Chapter 1: His promise was broken
The flocks of birds rose into the sky, dispelled by the throngs of footsore and weary pilgrims making their way into the city. Each mann, womann and child bore a single black tulip, which they then laid in turn at the palace walls. The banks of tulips rose until the palace wall appeared to be a black tide sweeping through the heart of the magnificent city of Dilmunia, the heart of Al-Qaum that reflected the magnificence of Light by day and shone like a pearl when the moon was full and casting her spell on her beloved people once a lunar month.
The guards, accustomed to this ceremony, watched as each dirty, tired and footsore traveller took his or her black tulip and laid it on the pile before shuffling off in search of food and accommodation, hoping to rest awhile before donning their richest garments and embarking on a night of festivities and pleasures unmatched by any other event in the calendar. The guards did not care for the faithful pilgrims, no, what they looked for were the old priests (who believed in the fallen Daemon), now returned from exile after the city declared itself subject to the Kingdom of Nirath. Fallen in power were they and cursed in their grief, the duke was wary that they might unleash their anger during the first festivities Dilumnia had ever held to celebrate the ascension of the new king. And so he found himself sorely distracted on a day when all his attention should have been on what was occurring within his own palace walls.
For deep within, past the grand entrance, the banqueting hall, the magnificent staircase, the library, gardens and pleasure houses, resided the duchess in chambers that were sumptuous and cool, decorated in marble, gold and silver, silk and satin, as befitted a wealthy and gorgeous woman. Known both for her great beauty and charm, the stories of how she had decorated her chambers and the private gatherings she held within them were now legendary. Musicians, poets, lawyers, philosophers and warriors had all gathered for her afternoon salons, debating topics as varied as the legal rights of infants to the best method of gathering the oil of roses. And always present at her side was her equally beautiful sister, who watched carefully as the shining duchess revelled in the talent gathered in her chambers and the adulation she received from some of the most brilliant and beautiful men and women in the land (enjoying the attention of the men only slightly more than was proper, to her sister’s eyes).
But today, when there should have been a flurry of preparations for the festivities to come, with servants and handmaidens rushing about in glee, giggling as they fetched this scarf or that jewel, there was instead a rush of movement that spoke of an urgency of an entirely different sort. Bedraggled women with hair unkempt and filth on their aprons hurtled out of the chambers carrying bloodied rags to the kitchen with the orders ringing in their ears to fetch more water, more towels and please, to hurry!!!
Inside the bed chamber, the stench of death laid heavy in the air, even though the windows had been opened to try and purify the room. On the bed of silk and gold lay the duchess, bloated and bruised. Propped up on pillows in a near seated position, she no longer had the strength to cry as another wave of pain tore through her, wrenching her from side to side and leaving her as weak as a new born kitten. Her sister sat by her side, with tears streaming down her face as she wiped the sweat from the duchess’s brow or placed ice chips in her mouth.
Looking at the swollen belly, the rivers of bodily fluids flowing from between her sister’s legs and above all, the horror in the duchess’s eyes, the young Mara screamed at the physician and midwives, “Is there nothing you can do?”
The elderly physician, who was the most respected in the land and had indeed brought the duchess and her sister into the world, looked at Mara with red-rimmed eyes. “The child is in breach and has resisted all attempts to turn it over the past day and night. Your sister has not the strength to undergo another attempted turning. There is one thing left to do if we are to save the duchess.”
Mara inhaled sharply as she saw the midwives begin to unwrap the physician’s tools, revealing wicked looking instruments that looked as though they belonged in a torturer’s chamber rather than a healer’s satchel. Blades of various sizes winked in the sunlight as they were brought out of their silk encasements, cleansed in fire and alcohol and then laid out from shortest to longest on the table next to the physician.
“No! No, no, no, no, no,” Mara wailed as the servants began to blanch, many rushing out of the room to retch up what remained of their last meal. A midwife came to Mara’s side, seeking to console her, but the young girl pushed her angrily away.
“You cannot do this!” She screamed. “The duke would not allow it.”
The duchess, alerted to the sudden change of atmosphere, even through the fog of pain that imprisoned her, opened her eyes feebly. Looking at the knives by her side, she began to scream soundlessly, her right hand reaching for a golden whistle that hung around her neck. It had been given to her by her husband, Duke Usifan, as a present when her pregnancy had first been announced. He had tenderly placed it around her neck and whispered to her, “Anytime you blow it, I will come to your side.”
Remembering his promise, she placed the cold metal on her lips and blew. But, whether it was fate, her lack of breath or his attention to what was occurring outside his walls, he never heard her and his promise was broken. The duchess looked to her sister for help, pleading in a whisper, “Save the baby, it is all I have to remember him by.” Mara nodded with tears streaming down her face and turned the gathered midwives who stood grimly by the physician as he dried off his hands and tested the edge of a medium-sized blade.
“Did my brother-in-law, the duke, give any instructions as to what was to happen in the event of a difficult birth such as this?”
“He did, my lady. We are to save your sister.”
Mara choked back a sob and said, “You cannot take this child. All the city knows of the prophecy foretold of it by the Olde Widow. She, the most eminent clairvoyant in the land, blessed with the second sight, told the duke and my sister that the child is special, blessed with wit and cleverness unparalleled in the land. Surely in the days to come, as our city navigates its way through the hierarchy of Nirath, seeking to keep those who would ravage our lands and deplete our resources at bay, we will have need of a prince blessed with diplomacy and charm?”
The physician looked at the queen once more and said, “I cannot defy the duke’s orders.”
Mara rose then and walked to the physician, drawing him away to the corner. She whispered in his ear, “Tell me true, old man. Can my sister survive this?”
physician looked at Mara with sorrow in his eyes, “It is unlikely. I am sorry.”
“Then why not save the child? At least one life may be saved today.”
“But the duke…
“I will inform him and take responsibility for this day. It is my sister’s decision. I know her heart and I know that if you kill the child and she survives, she will not live long afterwards, but will follow her baby into the afterlife through grief.”
“Very well,” the physician said and went back to the bed, instructing the midwives to hold the duchess down. Four women took hold of an arm or a leg, spreading the legs wide apart. Mara went to her sister’s side and whispered, “Courage, they will try to turn the child and pull it into this world. This is the last chance sister, if you want your child to be born. You must endure.”
The duchess looked at her sister with tears in her eyes, but opened her mouth, allowing the leather clamp to be put in and then she bit down with her pearly white teeth. Her once beautiful face, red and ashen in turn, swollen and splotchy, assumed a determined expression once more, her emerald eyes flashing in defiance of Mother Nature and its fickle blessings. Mara brushed her sister’s raven locks off of her face and then held her shoulders, noting how they trembled. The shudder became a spasm that grew in intensity as the physician reached in, turned the baby none too gently, desperate to save a life. The duchess screamed through the bit, breaking one of her perfect teeth as she clenched her jaw too tight, blood now mingling with the sweat and tears on her face.
There was a sudden wrench and then all was perfectly still as a pale flopping thing was brought into the harsh light of day. The bells rang out: it had just gone noon. A collective intake of breath was held as the physician removed the detritus of the womb from the infant’s face, rubbing its body down, encouraging it to take a breath. A single cry was heard and after a momentary rejoicing, the child was cleaned, swaddled, and handed to the loving arms of its mother.
The duchess looked down on her infant, ignoring the sudden spurt of blood that flowed from her and the ministrations of the physician and midwives who sought to save her life. She clasped her baby to her breast and unwrapped the swaddling.
“But…..it’s a girl,” she whispered, confusion written on her face.
Mara looked down on the child who sucked noisily on its hand. Perfect in form, it was, with a hint of auburn in its hair, a rosebud mouth and strong chin. Feeling the slight stirrings of misgiving, she put aside her thoughts to concentrate on her sister and niece.
“She’s a beautiful girl,” Mara whispered, before calling loudly, “Where is the nurse? The baby must be fed.”
“Why are there so many people around, Mara?” the duchess asked. “Send them away. I want to be alone with my daughter during the time I have left.”
Mara nodded to the physician and midwives, who cleaned the duchess as best they could and then left the room with the servants, leaving only Mara and the nurse in the chamber. The duchess looked upon her daughter tenderly, examining each little finger and toe, the darling little nose and the unnaturally wise eyes. “You will be called White Tulipa, for you were born on the day of rejoicing in this city and you are a light in the darkness.”
The baby began to squall hungrily, so the nurse took her into the corner, where she began to feed noisily. The duchess observed this with a sad smile on her face before turning to Mara and saying, “Can you do something for me?”
“Anything,” Mara replied.
“Will you write a letter to my husband from me?”
Fetching a quill and piece of parchment, Mara sat down at a desk and waited for her sister to begin.
Aware of her station in life, and the lack of privacy, the duchess nevertheless was determined to give her husband one last message. She looked at the two women in the room and then began to say softly.
“My darling husband, light of my life.
Heaven has seen fit to bestow upon us a daughter, perfect in form. She is it who the clairvoyant prophesied, that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt. I wish I could be with her in life, watch her grow into the beautiful woman I know she will be, but I have to content myself with watching her from the afterlife. But know that I will always be with her and with you.
For the affection that I know you bear towards me, do not let your disappointment over our child being a girl or the anger over my death allow you to withdraw from our child, I beg you. Our darling White Tulipa needs you more than ever. As you seek a new wife who can give you the son you require, please do not forget our daughter. If you can do this, then I can go to my reward in peace.”
The nurse watched as the duchess stopped speaking, drew a last breath and then passed from this life. Yet her sister kept writing, a fey light in her eyes. Oh, the rumours had been whispered of how the young girl had always looked upon the duke a certain way and certain servants had predicted that, should ill fate befall the duchess, her sister would be certain to be first in line to replace her, and yet the nurse had always rejected such notions as preposterous. She had witnessed the obvious affection between the two women.
And yet now, she was not certain she had been correct. Rising silently with the sleeping baby, she went to the duchess’ bed, ostensibly to check on the woman, but in reality hoping to catch a glimpse of what Mara was writing. She caught a glimpse of a description of the child’s hair and face, nothing but what a proud mother would say about her child, until instinct made her look down on White Tulipa. She had seen many infants in her life and knew that newborns very rarely resemble what they will grow to look like, and yet there was a hint in the mouth and chin of an unknown ancestor.
Looking at the sleeping baby, the dead duchess and the feverish sister scribbling away, the nurse swore she would do whatever it took to protect the child.
Mara stopped writing all of a sudden, looking up as if only now aware of the silence in the room. She jumped out of her chair and rushed to her sister’s side, screaming in despair. Her cries woke the baby and brought the physician and midwives back into the room. The servants who followed began to wail and the cries spread throughout the palace, eventually making their way to the duke and his advisors, who had been poring over the plans for the evening’s festivities.
Mara took the whistle off her sister’s neck and the ring bearing her seal and kissed her sister on both cheeks, sobbing all the while. Making her way back to the desk, she sealed the letter with the wax seal and then placed both the whistle and the letter in a box, instructing a servant to carry it to the duke.
The servant was brought into the library in a state of despair. One look at the servant made the duke start, who only now registered the wails resounding through the palace. Steeling his emotions for the news to come, he accepted the box, ordering everyone in the room to leave, so that he might receive the news alone.
End of Chapter 1...