The knocking on the door startled her and she sat upright, instantly alarmed. Rahel muttered something and went to the door, but did not open it. “Who is there?” she asked.
“The Mother Superior!” came the firm answer.
Rahel looked over her shoulder at her mistress. Maria Zoë nodded and pulled herself together. When the Mother Superior entered she saw a Queen seated stiffly, with her feet perfectly aligned, her back straight, her head high.
“I came to see if you were comfortable, my lady,” the Mother Superior declared, coming deeper into the room, her eye taking in every detail, from the fire to the little rugs Rahel had unpacked and the goblet in Maria Zoë’s hand—which certainly didn’t belong to the convent inventory. Her gaze fell briefly on the sleeping child, and her smile twisted. Then she turned and looked Maria Zoë in the eye.
Maria Zoë met her gaze. ”Thank you, madame. The rooms are very comfortable.”
The Mother Superior stood for a moment with her hands on the tall back of the chair opposite, apparently waiting for Maria Zoë to invite her to sit down. When she did not, the nun walked around to the front of the chair and slowly sank down into it anyway. “Then we should talk.”
Maria Zoë did not agree. She was tired, only slowly warming up, and in no mood to talk to anyone, but she bit her tongue.
“First, I would like to know just how long you intend to stay here,” the Mother Superior asked.
“I don’t know.”
“A week? A month? A year? A lifetime? Surely you can make an estimate,” the Mother Superior countered impatiently.
“More than a month, certainly, and just as certainly not a lifetime,” Maria Zoë answered. “Isabella will reach the age of consent at seven and be marriageable at twelve. I think that is the longest I would stay,” Maria Zoë answered, realizing that, glad as she was to be here for the moment, she truly could not imagine spending the rest of her life here. But then, did she really know her own mind? All her life, other people had told her what she was supposed to do. She had never had the freedom to decide her own fate. And precisely because freedom was such a new, unexpected state, she had not begun to think through all the possibilities it offered. Aside from protecting Isabella, Maria Zoë realized she did not know what she wanted.
“I see,” the Mother Superior answered, obviously displeased. After a moment, she announced: “No one told me you were coming, and no one asked me if I wanted important guests. You will find that life here is not like anything you have known before. This is a silent order, madame. We live in individual cells and do not socialize. We see each other only at Mass and at chapter meetings. We speak only at allotted times, only as necessary—or in circumstances like these, where we are compelled by the outside world to speak. If you think it is cold now, imagine what it is like in the winter. We can have snow up here, but freezing rain is more common. The food is simple, the wine local, and the only music you will hear is the chanting of plainsong. We do not dance or hawk or play games of chess or chance; indeed, even bathing is a luxury we can afford only for special occasions. We bathe in cold water without scents of any kind.”
Maria Zoë was too tired to dissemble. “Why don’t you want me here, madame?”
“I did not say I did not want you.”
“No, but you are doing everything in your power to convince me I do not want to stay.”
“No, I simply want you to know what you will find here.”
“No sympathy from you, that is certain.”
“Did you come here for sympathy?”
“No; for peace and safety. I’m tired of being on display all the time. Tired of being stared at by everyone, criticized for what I do, say, and wear—even the tilt of my head or the way I hold my hands. I’m tired of being a puppet!” The wine on her empty stomach had loosened her tongue.
“Now that I can believe,” the Mother Superior declared with a slight smile as she leaned back in her chair. “Much better than the ‘grieving widow’ pose.”
Maria Zoë started. Was it that obvious that she did not grieve for Amalric—no matter how much she regretted that he was dead?
“Madame, let me be honest with you,” the Mother Superior began. Maria Zoë could not stifle a sarcastic, “By all means, drop this façade of delighted hospitality.”
The Mother Superior acknowledged her quip by lifting the corners of her lips, but her eyes remained as hard as before. “We are a very small community here. Newcomers always disrupt the harmony. Jealousies, rivalries, antagonisms, and disappointments ensue. The presence of a queen—not to mention a small child—will cause trouble. You say you have come here for peace, but you have no idea how little peace there can be among two score women with too much time on their hands.”
Without giving Maria Zoë a chance to speak, the Mother Superior continued. “One of my charges, madame, was brought here by her brothers after she was discovered with a lover below her station. She did not want to be here, and she made escape attempts; when those failed, she tried to kill herself. Another of my charges had been discarded by a husband interested in a wealthier wife; he found churchmen willing to annul his first marriage, and no one in her family was powerful enough to stop him. She was so full of wrath that she poisoned the very air we breathed. Another of my charges came here after she lost her eighth child. She could not bear the thought of conceiving, bearing, and then burying another—but even here, she grieved so intensely we could not sleep at night for her weeping.” She paused and looked at her new guest.
Maria Zoë looked back at her, the goblet of wine held in both hands. “You will find me far less disruptive, madame. I am here of my own free will, and my family is hardly powerless to help me, if I request it. So long as Isabella is well, I have no reason for untoward grief.”
“No, I can see that,” the Mother Superior agreed with a wan smile, “but you are still a young woman, and your daughter is second in line to the throne. I have already been informed that five men-atarms and one knight are to remain here at all times to protect you. The men will rotate in and out, but there will always be six men in the hostel just beyond the walls awaiting your orders—and the Regent’s, of course. That alone is disruptive, madame. I have charges here who were pledged as children; they know nothing of the outside world. Some are frightened of it, and others are attracted to it because it is forbidden fruit.”
“It is not easy to have responsibility for others, madame,” Maria Zoë answered. “That is the hardest burden of nobility, is it not?”
The Mother Superior nodded her head slowly, smiling without mirth. The Dowager Queen was not going to withdraw. She clearly intended to stay here as long as she pleased, regardless of the impact she had on the forty-three other women living here. The Mother Superior got to her feet. “Good. Then we understand each other,” she announced.
“Yes, we do,” Maria Zoë answered. “Good night, madame, and thank you for your warm welcome!” She held out her hand for the Mother Superior to kiss, and the older woman had no choice but to bend and kiss the long white fingers of her Queen, with the ring of Jerusalem on her right ring finger.
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