Four Sisters, All Queens Excerpt


I, Beatrice of Savoy, am mother to four queens. What other woman in the history of the world could make this claim? None, I warrant, and none ever will.

Yes, I am boasting. Why shouldn’t I? Do you think my daughters rose to such heights by happenstance? A woman achieves nothing in this man’s world without careful plotting. I began scheming for my girls before I even held my eldest, Marguerite, in my arms.

Margi was no ordinary child. She spoke in sentences before her first birthday. But then, she is a Savoy, and we are no ordinary family. If we were, we would not have become guardians of the Alpine passes and rulers of an expanding domain, as well as friends of kings, emperors, and popes. How did we achieve such feats? Not by brutish battles and conquests, but with shrewd alliances and strategic marriages. My children, too, would marry well, I determined, and increase our family’s influence as never before.

Here is how I fulfilled this vow: I raised my daughters as if they were sons. Oh ho! I see shock on your face. Are you surprised also, then, to learn that I called them “boys”? Having taken my schooling alongside five of my eight brothers—in philosophy, Latin, astronomy, mathematics, logic, diplomacy, debate, hunting, archery, even swordplay—I recognized this: knowledge is the key to power. Why do you think men reserve it for themselves, leaving only fluff and nonsense for girls? What good to a girl are needlework, curtseying, drawing pictures, and feigning interest while a man prattles on and on about himself? These endeavors—the essence of feminine schooling—serve only to enhance men, and to diminish women. Wanting success for my girls, I taught them as though they were boys, endowing them with true power—the kind that comes from within.

When Margi was nearly of age, I enlisted my brothers to find a king for her to marry. Being Savoyards, we plotted. Amadeus, Guillaume, and Thomas praised her beauty, intelligence, and piety in courts near and far, and before every guest they entertained. Meanwhile, I charmed Sordel, the troubadour, to write a song in her honor, then paid him handsomely—with gold and, yes, kisses, but not the prize he preferred—to perform it before the French King Louis IX. Thusly captivated, the king sought Margi’s hand—and before long, my four daughters were queens of the world.

I would have made them kings, if I could. Instead, I made them mothers of kings. It was the best I could do for them, and for the House of Savoy—for my family—now and in the future.

Family is everything. Nothing else matters. All other bonds may be broken—friendship, marriage, even queenship—except the ties that bind us to our relations. This is the second lesson I taught to my daughters: Family comes first. To my great sorrow, however, my words fell against their ears and bounced away, like seeds on a bed of stones.

If only they would heed my admonishments now, and help one another. Instead, they seem intent on tearing one another, and our family, apart. And I? I cajole, and advise, and lecture—and avert my gaze from them lest I cry a weak woman’s tears. O, how it breaks my heart to see my girls suffer.

Marguerite: Four Sisters, All Queens Aix-en-Provence, 1233 Twelve years old

She turns slowly around.

The great hall smolders, dimly aflame and smeared in an acrid haze. M. de Flagy holds a piece of white silk to his long nose and notes the cheap tallow candles, the stains on the tablecloth, the frayed cuffs of the countess’s gloves. Before him, Marguerite turns slowly, stifling a yawn. She has taken the monsieur hawking and horseback riding, has performed a country dance on her vielle, sung three chansons by Bernard de Ventadour, defeated monsieur at chess, recited from Aristotle’s new logic in the original Greek, and debated, in Latin, whether time has a beginning, she agreeing with The Philosopher that it does not, because God, the source of time, is eternal.

M. de Flagy, seized by a fit of coughing, hurried from the hall and missed her father’s challenge: Does time, then, have no ending? Does it exist in the realm of the eternal, or is time an earthly function? If earthly, then how could it be without beginning, God having created the Earth?

Now, for her final performance, Marguerite endures the stranger’s gaze on her face, her hips, her bosom straining indecently against the too-small gown. As Queen of France, her maire has said, she would never wear ill-fitting clothes again.

His hand snakes out. “She appears to be perfect, but I have not inspected her teeth.” She steps back, out of his reach. “My teeth are strong, monsieur. And their bite is sharp.”

Papa grins, but Mama is not laughing. Her eyes snap: All I have taught you, for naught! Marguerite’s skin dampens; the room is suddenly too warm.

“She is but twelve years old,” Mama says. “Her tongue is not yet tamed.” The countess places a gloved hand on M. de Flagy’s arm, dazzles him with her practiced smile. Monsieur bares his own stained and crooked teeth.

“Your daughter has spirit, non? Très formidable. If she marries King Louis, she will need it to contend with his mother.” He winks at Marguerite. “Ma belle, you may need those sharp teeth, as well.”

Music rises from the floor: rebec, guitarra morisca, pipes, small drums. A minstrel in bright clothing and a red beard sings the Kalenda Maya, meant to please the countess with its words of love for a different Beatrice—but, as she whispers to the visitor now, his grating voice only reminds her of another, more memorable, performance, when the composer Raimbaut de Vaqueiras sang it in this very hall. That was years ago, she does not add, before attacks and sieges depleted the treasury, when troubadours and trobairitz flocked to Provence for endless merrymaking, the wine flowed too abundantly to need mixing with water, and the hall glowed with the light of the finest beeswax candles.

When the song has screeched to its end, Mama hastens her to the nursery, giving her arm excited squeezes. “You have charmed him! Well done, Margi. As queen, you can save Provence.”

The nurse, Madeleine, tuts over the hole in Marguerite’s gown as she undresses her. Mama shrugs: Surely M. de Flagy did not notice such a tiny flaw. Yet her forehead wrinkles as her other daughters pile into a chair with her. She wants queenship for her daughter more than Marguerite wants it for herself.

“Was he looking at Margi’s gown, or what was inside it?” Eléonore says. Too big for Mama’s lap, she sprawls there, anyway, forcing Sanchia to the floor, at their mother’s feet. Little Beatrice careens about on plump legs, snatching rushes from the floor and throwing them down, laughing each time as if she had done something clever.

Madeleine plaits Marguerite’s hair while the countess tells her tales. “Your sister was as calm as the spring mist and as bold as Lancelot.” Absently she caresses Sanchia’s golden hair. “King Louis and his mother will hear only praise for Marguerite of Provence.” Why, oh why didn’t Marguerite bite the monsieur?

“I would make a better queen,” Eléonore says. “I am stronger than Margi, and a faster runner. And I am a better huntsman.”

And Eléonore wants to leave Provence. And she doesn’t despise the French, as Marguerite does. “Be patient, Elli!” Mama says. “You are only ten years old—too young for marriage.” Marguerite laughs. “Telling Elli to be patient is like commanding an ass to gallop.” “Mama! Did you hear her call me an ass?” “You’re as stubborn as one,” Marguerite says. “Why wouldn’t I be stubborn, when I know I am right?”

“If you want to be a queen, Elli, you must learn to control yourself,” Mama says. “In that regard, your sister is far ahead of you.” She does not mention Marguerite’s rude remark to M. de Flagy.

“Mama,” Sanchia says, turning on the floor to tug at their mother’s gown. “Except when a tart riposte lands on her tongue. Then she cannot wait to spit it out,” Eléonore says. “How would you know the flavor of riposte?” Marguerite says. “Nothing but boasts ever land on your tongue. Apparently, you find them every bit as difficult to swallow.”

“Mama.” Sanchia tugs at the countess’s gown again. “Is Elli going to be a queen, too?”

“Boys!” Mama’s admonishment rankles Marguerite. Why must she refer to them as boys? Does she wish they were sons instead of daughters? “The time for arguing—and for competing, Elli—has come to an end. Margi is poised to become a queen. And not just any queen, but Queen of France, the richest and most powerful of kingdoms. We must help her, not fight with her.” The smile she sends to Marguerite is like a sunbeam. “And she will help us, in turn.”

“But I like to fight with Margi,” Eléonore says. “I always win.”

“You wish that were so,” Marguerite says.

“Your uncles and I used to fight, too,” Mama says. “Since I married your paire and became Countess of Provence, we have worked together. That is the Savoy way. Now, with Margi’s marriage to King Louis, the house of Savoy will rise like a shining star to the highest spot in the heavens. We shall rise with it, and all our family, and your children and grandchildren, if God is willing. If we help one another.”

“Is Elli going to be a queen, too?” Sanchia says again.

“I shall be queen of the world!” Eléonore wriggles out of Mama’s lap and lands on her feet. “I won’t be content with a kingdom as small as France. I’ll have an empire.” She folds her arms across her chest. “And, don’t worry, Mama, I’ll give castles and lordships to all my family.”

Marguerite laughs. “And who will be your emperor? Will you join the harem of Stupor Mundi?” Astonishment of the World: It is a fitting title for Frederick II, whose blasphemous remarks— calling Christ a deceiver!—and worldly lifestyle have made the pope of Rome’s jaw drop in not only astonishment, but outrage.

“Whichever king I marry will become great. I will make sure of it.” “Are you going to make Elli a queen, too, Mama?” Sanchia says.

“Not I, but your uncle Guillaume,” Mama says. Eléonore gasps. Mama smiles. “He and Romeo foresee crowns on all your heads. They have sworn to make it so.”

“Four sisters, all queens!” Eléonore dances about. “Who has ever heard of such a thing?”

Three sisters,” says Sanchia. Worry wizens her eight-year-old face. “I’m going to take my vows at Ganagobie.” Eléonore rolls her eyes: Sanchia has talked of nothing else since last month, when Mama’s cousin Garsende joined the Ganagobie cloister in a ceremony so moving, it made even Mama cry.

“My pious little peapod, as gentle as a newborn lamb,” Mama says to Sanchia. “You would make a splendid nun, were you plain or deformed.” Sanchia has hair the color of spun starlight, eyes as black as the night sky, a dimple in her chin, and a mouth like ripe cherries. To hide such beauty would be a shame, Mama says, for it would certainly attract a fortuitous marriage.

“Erase all selfish thoughts from your heads,” Mama says now. “Family comes first. As women— and as queens—your loyalties must lie with your sisters, your uncles, and your parents. We are your foundation. We are your strength.”

She is speaking to Marguerite, who looks down at her hands. Does Mama know of the pain that stabs Marguerite’s chest when she thinks of leaving Provence? Most likely, she does not care. The Count of Toulouse lurks ever like a shadow over their door, ready to strike. He would take for himself the flowering fields, the shining mountains, the glittering shores of Provence—and the star of Savoy would drop lower in the sky than ever before.

“In our world, fortunes are gained and lost in the blink of an eye.” Mama snaps her fingers. “As you’ve seen, to rule even a small county such as Provence brings peril. Think of the difficulties when you are a queen, and far from home! Danger lurks not only outside your domain, but also within, even in your own court. Women envy you, especially if you are beautiful. Men resent your power over them, especially if you come from a foreign land. This is why you need your family’s help.”

“When I am queen, I won’t need anyone’s help,” Eléonore says.

“Have you forgotten your lessons?” Lately, Mama has been teaching Marguerite and Eléonore about ancient queens. “Even Cleopatra needed help. Without Caesar, she would have lost the throne.”

“Cleopatra.” Eléonore snorts. “She used her woman’s charms to get what she wanted. We wouldn’t need to do that. We have the ‘minds of men.’” It’s the phrase that Mama uses to brag about their rigorous schooling. Marguerite thinks of M. de Flagy staring with hungry eyes at her bosom, then disappearing as she discussed Aristotle.

“You’re no Cleopatra, not with that flat chest,” she says to Eléonore. “But you could be Artemisia. The warrior queen, remember? She had a ‘brave spirit and manly daring.’”

“That is our Eléonore, full of manly daring,” Mama says. Eléonore struts about like a proud knight, wielding an imaginary sword. “Which queen would I be?” Sanchia says, caught up in the game. “That’s easy: Helena of Constantinople,” Eléonore says. “She became a saint.”

“I say Elen Luyddog,” Marguerite says. “A Welsh princess who became empress of Rome. She went home after her husband died and converted everyone to the Christian faith.”

“I would not mind being a queen if I could use my powers for the Lord,” Sanchia says in her soft voice.

“I’d use my powers to help my family.” Eléonore looks at Mama with shining eyes, having caught the beam of her approval for a moment, at least.

“I would hope to rule wisely,” Marguerite says. “That is all that one can ask, I think.”

“You are like the Queen of Sheba, then,” Mama says. “She told her people, ‘I am smitten with the love of wisdom . . . for wisdom is far better than treasure of gold and silver.’”

Marguerite feels herself blush. If Mama knew her true feelings, would she still consider her wise?

“‘I am only wise insofar as what I don’t know, I don’t think I know,’” she says, quoting Socrates.

“Wisdom is a noble goal,” Mama says. “The pursuit of a lifetime.”

“Margi will need a lifetime to attain it,” Eléonore teases.

“What about Beatrice, Mama?” Sanchia says. “What queen is she most like?”

“A queen bee, always buzzing about,” Mama says. Beatrice careens toward the doorway, as she does every night. Madeleine snatches her up, exclaiming—as she does every night—and Beatrice begins, predictably, to whine for Papa.

“Bedtime must be at hand.” Papa walks in; Beatrice wriggles free from the nurse’s grip and runs to him. He scoops her up and kisses her cheeks as she protests. She does not want to go to bed. She wants, she says, to stay up with Papa.

“I am going to play chess with Sordel. He likes to cheat, and I like to win. That is too much excitement for a little girl.”

“I don’t care. I want to come.” She nestles her curly head against his shoulder.

“Do you promise to be good, and sit in my lap and not move?” She nods. “Then you may come with me.” Madeleine plants her hands on her hips as he walks out with her; she has told her lord—how many times?—that baby Beatrice needs her sleep, that she will be tired tomorrow, and ornery. But there is no telling him anything when it comes to Beatrice.

“Beatrice uses her charms to get what she wants,” Eléonore whispers later, as she and Marguerite lie in bed with the sleeping Sanchia. “She is like Cleopatra.”

“I hope you are wrong,” Marguerite says.

“Remember what happened to Cleopatra’s sisters.” Eléonore bares her teeth. Looking like a gargoyle in the moonlight, she lifts her index finger and draws it slowly across her throat.