Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, September 26, 2014

If Only Jewels Could Make A Woman Happy - Excerpt 2

Royal Palace of Jerusalem, March 1171

If only jewels could make a woman happy, Maria Zoë Comnena thought as her ladies prepared her for yet another state dinner. Her great-uncle, the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I, had sent her as a bride to the King of Jerusalem, laden with jewels as a way to demonstrate his wealth.

Maria Zoë remembered all too vividly what it had been like when she arrived in Jerusalem at the age of thirteen. The marriage had been celebrated just two days after her arrival, before she had had any chance to recover from the arduous journey. Although she had been given French lessons to prepare her for her marriage to Jerusalem, at the time of her wedding she still needed to concentrate very hard to understand rapidly spoken French. She had been utterly exhausted, from the constant use of a strange tongue and from wearing the heavy, jewel-encrusted gown, long before her husband consummated the marriage.
he next morning she was presented to the court again, this time as a married woman, and she had been so tired she could hardly keep her eyes open―which sparked much jocularity and teasing, and the King had beamed with pride. Amalric had been proud of his little Byzantine bride. She was as pretty as a doll, with curly black hair, big amber eyes, a nubile white body, and the riches of Byzantium draped upon her.

That was five years ago. Now Amalric was also proud of her learning, particularly the fact that she could read and write in Greek, Latin, and French. The King had even been known to brag about the fact that she had read Aristotle and Plato. But such bragging was because he felt her learning, like her bloodlines and her beauty, reflected well on him. These things did not fundamentally alter his attitude towards her. Except in bed, he treated Maria Zoë with the greatest of courtesy, and her authority was never publicly undermined, but he never sought her advice or interacted with her on an intellectual level. She was his Queen, not his companion or friend.

As his Queen, he expected her to be immaculately dressed, coifed, and made up whenever she appeared in public. This started with a daily bath in rose water, followed by skin creams. Her fingernails and toenails were manicured. Then she was dressed in silk undergarments, over which came silk gowns and surcoats embroidered with bright silk, gold, and silver threads. Last but not least, she was laden with jewels: hairpins with pearl or rolled amber heads, earrings that dangled almost to her shoulders, necklaces with multiple strands of gold or beads of precious stones, bracelets as wide as an archer’s leather brace, and rings on every finger. A Syrian Christian had been employed for the sole purpose of outlining her eyes, rouging her cheeks and lips, coloring her eyelids, and styling her hair, which was never entirely concealed under the sheer silk veils that she wore.

The result was dazzling to the observer, and utterly stifling to Maria Zoë. She could not move naturally in her clothing, nor sit comfortably, nor relax even for a moment. She was transformed into a doll, her thoughts and feelings completely buried behind the façade.

Amalric of Jerusalem had once been a handsome man. Now, although he was only thirty-five years old, his once powerful body had become flabby to the point of obesity, and his once fine, blond hair was receding. His hazel eyes, however, were hawkish, and they lit up at the sight of his wife. He smiled as he came forward to kiss her on each cheek. “You look lovely, my dear! Absolutely lovely! You’ll have all the bachelors swooning at your feet—and my barons as well.”

Didn’t it ever occur to him that I don’t care about that? Maria Zoë wondered. What good are hollow conquests based on attraction to a façade?

The King took her hand through his elbow to lead her out of the chamber. “I swear, my dear, you become more beautiful with each day,” he assured her. Evidently he thinks women care only about being beautiful, Maria Zoë concluded with inner resentment.

Because she did not respond with blushing delight at his compliment, Amalric asked hopefully, “Is something the matter, my dear? Are you indisposed?” He associated indisposition with pregnancy.

“No, my lord. I am only anxious that the Assassins might take advantage of this gathering of all the important men in the Kingdom.”

Amalric’s face darkened instantly. He had recently concluded a treaty with the Shiite sect based in the Syrian mountains, who were famous for sending out assassins to eliminate their enemies. The treaty had been a significant coup for King Amalric, but the Knights Templar had shown their contempt for the King of Jerusalem by striking down the sect’s ambassadors during their return journey. The diplomatic consequences were still unforeseeable, but the impudence of the Templars had provoked a domestic crisis. Maria Zoë knew that her husband had tried to seize the Templars responsible for the murders and punish them, but the Templars had met the officers of the King with open defiance, insisting they were subordinate to the Pope alone. In a rage, Amalric had sworn to teach the Templars a lesson. He had even threatened a military confrontation with the mighty Order. In the end, however, cooler heads had prevailed. He had been talked into sending a letter to the Pope demanding that the Templars responsible for the murder of the ambassadors be punished—and demanding that the Order as a whole be chastised and disciplined. Maria Zoë knew all that—but not from her husband.

Her attempt to provoke her husband into discussing the issue, however, failed flatly. Despite his scowl at the mere mention of the incident, he patted her hand and urged her not to “worry her pretty head” about the Assassins. “I promise you, we have everything under control.”

Maria Zoë gave up. This was not the time or venue for a renewed attempt to get her husband to view her as a mind, not just a body.

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