, both lines were allowed to walk up the small steps to the dais and take their positions behind chairs along the table on each side of the king and queen. A bishop now entered the room and stood where the herald had and led the room in a long prayer, at the end of which he asked God to bless the royal couple [mention impending birth of child] and grant them a long and prosperous reign. The royal herald then took the bishop’s place and announced that everyone could be seated and that the first remove would be a barley cipó bread with spiced and honeyed butter which would be be served shortly.
Almost immediately, a couple dozen servants came pouring through the doorway, each bearing several baskets piled high with bread. The first several came to the dais on each side to serve the High Table and the rest served the remainder of the room. Immediately after that, another group of servants came in bearing trays with many small platters of butter and distributed them in the same fashion.
Once Viktor had retrieved a piece of bread and buttered it, he turned to Zsaka. “So, why were you staring at me like that?”
Zsaka smiled. “Perhaps I think you handsome, Viktor.” She waited to see the compliment register in his expression, then continued. “Or, perhaps I think you a fool.”
She then immediately turned her attention to the bread and butter, breaking off a piece of the bread and buttering it. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Viktor’s face flush pink.
“Why are you toying with me?”, he asked.
“I should ask you the same question, Viktor.”
The herald re-emerged from the doorway to announce the next course, interrupting Viktor’s reply.
“The second remove will be fish soup, served over rice.”
The servants entered, each carrying bogrács, small cauldrons which were carried by an attached handle that looped over the top. The king and queen were served first, followed by the rest of the guests at the High Table, and then the rest of the guests at the lower tables.
Ignoring the soup, Viktor asked, “I’m serious, what sort of game are you playing? I am not boastful when I say that I can provide you with access to wealth and power. For an ambitious woman such as yourself, I can think of no better opportunities for advancement than the path I am offering.”
Zsaka tasted the soup with an approving nod. “What makes you think I’m ambitious, Your Excellency?”
“Why, your very manner makes that clear.”, Viktor answered. “You have a strong will and you speak your mind with little regard to the consequences. But women who are content with their station are likewise content to be timid. They graciously accept whatever arrangements are made for them. I cannot imagine a woman of your determined character graciously accepting anything. Women like you are always ambitious.”
Zsaka smiled. “Yes, I am ambitious, Your Excellency. But my ambition is not for higher estates or elevated titles. Those are trifling things to me.”
“I knew it!”, Viktor interrupted, his attention rapt. He then leaned in close and lowered his voice to a whisper. “I have hard such false humility before. You want a throne.”
“No, Your Excellency.” Zsaka laughed. “With thrones come politics, enemies, wars, spies, and more brinksmanship than I could stomach. If I held a throne, every foreign invasion and domestic uprising, every flood and famine, every single problem of the kingdom would be laid at my feet. Why would I want to borrow such trouble? A throne is nothing I need and the last thing I want.”
Viktor’s baffled expression was priceless. “Then what do you want?”
Zsaka laughed mockingly as she answered. “Nothing you can give me.”
Viktor very nearly blurted a response to Zsaka’s insult, then thought better of it. Leaning in close, he whispered into her ear.
“Though you might possess sufficient bosom to conceal a broadsword I caution you against making naive assumptions regarding your safety, Lady Zsuzsanna. I am at the limits of my patience with you. If you wish to return to your apartments unblemished, do not insult me further.”
Zsaka grinned as she whispered back, “You flatter me, your Excellency. I am not quite as well-endowed as you suggest.”
Viktor’s ashen face scowled in sudden rage and he lashed out with his arm, backhanding Zsaka, sending her flying backward out of her chair, through the air to smash hard against the wall behind them where she fell awkwardly to the floor. The room fell silent as all eyes turned to stare at the sudden disturbance. Without a word, Viktor rose from his chair, straightened his doublet and stormed out of the Baron’s Hall.
Everyone’s attention then shifted to Zsaka. As gracefully as could be managed, Zsaka stood, smoothed out her dress, returned to her chair, righted it, and addressed the room.
“My apologies for the interruption of such a wonderful meal, Your Majesties.”, she said as she directed her attention to the royal couple. “It appears that Count Piros has been besieged by a sudden loss of appetite and has retired for the evening. Might I impose upon your herald to escort me to my apartments after the final course?”
King Matthias seemed both puzzled and irritated but gave his assent, nodding to the herald who left his post and went over to Zsaka.
“Are you well, Lady…”
“Lady Zsuzsanna. Zsuzsanna Tatári”, she replied.
“Lady Zsuzsanna.”, the herald repeated. “Is everything well with you?”
“Oh, yes. Quite.”, Zsaka reassured him. “The Count is apparently unwell, but I am fine, thank you.”
“Very good, Lady Zsuzsanna. Seek me out when you are ready to retire and I shall escort you to your apartments.”
“Of course.”, Zsaka agreed. “I do have a question, if I may. It is a question of protocol, and who better to ask than the King’s own herald?”
“Agreed.”, he replied. “Your question, my lady?”
“Since Count Piros has absented himself from the King’s feast, would it be improper of me to eat his soup?”