THE ACTUAL BIRTH HAD NOT BEEN particularly difficult, the midwife claimed, but a fever came afterwards. It raged so violently that the Queen’s sheets became drenched, and by the third day the priests were hovering over her, offering her the last rites.
Maria Zoë was only sporadically conscious. She knew she had given birth to a girl—disappointing her husband, her great-uncle, and the entire Kingdom. She knew that Amalric had not once come to her chamber, although she could not know if the women kept him away or if he simply had no interest in seeing her like this: filthy, stinking, and undignified. A woman suffering from milk fever was not a pretty sight.
She could sometimes hear the wagging tongues of her ladies, unsure whether they thought her senseless or if they thought she would die anyway and have no means to punish them. She heard the way they dismissed her for being so cold and arrogant and vain. “Yet for all her fine airs,” they concluded, “she could not produce a male heir!”
“Beauty isn’t everything!”
“Much less her fancy learning! Reading Greek philosophers! What nonsense!”
“Do you think the King will remarry?”
“He has to—and he can’t wait two years for the Byzantine Emperor to send him a new child bride. Not with Prince Baldwin dying limb by limb. He’ll look for someone closer to home.”
“And someone mature—ready and able to bear an heir within a nine-month. Maybe even a widow who’s proven she can produce sons. . . .” The voices of her ladies faded, and in their place was the soft pleading of the Egyptian woman, Rahel.
“Don’t fret, madame. They are just jealous of you. The Good Lord knows what is in your heart.” Rahel was sitting on the floor beside her bed, holding and stroking her hand. She spoke in Greek, which no one else in the room understood.
Rahel had not been with Maria Zoë very long. Rahel had been traveling on pilgrimage to Jerusalem from Alexandria with her brother’s family when they had been seized by Bedouins crossing Sinai. Sold in the slave market of Damascus, she had the good fortune to be recognized as a fellow Christian by an Armenian trader from the Principality of Antioch, who bought her as a gift for King Amalric, from whom he hoped for trading concessions. Rahel was a striking woman in her tall, dark, dignified way, and the merchant apparently thought the King would want the Egyptian woman as an exotic bedmate.
The Latin Church, however, did not recognize the right of Christians to hold other Christians as slaves. Amalric accepted the gift, but freed Rahel. He told her there was a Coptic community in Jerusalem and offered to have his servants take her there—but because she spoke Greek and was a widow who had borne four children, he offered her the alternative of serving in his wife’s household. Rahel had accepted the position, on the condition that she first be allowed to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Amalric had readily granted her wish.
The fact that she spoke Greek, as none of the Queen’s other ladies did, had given Rahel an instant advantage in the Queen’s household—an advantage that the other women resented. But that was not the only reason Maria Zoë favored Rahel. From the start, Rahel had simply accepted Maria Zoë for what she was: a pregnant teenager facing her first childbirth. She had reassured her that all would go well, speaking matter-of-factly of her own four pregnancies. She had lost all her children, she admitted, before her husband, a merchant, was lost at sea. She was grateful her brother had taken her into his family, and was overjoyed when he allowed her to accompany him on pilgrimage. She had wanted nothing more than to come to Jerusalem, she told Maria Zoë. Now, after many misadventures, she was here, and she had prayed in the very place where Christ was crucified and where He had risen from the grave. She did not speak about her capture, her separation from her brother’s family, or the indignity of slavery. That was in the past; it was God’s will.
Rahel spoke Greek with an accent, but she soothed Maria Zoë as no one else could. “Christ is very near,” she assured Maria Zoë, as if He would cure all ills. Rationally Maria Zoë knew how many people suffered and died in Jerusalem every day, but Rahel made her believe that she would be saved.
The day the fever broke, no one was with Maria Zoë except Rahel. The others had already abandoned her. Rahel single-handedly prepared a bath for her and washed out her tangled hair, massaging her head and her neck with strong, wiry fingers. “When you are strong enough,” Rahel promised, “we will go to the Holy Grave to thank Him for your recovery.”
“What has happened to my child?” Maria Zoë asked anxiously. “Is she still alive?”
“Yes, she is with a wet nurse. She is healthy and strong and will grow up pretty like you, but with lighter hair. She has been christened Isabella.”
“And my husband? Has he forgiven me for giving him a daughter rather than the son he needs?”
Rahel shook her head sadly. “Who can understand the minds of men, madame? Do they think we decide the sex of our children? God makes children, madame, and God makes both men and women. You are not to blame, madame,” Rahel assured her, making it very clear that her husband took a different stand.
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