“Check,” I said softly as I pulled my fingers away from my queen. We had been belabouring our moves for hours and each move was as if my opponent and I were truly were on a field of battle. He looked thoughtful for a moment, measuring each man that he had remaining on the chessboard that he would willingly sacrifice to take his king out of peril. He did not move anything but rather mulled over the possibilities, each possibility passed over his features and faded until at last he moved a rook in the direct path of my opposing queen.
“Most women would have relegated themselves to their embroidery at this time, Frances,” my opponent said settling back into his leather wing chair, stretching lazily, as if languishing like a cat that had been too long by the fire, “but not you. If I didn’t know better, I would say that you pay closer attention to tactics and strategy than you do to the womanly arts of lace tatting or even so much as keeping your eyes downcast.” He took a sip of his brandy and gave me that small wicked smile that I knew so well. “But I think that is what I have always admired about you. You are not afraid to speak to a man and look him in the eye as if he were your equal.” I noticed that he had been very careful not to say, ‘as if you were his equal’. His blue eyes glittered when he said it.
Such was the way of things between us. We had been friends for so many years and there was an ease that could only come from mutual respect. Yes, I treated Hsu Danmei as my equal. In every way, he was and is; though I knew quite well that he would never come out and confess to it. I would never press him for it. It was unspoken between us – as so many things were. Those who rule do not need to acknowledge each other’s right to Power, only to recognize the flame of sovereignty that rests upon our brows. It is hard to explain to those who do not know what being the recipient of that flame means. Those outside of that particular sphere see only the most outward signs of Power, never all that it encompasses.
Not to be taken in by what was most probably another of his tactics, I drew my attention back to the chessboard and the arrangement of the remaining pieces there. He had successfully circumvented my queen’s attack, but I began to see a new strategy. “Most women do not last as long with you as I have, Hsu. I can do the womanly arts if I need to, as well you know,” I said, “but too many women are so frightfully boring. If you mention something to do with the politics of the day they will either stare at you blankly or subtly try to turn the subject toward……” I stopped speaking just as I saw my move. I slid a pawn into place in the direct path of his rook. “children or the latest Courtly gossip.” I said running my finger along the rim of my wine glass, “As to their demeanour towards men, ” I continued,” either they mother them, bore them, or a less well-bred one or a courtesan might imagine that she could possibly fuck them to death.”
Hsu gave a slight smirk, “You are one of the few women who would dare to say such things to a man who is not her husband outside of the bedroom, Frances,” he teased. ”
“You are one of the few men other than Sebastien to whom I would have dared to say such things to under such circumstances. Add to that that I am with child and a widow – if any were to overhear most of our conversations, especially around the Court, it would be an absolute scandal.” I stretched and winced at the sharp pain in the small of my back. All morning my body had been achy, but having Hsu Danmei had lifted my spirits so much that the pain had not even seem to affect me until now. My child was going to be born soon, mine and my late husband’s – and having Hsu there so quickly after returning from battle in Holland against the English was a relief. The babe may be technically without a living father, but having chosen Hsu as her Godfather nearby was the next best thing. “So it is a very good thing that we are not at Court, ” I said easing back into my chair, trying not to wince.
Sensing my definite unease Hsu gave a slight glance of something akin to concern, “Are you alright, Frances?” he asked, “perhaps we could continue our game later.”
“No,” I bit off a small laugh, “I have been deprived of your company for far too long, my friend. I am not about to let a little discomfort get in the way of that” I knew full well that it would not have mattered to Hsu Danmei if I had called the game off and gone to take a few hours rest in order to continue later. But this was something that I needed. Hsu nodded an acknowledgement and eased back into his chair.
Again, we each of us stared at the board, and at last my friend took the very pawn that I had sacrificed and placed the finely carved chinoiserie piece to stand with his other mates that had suffered a similar fate earlier in our game. “Check,”Hsu exhaled. He had taken the piece, but had done it in a way that I had not expected that would cause me to lose my Queen to him in order to save my King. It had been a calculated risk. and I was a bout to make my next move when the first contraction hit my body and left me gasping for air.
The pain of it had been so sudden and so great that it had knocked the wind out of me . My child was not going to wait any longer and even though Hsu and I had been friends longer than anyone in my life, I felt embarrassed. There were few servants, for I had sent them off for the day. There was really no one except Hsu himself and possibly a groomsman or a chambermaid would hardly know what to do for the impending birth of a baby.
I tried to stand, but found my knees a little weaker than I had anticipated. I was about to lose my balance and go down on one knee when I felt Hsu’s arms break my fall. The look of concern turned to one of sternness, ‘That is all for you today, Madame de Rochefort, ” he said in a low voice, “You’re getting into bed and I am going to see you there myself.”
“Now I am thoroughly glad we are not at Court,” I quipped.
I was acutely aware that this was not to be the first time that Hsu Danmei had played the midwife. He had recounted the story to me some years ago in our more quiet moments, but never had I imagined that it would be he who would in fact be delivering his own God-daughter. As he helped me out of my clothes, and helped me into the huge canopied bed that Sebastien and I had once shared, I kept trying to insist that he ride into town to fetch one of the house matrons. He shook his head, “There is no time for that.”
He was right. There was not time for what I had proposed. My water had already broken and after a quick examination, it was clear that the baby’s arrival was going to be very quickly. In between the contractions which were coming closer and closer together, Hsu had made me very comfortable – or at least as comfortable as a woman who is giving birth to a baby might be! Those hands were the ones I held on to through each bearing down to push the baby out. If there were any thoughts about a widow’s modesty now, they were completely gone. Of course, Hsu and I had been intimate before so having him in my bedroom and being laid open to him in this way was not what caused me discomfiture. That I was vulnerable at this moment was what caused me any unease. Of course, if our positions were reversed, I am fairly certain he would have not been just as uncomfortable having even having me see him in a position that was not one of strength. It would not have mattered who saw us that way, it would still be something either of us would wish anyone to see outside of ourselves. Again, such is the mindset of both sovereigns and warriors and we were each of us both things. However, speaking for myself, if there were anyone with whom other than my late husband that I would feel the least unease, it would have been Hsu.
My labour was not long. The sun had not set before with the last, final breathless push, to Hsu’s patient urgings and words of encouragement that my daughter came into the world, slick with blood and birthing and into the strong hands of her Godfather. Panting I fell back against the pillows behind me, both laughing and crying at the same time. After the cord was cut, Hsu wrapped my daughter in a bit of swaddling and laid her in my arms. Caroline was still squalling loudly. I pulled her to my chest and instinctively she began rooting for the breast, not quieting until she found it and began to suckle.
“Her lungs are strong,” Hsu flashed me what might have a smile and watched my babe as she voraciously suckled, “and she is just as patient as her mother is when she truly wants something.”
I gave him a weak and exhausted smile, “Thank you,” I whispered hoarsely. I did not expect to fall in love with another babe so quickly as I had when I had Maeve and had to break my heart when I gave her up four days later. But I have found that when you hold your newborn child for the first time that your heart is completely open and you cannot help yourself.
Hsu stayed with me and did not leave until the house staff returned home. In that time he watched over Caroline and I the entire time. Once I awoke from an exhausted sleep to see him looking down at the sleeping babe in my arms. It was a tender look, one of a watchful father or Godfather. You can take the Warlord away from his Tribe, but you cannot take take those ingrained things out of him. Feeling entirely safe, I reached out to squeeze the hand of my friend that rested near mine and I drifted back to sleep.
The respect that I have for this man who is at once a warlord and a man who is feared and yet is able with the same hands that are used to take lives, bring another one into the world is beyond my ability to articulate. That respect I have for him is something that has never been demanded, is always freely given and entirely earned. I never have doubted that I have been given his respect as well. That he was there at that moment was proof enough of that.
Muse: Fanny Fae / Faelyn
Fandom: Original Character / Folklore / Mythology
Wprd Count: 1955
OOC: A special ‘thank you’ goes to the writer and muse of Hsu Danmei (civ_barbarian for the appearance of the muse in this entry.) 🙂