7. The second trial
A few days later Manuel received a letter which appeared to have been written by Isabella. The letter contained the following:
“My love, I wish nothing more than to have you by my side, but the wounds that were left by your infidelity are still bleeding. Please do not forsake our love and prove me for a second time that there can be no one else in your heart but me. Beloved Manuel, bring me a star from the sky and I shall forget the past.”
Dumbfounded, Manuel could barely recognise his wife voice in those words and he was right to do so, for the letter had been written at the queen’s urging, who, after seeing the incredible golden peacock hated him even more. But this request she now made would keep Manuel away from both her and Isabella forever, punishing his defiance and avenging her pride.
For many nights to come Manuel contemplated the beautiful sky, with its endless dark plains and its travelling constellations. Sometimes, when he closed his eyes, he thought he could hear a music coming from above. Yet the brightest star of all was his fair Isabella and the purest sound he longed for was the one of her voice. He then wondered how to do it, how on earth could he bring her the star she wanted.
The answer came to him on the brightest night of all. Manuel was again gazing at the sky when he saw one tiny star falling somewhere in the West, sinking in the great sea.
The boy didn’t hesitate for one moment. He left Antioch that very moment reaching the shores of the Mediterranean on the coming morning. Heading towards the sunset on a boat he bought from a fisherman, Manuel was carried far away offshore by the light sea breeze.
This time he wasn’t led by a distant shadow but by the star’s blue light plunging out from below the waters like the beam of a sunken far, and, when finally reached the place where the star fell into the sea, he stared into the depths and saw a lonely white dot resting on the sea bed. He had found what he was looking for. Manuel then took a deep breath; he dived into the abyss and swam right into the stream of light that came towards him. It was a long way to the sea floor and back, nevertheless Manuel went on until he ran out of air. Hanging half-way below the surface, he started to choke and to squirm, gripped by terror. The was no way he could go on, no way to turn back. The boy would have drowned for sure if it hadn’t been for a sudden, cold kiss which filled him with the breath of life. Manuel came back to his senses to see himself in the embrace of a lovely sea nymph who jumped to his aid. It was because of her that he finally reached the depts of the sea where the star was being slowly extinguished by the salty water. The heavenly body was just a small orb he could hold in the palm of his hand, but the stream of light it diffused, spread for hundreds of miles around. The boy grabbed it and pulled by the enchanting sea woman he escaped a horrible death.
Once they reached the surface, he thanked the nymph and jumped inside the boat, rowing towards the Eastern shores. But the sea creature sopped him. She had saved him only because of his unearthly beauty and now he had to stay with her forever. When Manuel refused, the furious nymph shook the boat and threatened the shred Manuel into pieces. Knowing how bloodthirsty sea creatures could be, Manuel asked for her forgiveness and told her his whole story, begging her to let him sail away. The nymph looked him in the eyes and said:
“My gentle human, what you ask of me is almost impossible. But you seem have an honest heart, one that will never fall for me. That is why, I will let you leave if you to give me one of your eyes to remind me of you and to be an undoubtable proof of your valour.”
And so, poor Manuel gorged his right eye out and offered it to the sea nymph.
Once free, the half-blind youth went back to Antioch. But while still on his way, something dark crept in Manuel’s soul as if the loss of that eye had given him a second sight and for the first time, he came to recognise the source of all his hardships.
When he reached the city, he bowed in front of the court and placed the glowing white star at the feet of none other but the queen.
Apart from Constance, everyone failed to understand the gesture. The queen sensed that somehow Manuel wasn’t the same anymore.
The star was then sealed away in an ivory box and taken to Isabella’s chamber while Manuel re-joined his family. From there he wrote a short note to his wife. The reply arrived three days later, and it wasn’t at all what he had expected…