by D’vorah Shaddai

Constantinople 1349

Blood. That is how it began and how it ended. Covered in blood at birth. Covered in blood at death. And in between, blood too. Women waged war birth by birth. Men waged it in muddy fields body by body. One to rip babies into being. One to reap them. It was no different for Leo. He bloodied his mother coming out of her and had been bloody ever since for the glory of Rome. He was a noble, a second son, but not offered to the church because the Empire had needed men to bleed for it, first for a civil war with the fate of a nine-year-old heir in the balance, second for a Pyrrhic victory against the Genoese meant to rebuild the navy. Though it had leeched more from Constantinople’s coffers than it had put in.

Leo’s father made a good match for his son with Theodora, and there was a happiness in it. She had already born him three children, two daughters, and a healthy son. Now a second son was here. But each time, as she pushed them into the world, they took a piece of her with them. Like shaving the skin off a fruit, she diminished. She had been churched and was still in her confinement in the tower, but Leo was permitted to visit her. The room was like a womb itself with ruby-veined marble, cloistered and smothered in heavy tapestries, tallow burning on every ledge. It smelled of women in here, of blood alien to men, of nests and dens, and secret things Leo was happy not to know.

“I am condemned to spend my life waiting outside this door.” Leo rapped his knuckles against the oak frame as he stepped inside. He was not yet gray, but his face was already starting to solidify into the carved lines that drew the boundary between youth and old age, mapped with accumulated worries and uncertainties, forged by a life of blood and war.

Theodora lay in a tangle of blankets, dirty blonde hair with a willowy frame. She was fixated on the cradle nearby, tearing herself from it only when she heard her husband. Her moss green eyes shifted over him, a dim light came on, a painful flicker that grieved him. It was a reminder of what once blazed there.

“How are you feeling, Thea?”

“Tired.” She sighed, the sound a miserable wheeze, life weary. “I want to go home. It’s a prison here, and your son knows it. He cries.”

“It won’t be much longer. Just until you’re feeling better.”

“That’s what the sisters said last time, and they kept me confined in here for well over a month until our baby was baptized and given the name of a saint.”

“This time you can choose the name of our son, my jewel.” He leaned in and kissed her pale forehead.

“Then he’ll be Antonius, named after your father.”

“He was always fond of you.”

“He was fond that I could bear you children, but he was a kind man, too kind for war.”

“Yes, he was.” But Leo wasn’t. He was there with the rest when they pitched burning bales of hay onto every warehouse and wharf on the coast of Galata. He’d seen the girl run out, a little thing, flopping around like a rag doll set on fire. She was his daughter’s age.

“How are the children?” Theodora smoothed her corn silk hair over an ear, the spill of it washed out against her white sheets.

“They miss you.”

“I miss them.” Her eyes slid over him. “And you.”

“If I could stay with you in here, I would. But the sisters won’t allow it.” He sat down beside her.

“You would regret that.” She wrinkled her nose. “The food is as flavorless as the conversation.”

“You would be enough of a feast for me.” He smiled.

“And that is why they wouldn’t allow it.” Her eyebrows shot up. “No-no, would that I were out there with you but never you in here with me.” Her voice was low and soft, and each word wounded her, carving a fresh cut into the meat beneath the skin.

“Would that Christ permit me to share your burden, Thea.”

She lifted her eyes to him. Her face, once full and flush with life, was now so pale that the intricate blueness of small veins beneath were visible at her cheek, her temple, and even traced a web along her eyelid. The thin smile on her lips was for him but pained. Theodora had been melancholy, and it was worse with each child, but today she thankfully appeared to appreciate his presence. Constantinople was losing everything slowly, and so it was at home. She was now like a deflated puffer fish flopping around on the broken and burnt shore of Galata.

“I should go.” Leo looked her over. “You need your rest.”

From the cradle came a gurgle, then a shriek, long and primal.

“I’m unlikely to get it. He is always crying.”

“He has demands to make of the world. It’s a good sign. I’ll call the wet nurse.”

“No-no, he needs me. I’m his mother. I am better today. Let me feed him.”

“You don’t need to exert yourself.”

“Please, Leo. The sisters always call for the wet nurse, and I just want to hold him, feel him latch on and drink, the way any mother would.” She winced as her son’s cries racked over her, such a big noise coming from such a tiny throat.

“Of course, you do.” He stroked her cheek, the feel of it a snow drop pressed between pages. Then he reached into the crib and cradled his wailing son in his arms. “Christ, he is a large one. Lungs made for bellows. He’ll be barrel-chested.”

He turned from his wife, rocking his squealing son back and forth in his arms, making shushing noises through his teeth, the way his mother must have done before she bled out during his birth and shushed no more. The baby started to quiet, cries becoming half-hearted, surging briefly, like an old man reading a book who found his place again only to lose it. Leo looked down at his son, this small stranger, this new life, who had sucked so much vitality from his wife, and yet, the boy was a blessing, a second son to ensure the family line like his father. He was miracle enough. The cost for more was too high. Leo would see an apothecary and find the right herbs to dampen his virility. No more children, he told himself. She could risk no more.

Theodora eyed the muscular curve of her husband’s shoulders as he cradled their son. Perhaps this was the fate of women, to stare at a man’s back while life ran out of them. “That’s how I first saw you, your back to me while you prayed in the Hagia Sophia. Our fathers had arranged for us to have a chaste glimpse of each other in the sanctity of church to bless our marriage. When I saw you turned away, I thought you must be so ugly, and they had me first lay eyes on you in church so I wouldn’t scream.”

“And was I ugly?”

“Very.” She managed the barest whisper of a smile. Theodora thrust her frail arms out, anxious to hold her baby. “Give him to me.”

Leo hesitated to put the boy in her arms. She was already so thin, wasted, a parched tree drained of sap. He could not help but feel he was a doctor delivering leeches. “Here, Thea.” He placed the pudgy-faced child into her arms. The boy already had a few golden curls.

“He has your eyes. Just like I first saw them, no meanness of the world in them. Before all the war.”

“There were a lot of befores before the war. But there is only one after.” He stroked her cheek with the back of his knuckles. “The Rus, they have these little dolls, Rusalka dolls they call them, because barbarians have no imagination.”

“That is why they are barbarians.” She laughed.

“Inside each doll is a smaller and smaller one. And I…” He wasn’t entirely sure where he was going with this, how to put it into words, that she felt like a Rus doll herself.

“Didn’t you bring one of our daughters such a doll once?”

“Yes. Once. For Demetria.”

“You’ll make a barbarian out of the girl.” She gave him a mock look of disapproval, then unlaced the front of her white dress, and a bare bosom the color of river stone slid into view. She cradled her son, bringing him to her nipple, a small and faded rosebud, faded like the rest of her. The baby jerked his mouth away from her, his cherub lips glistening with drool. He let loose a short, desperate cry. “Why does he do this?” She frowned. “Act like the milk is curdled? Am I so spoiled?”

“No, never. He’s just not hungry. Maybe he’s wet?”

“He goes at the wet nurse like her breasts are bursting with honey. He’s never turned her down.” Theodora brought the baby to her nipple again.

The boy wrenched his face away, balled up his gangly, little fist, and punched her in the breast.

“Ow! Did you see that? He hit me. He senses it. I’m soured. You were cheated. You married a woman and got a ghost.” Her head tilted down, eyes trapped somewhere in the forking tongues of red marble.

“I got a jewel. That’s what I got.” He lifted her chin and traced a thumb down the corner of her mouth. “He’s just tired, and you need your rest as well to regain your strength. That’s all.” Leo gathered his shoulder cloak about himself. It was embroidered with the Roman eagle, that futile affectation, as if the symbol of a bird could bring back the glory of ancient Rome any more than he could give his wife her strength back with platitudes and paltry advice. He was powerless in this as he had been in other things like the day he’d watched a flotilla of Genoese take out the navy from shore, and he knew somewhere in the broken bodies the gulls pecked at was his father.

Antonius wailed hard, the apples of his cheeks red with his rotten fury. His body shook with sobs.

“I’ll get the wet nurse.” Leo lifted his voice to be heard over his screeching son. “Then you can both sleep.”

“Yes, yes. Bring her.” She hugged her baby to her chest, murmuring pleas for him to stop crying. But once so started, his tears were near as impossible to end as the Fourth Crusade that had devastated Constantinople over a century ago.  

Leo stepped outside to find the wet nurse, a woman with barrel breasts in a loose chemise who was fetchingly lacking a tooth. He hurried her, anxious to get back to his wife. He could hear his son even at a distance. Little Antonius screeched worse than before, making sure all of Constantinople knew he’d found his lungs for the first time. Leo was standing just outside his wife’s door again, as he had too many times before, when he heard it. The abrupt silence like steel in his hand sliding out of the cooling remains of a man on a wounded stretch of beach. Silence. Nothing but silence. Just that. He threw open the door.

“He’s finally sleeping, Leo.” Thea kissed her baby’s head, and when she did, his neck shifted, hanging down at an impossible angle, a stick about to break off a tree. Her brow wrinkled in confusion. She tried to right his small head, but down it went again, sagging and sad.

“Thea…” Leo stepped forward, mouth wide.

The wet nurse screamed and cupped a hand to her lips. She scrambled for Theodora and wrenched the child from her. “Dead!” She cried, rocking the baby. “Oh, the little love.” She held the poor, dead thing, screaming and wailing over its limp body and collapsed to the floor.

“No-no, he’s resting. He’s just tired. Give him back.” Theodora reached for the wet nurse who shrunk away. She stared at the dead boy a moment, his tiny broken form, his golden curls that would never grow into a full crown. “Listen, Leo, do you hear him crying? Still crying?” She studied her hands. “He needs me, my sweet boy, my Antonius.”

“I need you.” He kept his eyes on his wife because he could not let them settle on the empty eyes of his still son. This fresh loss warred for a place with those that came before, each a fishhook gutting him to hollows. “We will grieve, and you will get better.” He reached out in desperation.

Theodora stretched her hand out to her husband and—

“Dead! God, dead! The little lamb…” The wet nurse cried out.

Theodora yanked her hand back. “No, I can hear him. He needs me.”

Leo’s fingers brushed against hers as he tried to catch her. He almost had her.

“I’m coming, Antonius!” She wrenched the bluing body of her son from the wet nurse and dashed out of the room, thin and wan, but with sudden vigor spurred on by the phantom cries haunting her ears. She ran up the spiraling steps of the tower.

Leo rushed after her, arms and legs moving slower, body and mind conditioned for speed on the battlefield, but sluggish to catch up to the events taking place at home, the crumbling of a world, the dying of a son, the sickening of a wife. He caught up with her at the top of the tower. What remained of Constantinople’s grandeur surrounded them, a city spun from gold and crumbling marble lucent with ghost lights. Theodora stood near the edge, framed between the battlements, their son stiffening in her arms.

“Thea, my jewel, come over to me.”

She rocked her baby, quieting what could not be made more so.

An owl swooped down behind her screeching like a baby as it lit upon some vole below. It had golden eyes like those fires in Galata.  

She turned to the edge. “I have to stop his crying.”

“No! Please, no!” Leo rushed forward, banging his knee on the battlement, blood blooming against his white tunic. His hand came down where her shoulder had been. Too late.

She hadn’t so much as jumped but slipped over the edge, a pale streak of silk, white and gold chaos. He didn’t even see her face, just her back, the curve of it like a swan’s neck swallowed into shadows, her baby tight in her arms. She remembered him at the first. He remembered her at the last. Like a stone, she dropped, the way those stones did onto the homes and shops of Galata. Unlike them, she didn’t scream. There was no sound. Nothing at all until her body broke on the bridge below. Blood. That is how it began and how it ended.

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