She stands by the window. Lady Petra, the Bishop’s wife, wearing a flamboyant gown from her youth. But the corset is pulled too tightly, and you can see the threads struggling. She is neither as thin nor as fair as she once was, but she paints her face to give the illusion of youth. An illusion many of the passers-by fall prey to. They are easy to fool. She watches the young men of the village go by, happy with their girlfriends, wives, and newborn babes. They are oblivious to the predatory gaze of the sharp Lady Petra. But woe to the man on whom her eye lingers! His moral mettle is no match for the beguiling charm of the Bishop’s wife.
As the Bishop’s wife, of course, she follows the rules he sets for the kingdom. She is faithful; she does not break her vows. But the Bishop is an old man, blinded by his faith. He sets the rules, so she bends them for her amusement. But who could blame her? The Bishop is so uptight; she deserves some fun for putting up with him every day!
Many a young man have been swept into her snare. The Bishop’s wife hides in the shadows, whispering sweet nothings in dark corridors in return for a pledge, a word, a sigh. She keeps notes tucked in her bosom, and the roses in her boudoir are always fresh. She stares — oh, yes, she stares! — at the men passing by as she rides through her carriage, silk fan in hand, the neckline of her dress cut just low enough to be noticed. She is a flirt, a tease. But she never goes all the way. That would be a crime. But there is no crime in looking.
The Bishop’s wife is cunning, to say the least.
Today, the Lady Petra sees a familiar face pass beneath her window. Not a man, but a woman. It is her young sister, the fair Lady Anne, walking with a stranger. Lady Petra licks her lips. He is quite handsome, this strange man. Why has she never seen him before? By what trickery did Lady Anne catch his eye? She is younger than Lady Petra, smarter, kinder (although the scoundrel who said that now walks with no tongue). But Lady Anne is naïve, and innocent; she does not understand the art of seduction. She is a hopeless romantic, who dreams that her love will one day fall from the stars.
Lady Petra snorts at this thought. Men do not fall. They must be cornered, tethered, and trained.
The stranger passes Lady Anne a small pouch. Petra’s eyes widen. What is it? Money? Jewellry? Good Lord, could it be contraband? Lady Petra’s eyes gleam. Has she caught the kingdom’s darling in the middle of a crime at last?
Lady Petra leans closer to the window, eager to see more. But Lady Anne doesn’t open the pouch. She leans towards the man, kissing him lightly on the cheek, then turns around and runs, leaving the man standing alone, his eyes following Anne all the way out the gates of the manor. He never once glances up at the window, where Lady Petra stands. Petra is outraged. How dare a man not notice her, while noticing her pathetically good-willed sister instead! She is the Bishop’s wife! She is the one men worship! Not that wretched Lady Anne!
A cloud of jealousy follows Lady Petra as she storms down the stairs. Lady Anne will be invited to dine with them tonight.
Later that night, Lady Anne and her maid arrive at the Bishop’s house to pay their respects. Both of them have arms full of fresh fruits and breads from the market. The Bishop is cordial to them, perhaps because they have brought his favourite sweetmeats. But, behind him, Lady Petra is furious. First her sister gains the favour of the kingdom, then she consorts with strange men in the streets, and then, most unforgivably, she couriers favour with the Bishop himself! How dare she!
Lady Petra corners her sister as soon as the Bishop excuses himself, likely to relieve himself before the meal.
“Who is he?” Petra asks, her voice laced with venom.
“Who is who?” says Anne.
“Don’t be daft,” says Petra. “Your secret lover. The one you were walking with today.”
“Lover…?” Anne asks, confused.
“You can tell me,” Petra says, swinging an arm over Anne’s shoulders. Adultery is punishable by death. Petra can only imagine the glee if Anne’s lover is a married man. “It stays between the two of us.”
“Ain’t been no one new, mum,” Anne’s servant chimes in. “Less’n you mean Chris.”
“Chris?” Petra says. Is that his name? It sounds so plain!
“Oh, Chris!” Anne laughs. It sounds forced. “Don’t be silly, Nina.”
But it is too late. Petra has caught up to her game.
“Who is ‘Chris’?” says Lady Petra. “Is he tall and dark, with a moustache and a well-defined face?”
“No!” says Lady Anne. “He is our new garden gnome, who tends to the cauliflowers and carrots, and helps Cook with the stew.”
“Oh,” says Petra. A gnome? She knows that Lady Anne is famously generous, but employing a gnome seems a bit too much, even for her.
Petra decides her sister is lying. “Then who was that gentleman you were seeing earlier? The one who gave you a gift?”
“Oh, that man!” Anne laughs again. This time, it is genuine. “He is the herbs dealer. The hospitals are running low. We’ve had a long winter, and the forests aren’t full as yet. I’m surprised you haven’t noticed him as yet. He is often around.”
Herbs dealer, Petra thought, as her eyes darkened. I suppose I could work with that.
“And is it customary to kiss the herbs dealer on the cheek, dear sister?”
Lady Anne flushes just as the Bishop enters the room. He is not alone. “My dear!” says the Bishop. “You remember the Duke’s son? I thought he could join us.”
It takes Lady Petra only a moment to recognise Lady Anne’s consort from earlier. She fixes her dress, accentuating her copious bosom.
“Of course,” Lady Petra purrs. “The more the merrier.”
Lady Anne is still red. Petra smiles. She will rip her sister apart tonight.
By the time dessert arrives, Lady Petra is frustrated. The Duke’s son will not spare her the slightest glance, preferring to keep her eyes fixed on that detestable little sister of hers. As she spears the delicate, flaky pastry with the tines of her fork, Lady Petra decides she has had enough.
She excuses herself, asking her sister to accompany her for a walk outside to “help with the digestion”, even though she has never had difficulty stomaching the rich dishes the Bishop despises, but serves anyway, to please her.
Halfway to the gardens, there is a terrible accident. They are walking down a dark corridor, one of Lady Petra’s favourites for her clandestine rendezvous. Lady Anne trips, perhaps over a loose rug or unstable floorboard. There is a crash, a pause, and a heart-wrenching scream.
By the time a light is found, Lady Anne is unconscious, face-down in a pool of acid. The type used in cleansing chamber pots. It seems that a careless servant had left the open bottle in the middle of the corridor.
Lady Anne is taken immediately to the healers, where she remains for several days. A steady stream of visitors flits in and out, but Lady Petra what she needs through the gossip. Delicious, juicy gossip. Lady Anne’s beautiful face has been disfigured beyond recognition. No man will ever look at her again.
Lady Petra smiles at this as she picks out her most flattering gown. Perhaps it is time to pay that dashing Duke’s son a visit.