Queen Piacenza dies by slow degrees, thought Salvagia.
She stroked the queen's hair off her sweaty forehead, then soothed her mistress's aching back with long strokes of her wrinkled fingers, low at the base of the her spine. Piacenza was heavy with pregnancy, but she had more than a month to wait, perhaps two, before the babe was ready.
In Salvagia's mind, the birthing couldn't happen soon enough; her mistress's pale face and thin body, which so lacked energy, bespoke fatigue far worse than that of normal childbirth. Salvagia wondered where Piacenza found the strength to breathe. Her beautiful curls had straightened as her belly grew, so that now her hair resembled a twig broom, bone straight to her shoulder blades, and dry as straw. The pregnancy bleached her sienna complexion as white as the snow in the tiny courtyard outside. Blue veins lined the sides of her face.
Salvagia eased the queen to her feet and helped her to the cloth-lined tub laid on the warm flagstones near the hearth.
"Into the bath, Piacenza. Let's steam the kinks from your spine." She knelt and unlaced her mistress's wool-lined boots, then stood to help the shorter woman out of her tunic, and slid the trousers over Piacenza's bulging stomach.
Piacenza smoothed her hands down over her belly, rasping the tiny protrusion that was her navel with both thumbs, as she laced her fingers to support the bulge. The soft smile she wore so often now thinned to a hard crease.
The old woman stooped, and Piacenza placed a hand on her shoulder and stepped over the high rim of the tub. Her knuckles whitened on the rim as she lowered herself to the low stool, which made rising from the bath easier in her condition.
"It will be a girl, do you think, Salvagia?" Piacenza closed her brown eyes, and breathed deeply from the humid air rising off the hot water.
"It must be," the nurse responded, adding chamomile, mint and a few precious drops of camphor oil to the bath water. The odors rose, mixing with the nutty, musky scent of the incense burning in the braziers around the room. Steam from the tub eddied up, joining the smoke from the burning incense. Without an open window to escape, it hung in the air like fog, dimming the firelight.
Behind a heavy wool curtain, sewn and hung by Salvagia in the early stages of Piacenza's pregnancy, the room's sole window rattled on its hinges, battered by wind and sleet. The wind howled, rushing down from the mountainside to the castle nestled in its bosom, carrying the sleet straight from the clouds. The precipitation covered the earlier snow with a glassy sheen, which reflected the courtyard torches. Salvagia did her best to shroud her mistress from the elements of this miserable holding, just as she had protected Piacenza's mother, and just as she would do for the coming child.
"'If it must be, then it will be,'" Piacenza said, quoting Salvagia. She looked up at the nurse and winked, then lifted her bony hands to her hair, twisting the lifeless strands into a knot at her nape. "Let's cast the bones."
"No. They won't tell us any more than they've already said."
Salvagia knelt and thrust her hands into the water, sliding them down over the queen's back. Piacenza leaned forward, allowing the old woman access, closing her eyes against the camphor steam.
Salvagia splayed her hands across Piacenza's lower back, pressing her thumbs to Piacenza's spine over and over. She paid special attention to the sore area above the queen's hips, kneading the tightness with her outstretched fingers, sometimes grasping Pia's hip bone in one clawed hand, gaining leverage to force the heel of her other into the tight muscles. After the harsh massage, she smoothed her palm against Pia's skin in slow concentric circles, hoping to impart the healing benefits of the herbs suffusing the water. Long moments later, she sat back on her heels, dried her hands on a linen cloth, and reached for a kettle of water warming in the coals.
Streaming it into the tub, she said, "Relax in the heat for a few more moments, then we'll massage pure camphor oil into your tired muscles. Perhaps you'll sleep better this evening."
"It feels so much better, Salvagia. Thank you." She smiled up at the old woman. "You take such good care of me."
"As I am charged to do."
"As you desire to do," Piacenza said. She leaned back against the rim of the tub and closed her eyes again. "Roll the bones, Salvagia. I want to see if they've changed their mind."
"To what end? In six months they haven't changed. It would only hurt you more."
"My time is close. I want to be certain."
"It only feels close because you are so uncomfortable. Let's see if we can ease the pain in your back enough tonight to help you sleep a full night through. You spend too much time on your feet."
"It's expected of me, Salvagia. I need to be a strong queen for these people. I need to prove to them I'm worthy. In their eyes, a foreign princess isn't worth one of their own peasants." She took a deep breath and swirled the water with her left hand. "Cast the runes." Piacenza's words sounded even more tired than usual to Salvagia's ears, but they were firm.
Salvagia frowned. "So be it."
She rose and walked across the room to her reed basket, which sat on the linen chest at the foot of the bed. The basket overflowed with the necessities of her trade, brimming with essential oils, fragrant herbs, liniments and salves--all innocuous items. The important bits she kept at the bottom, away from prying eyes.
Salvagia rummaged a moment, and then retrieved four candle stubs, the bases crusted in something dark; a hollow gourd, motley green and yellow stripes dulled with age; a leather bladder, new compared to the other items; and a small, bone-handled knife. The contents of the gourd rattled as Salvagia crossed the room to return to Piacenza.
The nurse knelt again at the side of the tub, set the four candles in a diamond shape on the flagstones, and lighted them: west, east, south, then north. The queen dropped her arm over the lip of the tub, her fingers drooping over the tableau. Thin, white scars decorated the tips of her red, swollen fingers. Atop the scars, slender red lines of barely-healed wounds pulsed in the firelight. Salvagia grabbed each finger in turn, tightening the pressure until blood flowed hot and tight to the tip, then sliced the tender skin.
Piacenza stiffened with the first cut, but didn't cry out, even when Salvagia milked the ravaged fingers, pumping more blood onto the knife. Salvagia carried the blood first to the west candle, then east, then south and north, smearing the sanguinary fluid at each base. Then, she laid the knife aside and opened the gourd, spilling the bones around the diamond. She'd brought these runes with her from Omero when she'd accompanied Piacenza to the mountains to marry her prince. But their accuracy failed her once they'd arrived. She included their presence in the rite lest they get jealous; away from this place they would work again, unless peeved.
The new runes, culled from the spine of a stillborn lamb--the base of this province's economy--were required here to work the mallochio, the sorcery. And in the six months she and Piacenza had performed this rite, the same message appeared no matter how many times she cast. Strong magic prevailed on this mountain aerie.
Salvagia untied the dark leather pouch containing the etched lamb's bones and poured them into her hands, rolling them round and round.
"What is it you wish to know?" she asked Piacenza. They'd done this so often in the last few months, Salvagia knew Piacenza's exact words. Out of habit, she mouthed them with the queen.
"What will this child need to rule wisely and justly?"
A sudden thought paralyzed her hands. Despite the heat in the room, a cold sweat dotted Salvagia's forehead. What if she'd been influencing the outcome of the cast by speaking the words together with Piacenza? What if it were her fault the bones speak thusly, time after time?
Salvagia's brief hesitation alerted the queen. She lifted her head and opened her eyes to meet Salvagia's.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
Salvagia hoped she was wrong. She hated to think she'd been driving the outcome of the toss. No. She could not be prejudicing the bones. They turned up the same way whether or not she whispered the words along with Piacenza. They turned this way before she knew what the queen would ask. She shook herself out of the doldrums and smiled at the queen, willing her heartbeat to give up its frantic pace.
"Then throw them. I grow weary from your delays."
Salvagia nodded, mixed the bones again betwixt her hands and let them drop. They clattered across the flagstones, bouncing and turning, revealing themselves one by one. As expected, the message was the same.
"A girl child must rule or the kingdom will fall to ruin," Salvagia said.
Piacenza nodded, apparently satisfied, and leaned back against the tub again, turning her bleeding fingers upward to staunch the flow.
Salvagia extinguished the candles and scooped up her old bones first. She would pick up this mess before helping Piacenza from the tub.