“THE QUEEN, MY LORD, IS DEAD.” Eschiva de Montbéliard stood in front of Queen Yolanda’s chamber confronting the Holy Roman Emperor. It was less than three years since Yolanda and Eschiva had left their native Palestine to travel to Sicily. They had been twelve and fourteen respectively, full of trepidation, excitement, and hope. Three years at Frederick’s court, confined in the harem tract, had left Eschiva looking older than her seventeen years—and Yolanda dead.
Eschiva had not had a chance to dye any of her dresses black, but she was soberly dressed and wore her hair completely covered by a white wimple. Her face was marked by chapped lips, dark circles under her eyes, and teenage acne at the base of her nose and corner of her mouth.
“And our son?” The new widower asked without a flicker of emotion.
Eschiva was not prepared for that question. She stumbled over her answer, “He—he’s with the wet-nurse, my lord. I presume he is well.”
“Presume?” The Emperor raised his eyebrows ever so slightly. He was not a handsome man. He was stocky rather than tall, and his waist was thick. His arms and shoulders were no longer muscular. He had bright red hair, and a ruddy complexion that burned easily in the sun, testimony to his mother’s Norman ancestry. He had a soft, fleshy chin under full lips and a small nose. The dominant feature in his face was his pale blue eyes. These bore into Eschiva like blue flames.
“The queen died of—of milk—milk-fever, my lord,” Eschiva stammered in her dazed effort to explain. “It is not—a—a contagious condition. There is no reason to think your son is ill. He is with the wet-nurse,” she repeated.
“Good,” The Emperor answered.
Good? What was good? Eschiva was too numbed to understand anything beyond Frederick Hohenstaufen’s apparent indifference to the death of his wife, queen and empress. The death of her only friend.
The Emperor nodded once, but it was more to himself than to Eschiva. He turned his back on her to depart.
Eschiva was confused—by his reaction and by his departure. “Have you no instructions for me, my lord?” She’d been struggling to keep Yolanda alive for ten days, watching her slowly fade from life in delirium and despair. Now she was left with a corpse that reminded her of her best friend but was cold and admonishing—as if she had done something wrong. What could she have done differently? What was she supposed to do now? She didn’t have a clue. For three years, her life had revolved about Yolanda, and now Yolanda was gone.
“Prepare the corpse for lying in state and the funeral, of course,” the Emperor answered in a tone that suggested he was annoyed with the question and a look that expressed his contempt for the questioner. His eyes dismissed her as an idiot, beneath conversation for someone as intelligent as himself.
Eschiva dared not ask more and dropped her eyes as the Emperor again turned to leave. The eunuch door-keeper bowed deeply and opened the door for the Emperor. Abruptly the Hohenstaufen turned back to censure Eschiva in a low, even voice. “The proper form of address from someone of your station is not ‘my lord’ but ‘your magnificence.’ We would have expected you to know that by now. Be sure you do not make the same mistake again.” Then he was gone.
The eunuch cast her a disgusted look, his lips pressed together in disapproval before he slipped out the open door to take up his position on the outside. The door clunked shut. Eschiva heard the bolt clack, locking her inside. With a corpse that had been her only friend.
For ten days she had resisted crying. She had fought down her own emotions to show a brave, encouraging and comforting face to Yolanda. To the very last, she had told Yolanda she would be fine. She had promised her she would recover. She had lied. Intuitively she had known Yolanda was dying. The whole time, she had been terrified of what was happening. She had just never dared admit it out loud.
The doctors had been no help. Most spoke only the perverted Italian of Sicily. Not that Eschiva understood the Italian of Venice or Genoa either. They had come and gone, consulting among themselves and giving her only the barest of instructions through the eunuch. Do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that. No one had ever tried to explain anything to her, much less address her own distress—except the Arabic-speaking Jewish doctor who’d come twice.
Eschiva spoke fluent Arabic, as did most natives of Outremer. Arabic had been the language of her nurses, both good Syrian Christian women, of the grooms in the stable, the laundry women, the shopkeepers in the market, the traveling tradesmen, and just about everyone else of the working class.
The Jewish doctor had been the only one to show the slightest sympathy for either the patient or her waiting woman. He had shaken his head and muttered about the strain put on a “child’s” body to give birth at fourteen (Yolanda’s first pregnancy that ended in a still-birth) and now again, just thirteen months later, at fifteen. He had also taken the time to explain what some of the medicines were and what effect they would have. He had, at one point, pressed a powder into Eschiva’s hand and suggested she put a pinch of it into her own wine. “It is very powerful,” he warned, “and it will help you sleep. You need to sleep,” he added kindly, “or you will not have the strength to help our dear Empress.”
He had been right. A little of the powder had helped her sleep, and the next day she had been far more effective—better able to pretend cheerfulness to ease Yolanda’s fear.
But that strength had died with Yolanda.
Eschiva sank down on the thick oriental carpets paving the floor and sobbed miserably. She didn’t have the strength to go back into the queen’s chamber and deal with the cold, pale, inanimate thing that had once been her friend. Hugging herself, because there was no one else in the world to hug her, Eschiva sobbed for Yolanda. She had endured a miserable marriage only to end like this. An unloved corpse.
She sobbed too for her faded dreams of life at a great court filled with great scholars, poets, musicians, and brave knights. Frederick’s court, along with its scholars, poets, musicians, and knights, had been for men only. Like a Muslim Sultan, he kept his women, including his empress, at the back of his palace, guarded by a eunuch and a troop of Muslim guards.
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