My muscles contracted hard, pushing downward, and I screamed. “Juno, Wotan, Latona, any goddess—help me!” Pushing my baby out through a flaming circle of pain, I felt like I was about to split from arse to navel, and I cried out again.
“It comes,” the midwife said, her hands reaching out to cup the head.
Behind her, Basina shifted forward, her cold eyes eager to see if the child had the face of her son, Clovis . . . or that of the routed Roman ruler, Sygarius.
I gripped the rails of the birthing stool, giving myself over to the demands of my body. “Mother,” I cried in Phannic, as the contractions carried me beyond myself. “Mother!”
Maybe she heard me, wherever she was, for my baby finally emerged, and I felt the snakelike slither of its cord leaving me a moment later. Despite my exhaustion, I bent forward to see as the midwife cleared the baby’s mouth, and a squeaking cry emerged. It was a boy, as the vision I’d seen in the labyrinth-etched vase had predicted. A floating sense of wonder came over me as I gazed at his scrunched pale face, still coated with birth fluids.
Strings were tied around the cord; a slash of the knife; and then Basina was taking the baby to be cleaned while the midwife reached out to massage my belly. “Let’s have the rest of it, then.”
My body complied, ejecting the afterbirth as I gazed at my baby in Basina’s arms. Though I knew her capable of murder, she held the child tenderly, with a mother’s instincts.
The midwife wrapped up the afterbirth and placed it in a wooden box, and as she did, I felt another warm rush of fluid leave my body. I looked down at a pool of blood on the floor between my spread thighs.
Was that normal?
More blood trickled from my cunny, expanding the burgundy puddle. I must have torn myself as the baby was born; I’d heard of such things happening.
Tiny stars speckled my vision, and I was having difficulty holding my head up. I let it flop back against the chair, my arms falling to my sides as I felt more liquid warmth seeping from me.
From beneath half-closed lids I saw Basina turn back to me with my clean, swaddled son, a smile on her lips. Her eyes widened, her mouth dropping open. I heard her shout, and saw the midwife turn. Then the blackness that had been edging round my vision swept in, and I knew no more.
I awoke to aching, burning pain all through my body, with my belly at the heart of the fire. I moaned and opened my eyes, and saw Clovis leaning toward me, his face strained, his lips pressed together in a white line.
“Baby,” I croaked. My baby. Where was he?
“How do you feel?”
I rolled my head, rejecting the question. “Where . . . my son?”
“Safe. With a wet nurse. You’ve been in and out of consciousness for six days; you have childbed fever.”
A chill ran over my burning body. Childbed fever. A death sentence.
When I died, what would become of my son?
With a burst of frail strength, I clasped Clovis’s wrist. “Our son?”
He turned his face away.
“Ours?” I repeated urgently.
“I don’t know. My mother thinks so.”
“How is anyone supposed to tell? Babies all look the same. This one has dark hair. Sygarius has dark hair.”
“So do I.”
“I look at the child and see him.”
My hand fell away from his wrist. He wasn’t going to acknowledge the child. And maybe he shouldn’t; maybe he was Sygarius’s.
But if Basina thought my son to be Clovis’s child, surely he was. Who better than her to know how Clovis’s features would appear in a newborn? And who less likely than her to acknowledge a child not of her blood?
“When I die—”
Clovis grabbed my hand in both of his, squeezing hard. “You won’t die.”
“Wishing . . . won’t make it so.”
“But you’re awake, you’re speaking. You’re getting better.”
I had heard of this sudden improvement before. The family was tricked into joy at what looked like renewed life, but in truth, this surge of energy came shortly before the end.
“When I die,” I insisted, “protect our son.”
By the set of his jaw, I knew he rejected the burden.
“Clovis. A dying wish: it must be granted.”
He stood and turned his back to me. “I’ll allow my mother to tend to it,” he said, his voice too low and strained for me to know what emotion he felt. He gave me one burning glare over his shoulder—of anger? of grief?—and then left.
Tears stung my eyes and seeped down my temples. So this was to be my child’s life: rejected by his father, seen as the child of his enemy, and raised under the cold, murderous hand of Basina. And I—was I to die tonight, without seeing my son again?
“Baby,” I whispered past dry lips.
Polina, a fair-haired girl who served as my maid, came to my bedside with a cup of water and helped me to drink.
“Bring my baby,” I said.
She chewed her lip, her brows furrowed. “They said no, my lady.”
I started to protest, struggling to sit up. Polina gently pushed my shoulders back down. “Hush, my lady! Calm yourself. It’s to protect the child from the fever.”
How could I argue with that? My strength was gone, anyway. I closed my eyes, seeking inside for some knowledge, some shred of prophecy or magic that might release me from the prison of my fate.
It couldn’t end like this. I couldn’t end like this. There was so much yet to do. And my son.
“Terix.” He always saved me. He always had a clever solution. “Terix!”
“I’ll fetch him, my lady. At once.”
Siren of Gaul
Beautiful Nimia is sent by the King of Gaul to the court of King Alaric II, to seduce him into handing over Sygarius—her first master, who had cruelly betrayed her, and to whom Alaric has given sanctuary. She is also there as a spy to gain information to help conquer Alaric’s kingdom.
Intelligent, devoutly religious, and sexually inhibited, Alaric presents Nimia with a fresh challenge. She must use the most subtle of her erotic skills to seduce him, only to find herself being seduced as well…and possibly falling in love?
When Sygarius is handed over to her, Nimia finds herself torn between vengeance and forgiveness—and reluctant to leave Alaric, who just might be the love of her life….
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