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.
Although indignant at first and discouraged with time, Eschiva and Yolanda had come to terms with being isolated from world affairs. They had each other for company. They had musical instruments and books. The harem tracts of all Frederick’s palaces were luxurious. They had glazed tiles and rich carpets, fresh fountains and gracious gardens. They did not lack for comfort in their gilded cage.
Yet there had been little joy because Yolanda had suffered miserably from her husband’s indifference. From the day they met at their wedding, Frederick had never shown a flicker of affection for his little bride. Even on their wedding night, he walked past his wife’s chamber to sleep with one of his slaves, leaving Yolanda to sob herself to sleep in Eschiva’s arms.
When he did deign to consummate his marriage, it had been between other appointments and on a schedule that left him no time to take her feelings into account. When his thirteen-year-old bride cried out in pain, he had told her “not to make a fuss,” and Eschiva had been the one to pick up the pieces.
No, there hadn’t been a day of joy in this marriage. Not at the celebration, the consummation, or the two pregnancies that ended with the death of the child in the first instance and the death of the mother in the second. Frederick had offered his bride and empress nothing resembling joy, affection, partnership, or respect.
So Eschiva had comforted her friend with books. The girls had read aloud to one another until Yolanda discovered that Eschiva had a talent for sketching and painting. After that, Yolanda had insisted that Eschiva capture favorite scenes in illustrations, while Yolanda translated the texts from French into Arabic so they could share their creations with the harem slaves.
They were friends with the harem slaves because they shared the space with them, and the imprisonment. The other girls had had even less to say about their fate than Yolanda and Eschiva. They had been sold by fathers and brothers, taken captive in wars, or were simply the product of the streets. A fair face, a delicate waist, bulbous breasts or bombastic buttocks—anything that caught the fancy of a jaded monarch could land them here. It did no good to indignantly declaim that they were mere slaves while Yolanda was a queen in her own right.
Yet as her sobbing subsided, Frederick’s parting remark rang in Eschiva’s ear: the proper term of address for someone of her station was “Your magnificence.” That was what the harem slaves called him. Surely, he didn’t mean that she, the grand-daughter of a king, the sister of the baillie and Constable of Jerusalem, was no better than a slave? Did he?
Eschiva felt a shiver run down her spine, and she looked around the queen’s apartment. What was her station, now that her reason for being here was dead? What was her future?
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