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

Helena is represented by Laurie Blum Guest at the Re-Naissance Agency.

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 28, 2018

To Displease an Emperor - An Excerpt from Rebels against Tyranny

Medieval women were far from powerless, but they generally find less place in the chroniclers than male relatives. Eschiva de Montbeliard was one such woman whose influence was almost certainly greater than the naked facts left in the historical record imply. I chose to make her the principal female protagonist in my series on the civil war in Outremer, and I chose to make her a lady-in-waiting to Queen Yolanda to incorporate more of Yolanda's own story.

Following the death of Queen Yolanda, Eschiva finds herself imprisoned in the Emperor's harem. 

The Holy Roman Emperor had entered his wife’s apartment so silently that Eschiva had not realized he was here until he was glowering over her and hissed: “How dare you?” His voice was almost inaudible from chocking fury.

“How dare I what, my lo—your magnificence?” She stammered out. She could hardly hear her own words over the sound of her heart hammering in her ears.

Frederick answered by flinging her letter in her face, the seal broken and the parchment unfolded. “How dare you go behind my back!”

“I—I—” The fruit lady. She had betrayed her. Apparently, the woman had guessed the letter was in some way surreptitious, and surmised she could sell it to someone in the palace—maybe just Omar, who took it directly to Frederick. “I—didn’t mean to—to—I just—”

Frederick lashed out hard and fast, slapping her face so forcefully that it whipped her head to the side and left her neck aching as well as her cheek burning. “You are a liar as well as a deceitful bitch! We have tolerated your arrogance, impudence, and pride for the sake of our consort, but we will tolerate it no longer! We warned you not to mistake your position, but you are evidently too stupid to understand hints. We will speak plainly: you are in our power and we will dispose of you as we please. Don’t flatter yourself that it would please us to lie with you! You are too cold, boring and plain to arouse our interest! But we expect your brother to support us generously on our crusade, and he will assuredly do that more willingly if he thereby secures your, shall we say, well-being? If you ever, ever cross us again—much less write drivel as is in that scrap,” he gestured toward the letter on the floor between them, “we will give your brother a good reason to pay a fortune for your freedom.”

Their eyes were locked. His were like a serpent’s, burning her with his contempt and yet by their very intensity making her afraid to break eye contact. In those eyes was the promise of punishment, of pain and humiliation. He hated her, she registered with surprise. It surprised her because she was so far beneath him that she thought he took no note of her at all. She had been nothing but a witness, a silent witness, to all he had done to Yolanda. But maybe that was enough to make him hate her? Maybe she reminded him of his own injustice? Or did he hate her simply because he sensed her hatred of him? Whatever his reason, his hatred was very, very dangerous.

Eschiva crumpled into a deep curtsy, and managed to squeak out, “You will have no reason for complaint, your magnificence.” Eschiva spoke to her discarded letter and the toes of his black shoes. Frederick turned on heel and stalked out, slamming the door behind him.

Only very slowly did Eschiva unbend, pushing herself upright again. No terror she had ever known before equaled what she felt now. This threat, this hint of dark dungeons, pillories, floggings or starvation, was terrifying precisely because it was so vague. It was open-ended and unfathomable. Hadn’t he heated an iron crown to a glowing red and then nailed it to the head of a defeated enemy?

He was not a man of mercy, Yolanda had remarked once. Just that: not a man of mercy. Another time she had complained, “He is vindictive. He bears a grudge forever, but in silence and hidden under sweet words—until he chooses to take his revenge.”

Eschiva discovered to her surprise that she was still clinging to the Odyssey. Indeed, she was clinging to it so firmly that her fingers were hurting. She forced them to relax, but she hugged the book to her chest. It was a memory, a talisman, from a better time and place. From home.

She started. The Odyssey. Ulysses had been driven off course, endured horrible and wonderful adventures, lost all his companions, but in the end, he returned home. And there was a ship in the harbor at this very moment, which would soon set sail for Cyprus. A ship on which her cousin, stranger though he was, would sail. She had thought to send a message by him, but since that had failed, somehow, somehow—Mary have mercy on me!—somehow, Eschiva told herself, she had to be aboard that ship herself.

She didn’t have a moment to lose. The funeral was over. Her cousin would undoubtedly sail with the morning tide, anxious to bring word to Yolanda’s vassals and subjects that she was dead. Good God! The High Court of Jerusalem would need to elect a baillie for Yolanda’s infant son Conrad.

Eschiva started pacing the little chamber in an effort to calm her nerves and stimulate her brain. Like a captive lion, she moved back-and-forth on silent feet, her eyes searching and searching for something. She stopped. She was staring at Yolanda’s dressing table. On it was the little glass bottle with the sleeping powder the Jewish doctor had given her. “Use only a very little,” he had warned. “No more than a pinch in a glass of wine. It is very powerful. Too much, and you will sleep like the dead. A little more, and you will be dead.”

She had to get some of that powder into something Omar drank.

Of course! The wine!

Omar was Muslim, but he had a weakness for wine. To maintain his image and authority among his co-religionists, he publicly abhorred and condemned wine. He drank in secret. In the Queen’s anteroom. Because no one dared follow him inside, and the harem girls did not enter the Queen’s apartment either, it was the perfect place. Yolanda had encouraged him in this vice, because, of course, she used it as a means to coerce him into little favors. “If you don’t do this, I’ll tell the Imam that you drink….” He had had no wine since Yolanda died.

Eschiva nodded to herself, confident that she could invite him in and give him wine with a hefty dose of the sleeping powder already mixed in. She would then retreat to the bedchamber and loudly lock the door from the inside as if she wanted nothing to do with him. When he was asleep, she would be able to come out, remove the keys to the outer door, leave the harem, and bolt it from the outside. No one would suspect anything was amiss until the next morning when Ahmed came to bring Omar his breakfast as he washed, changed and prayed.
For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into 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.

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