All these men, with their endless bowing and courtly chatter, are starting to look alike. “My Lady Elena,” they swoon. I smile frostily. My lady. Bow. Smile. I’m falling asleep with boredom. The crowded hall filled with bejeweled ladies and gentlemen in ermine-lined tunics is swaying around me, when suddenly his cry of “Don’t I know you?” stops all motion. He’s not bowing or chattering. He’s looking directly into my eyes with that fiercely tender gaze I know so well. Paolo.
Memories flood the great reception hall. Paolo bargaining with a Mongol prince, ordering a camel to kneel, expertly fingering a bolt of silk. A slender young lad with cropped black hair and unkempt garments always at his side, tending the animals. The young lad and his master galloping across the plain, bareback, astride magnificent black horses. The two of us inching through a treacherous mountain pass, with a sheer drop on one side and icy patches making the horses skittish. Listening to the fire crackle as we lie on our backs watching the silver smear of stars. Even now, I can smell the wood smoke, hear the restless rustling of horses and camels, see our packs piled high with saffron, silks, ivory and porcelain. A full moon rises through the mist, accompanied by the intoxicating fragrance of plum blossoms. The misty breath of Cathay lingers in my memory, with a longing that can never again be satisfied.
This life at court is stifling, almost unbearable, but it’s the life I was born to. My secret sojourn as a stable boy on the Silk Road was exhilarating, but necessarily brief. I am the daughter of a Duke, and I must live my destiny. I avoid Paolo’s eyes and seal my own fate with terse, clipped words.
“No. You don’t know me.”
His eyes light up with sudden understanding and compassion. “My Lady Elena,” he whispers gently, as the mists of Cathay gather around us once more. My face softens into a stable boy grin. “My Lord Paolo.”
The great hall is awash with the scent of plum blossoms.