She did not know how long she had been alone, but long enough for her sweat and tears to turn cold where they had soaked the linens. Cold enough to make her shiver, though God knew the room was stiflingly hot, or had been when she struggled to deliver a dead child . . .
Oh, God, why? Why don’t you just take me away so I don’t ever have to go through this again? Or see the disappointment and anger on Aimery’s face? Or worse, hear him renounce me, turn me out. . . .
The door crashed open and women rushed into the room, chattering and tripping over themselves as they tried both to move and to fall on their knees at the same time. Their voices were anxious, urgent, defensive, and then silenced by a single command. Eschiva gasped and struggled to lift her head enough to see to the door. A woman was sweeping past the kneeling servants with shimmering golden veils pinned to her head by a crown. Pearls gleamed on the bodice of her gown. The image was so reminiscent of an icon that for an instant Eschiva thought God had heard her prayers: she was dead, and the Virgin Mary was striding toward her.
But then the Virgin Mary let out a stream of words in Greek that didn’t sound mild or sweet-tempered, as Eschiva expected of the Virgin. Furthermore, the words scattered the women in all directions as if in panic, and Eschiva had come to herself enough to recognize Maria Zoë.
A moment later Maria Zoë had reached the bed and, seating herself on it, pulled Eschiva into her arms. “I’m so sorry, Eschiva! I’m so, so sorry! I thought your time was still weeks away!”
“It was,” Eschiva gasped out, breaking down into miserable, choking sobs. “It was, but—but—he came early. He was dead. Or they say he was dead. They took him away from me!” She wailed this out, reliving it all over again.
“Hush, hush, hush,” Maria Zoë whispered, stroking Eschiva’s face and head, while tightening her hold so Eschiva could gain strength from the warmth and comfort of her arms and bosom.
Feeling the pearls of Maria Zoë’s bodice, however, Eschiva tried to pull back. “I’ll ruin your beautiful dress, Tante Marie. I’m so dirty!”
“Then the lazy hussies will have something else to do—after they’ve cleaned up the mess here, made a proper meal, and washed down the corridors as well! This palace looks as if no one has taken a mop to it since Isaac Comnenus died!” Maria Zoë retorted indignantly. “But first and foremost, we need to get you cleaned up so you can see Aimery.”
“No! I can’t face him! I’ve failed him! He’ll renounce me, Tante Marie—just like my father—”
Maria Zoë put her fingers to Eschiva’s lips. “Shhh!” she ordered.
Eschiva swallowed down the words, but they burped back up as hiccups and gasps for breath.
Maria Zoë pulled her back into a close embrace. “Listen to me, Eschiva.”
Eschiva tried, but she couldn’t stop the sobs, so Maria Zoë just sat and held her until they ebbed on their own. Then she asked gently, “Can you listen now?”
Eschiva nodded in resignation.
“Aimery is outside banging his head against the wall and blaming himself. He thinks the reason they won’t let him in is that you’re dead or bleeding to death. He has called for a priest, and he just told me that he would—”
Women burst in on them, carrying a tub and several amphorae of steaming rose water. Maria Zoë turned to give orders for setting up the bath, and then turned back to Eschiva and pulled her soaked and bloodied gown up over her head. She tossed the gown across the room in disgust and then helped Eschiva onto her feet and helped her hobble to the bathtub, all the while giving further orders to the women. These rushed to strip the dirty sheets from the bed, remove the basin full of blood beside the birthing stool, manhandle the stool to the side of the room, and start wiping up the marble floor.
“They told me he was dead, but they wouldn’t even show him to me,” Eschiva told Maria Zoë in a notably calmer voice as she sank into the warm water of the tub.
Maria Zoë stroked her forehead, turned, and demanded a sponge. Then, pushing back her outer sleeves and heedless of the inner sleeves, she dipped the sponge in the water to start gently washing Eschiva’s face with the clean water. “Sweetheart, John told us the babe had not been kicking in the womb. If that’s true, he had probably been dead for some time before the birth. Which means, of course, that development had stopped and he was not—whole. That’s why the midwife didn’t want you to see him.”
Eschiva bit her lower lip as she began sobbing again, but this was a different sobbing, the sobbing of grief rather than protest. She knew it was true. She had known it before she first sent for the doctor, before she’d told John. . . .
The warm water was calming her, as were the gentle strokes of the sponge on her face. Maria Zoë spoke to her again gently: “We brought Guy with us, and Philip and Joscelyn.”
Eschiva opened her eyes and lifted her head from the padded rim of the tub. “My Guy? My son? He’s here? On Cyprus?”
“Yes, but we can’t let him see you like this. Come. We need to wash out your hair.” As she spoke Maria Zoë put the sponge aside to unbraid Eschiva’s hair, and then ordered her to dunk her head under the water.
Eschiva did as she was told. (People rarely disobeyed Maria Zoë.) The water made her long hair swim and swirl around her. When she came up again for air, Maria Zoë started combing it away from her face with her long fingernails. Eschiva had always admired her for those long, beautifully filed nails. She couldn’t seem to grow her own. They broke or got chewed off. . . .
“I’m going to have a long talk to the midwife,” Maria Zoë was saying now, “but if I understood her apologetic babbling as I came in, she said you will be fine. She insists there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you at all. The bleeding stopped very promptly, she said, and the afterbirth came out cleanly. Are you in any pain?”
“Not more than normal,” Eschiva admitted.
“Good.” Maria Zoë turned and issued orders again, and promptly a woman was beside the tub with a large linen towel, which she held open between outstretched arms. But Maria Zoë shook her head and sent her scurrying away.
“They’re so obedient to you,” Eschiva observed, with a wan smile. “They always pretend not to understand a word I say.”
“For which I’ve promised to have them stripped naked and flogged through the streets of Nicosia,” Maria Zoë told her briskly.
Eschiva put her hand to her mouth. “You didn’t!” She was at once both horrified and delighted.
“I did, but I’ll probably be persuaded by much contriteness into commuting that sentence to throwing them all out and hiring new staff. I won’t have this—what’s that wonderful German word Mistress Shoreham always used? Schlampenwirtschaft—slut household. But first—Beatrice?” Maria Zoë looked around the room and found her own lady helping to make up the bed with clean linen sheets. “Beatrice, come help Eschiva finish her bath, while I go tell Aimery his wife is not on her deathbed.”
“No!” Eschiva caught her aunt’s arm. “No, I can’t. He—”
“Listen to me!” Maria Zoë hushed her firmly. “You’ve miscarried a child. It happens to all of us. I miscarried one of Amalric’s children, too. Your mother miscarried several times. It is God’s will, though we cannot understand it. It was His will to call this child to him early. That’s all there is to it. You’re fine. You’re not yet thirty. There’s every reason to think you can conceive again—and if not, you have two wonderful sons already. You were right to come here, Eschiva. This island needs a government, not an army of occupation. Now, I’m going to tell Aimery the good news before he suffers any longer. I’ll be back.”
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