Ebba has learned many things in Queen Kristina's service, but none of them were what she anticipated.
She has not learned, for instance, any new dances or songs. She has not improved upon her ability to play the harpsichord, or her needlework, or her courtly manners. She has grown no more adept than she was in navigating the murky political waters of Sweden, or of the wider world. She achieved the one thing her family wished for her- an advantageous suitor- but then threw him away when he proved inconvenient. Her family is surely disappointed in her for that; she has not recieved any letters from home since she informed them of her decision. The Ebba Sparre who has emerged from her courtly cocoon is a very different young woman indeed from the one who set forth from her parents' house.
No; rather than becoming a courtier, Ebba has become a student of her queen, a scholar dedicated only to understanding Kristina. She has learned the texture of her skin and hair, the timbre of her voice and its variances, the shifting moods signalled by the way she moves her hands. She has picked up a smattering of Latin and Greek, the better to follow along when Kristina wishes to read to her. She has learned not to pull her corset strings too tight when a formal gown is called for- Kristina hates the feeling of being constricted, and will grow irritable and snappish if the strings are bothering her. She has memorized the places on her body that please her best when touched, like the spot below her left ear and the crease of her right elbow. Most importantly, Ebba- more than anyone else at court, save perhaps Chancellor Oxenstierna- knows what to do when Kristina's moods turn black and stormy. They often do.
Just now, Kristina is pacing back and forth across her bedroom, the angry clicking of her boot heels echoing against the chamber walls. Ebba stands beside the bed (in such a mood, Kristina would see anyone seated in her presence as offering an insult) and watches her pace, offering no commentary. Kristina, she has learned, does not welcome platitudes or opinions when she is in a temper. Through trial and error, Ebba has discovered it best to let her vent her spleen before speaking to her.
Today, the Council has angered her. It is not the first time, and it will not be the last, but it seems that the frequency of these occasions has done nothing to cool Kristina's temper. She pounds her fist into her hand as she rants. "They do not understand Sweden, these men! They think our country hopelessly provincial, they wish to wallow in our filth and our ignorance. Pigs! Idiot pigs, the lot of them!"
The trouble this time, Ebba is given to understand, is that the Council rejected Kristina's proposition for a new school for the arts to be opened in Stockholm. She had been planning the thing for weeks, glowing with excitement as she sat in a bed strewn with papers and architectural drawings. Ebba had been there for most of her planning, and Kristina had expounded on the school at some length to her. She'd wanted to construct an entirely new building, based on the latest fashions of Rome. She'd planned to stock the classrooms with fashionable instruments, paint and sculptor's tools, and all the pens and ink they would need to create an entire Swedish canon of literature. She'd painted the picture with such vivid words that Ebba had been swept up in her excitement- the transformation of Stockholm into a new cultural capital, all stemming from this new academy. The council, it seemed, felt differently.
"They wish to spend the treasury money on war," she continues, pausing to kick at an end table as she passes it. "They say the soldiers need uniforms, and the horses need tack. Tell me, what is the purpose of outfitting our armies in fine clothes if they are to be torn and bloodied before the week is out? What will they say about Sweden? 'Her populance cannot read or write but their soldiers looked very fine as they lay dying in the muck!'"
The question was obviously a rhetorical one. Ebba offered no answer.
"My mother complains that Sweden is a benighted land, but will she contribute to bettering it? No! She pines for Germany, sends me letters begging me to allow her to return home and take a share of the treasury with her. Each way I turn, I am besieged with requests for money, and yet my own requests go ignored! She has entertained herself at Sweden's expense for years in her grotesque parody of cultured living, yet she has the audacity to call Sweden a backwards country! Do you know what life in her household is like?" Kristina whirls around to face Ebba. "She keeps living curiosities all around her, paints their faces and demands that they dance for her. She clutches at anything that reminds her of my father, yet she refused to carry out his wishes with regards to my upbringing. She complains that I am too plain, but look at her! She looks like a freak at a country fair!"
Maria Eleonora is a frequent target of Kristina's rants; no matter what had sparked her anger, it always seems to circle back towards her mother. Ebba has heard Chancellor Oxenstierna and the other councillors complain about her as well; whenever she visits her daughter (which, fortunately for all concerned, is not often) unrest follows in her wake. Privately, Ebba thinks that the black moods which grip Kristina so often may be an inheritance from the mother she so despises, but she knows better than to suggest such a thing out loud. Kristina prefers to view herself in the image of Gustav Adolphus, the old lion who, as his daughter said, looked very fine as he lay dying in the muck.
Still, if there is one bright side to Maria Eleonora, it is that mentions of her usually signal the ends of Kristina's rages. Sure enough, she has stopped pacing, and her shoulders are slumped. She is still very red in the face, but she is no longer shouting. Thanks to months of practice, Ebba knows precisely what to do next. She turns back the bedcovers and beckons to Kristina. "Come and sleep with me," she says coaxingly. "The night is too cold to sleep alone." She knows from experience that demanding Kristina into bed will only further aggravate her, as will appeals to her health. She likes it best when she can believe she alone is choosing her next step. Sure enough, it is only a moment before Kristina is kicking off her boots and unbuttoning her trousers, stalking across the room and flinging herself into the empty bed.
Ebba leans down and kisses her forehead, feeling cool beads of perspiration against her lips. She has never decided how she loves Kristina best, but she knows she loves her like this: still guarded and angry, but slowly letting her defenses fall and giving Ebba a glimpse of the woman who hides behind the bluster and the bravado. Not that either of those traits are affectations- on the contrary, Kristina in a rage is as guileless as Kristina asleep and unguarded- but Ebba has come to see that her queen and lover is as hungry for affection as she is for affirmation, that she wishes but cannot ask for someone who will remain by her side no matter how she rages or what she breaks. The crown sits heavier on her head than she will admit, even to herself. Ebba cannot promise an eternity at her side- the world around them is too chaotic for that, their love too proscribed. But for now, she knows how to handle her queen, what she needs most and cannot find anywhere but in Ebba's arms. For now, that is enough.
"Sleep now," she says, slipping out of her gown and into the bed beside Kristina. "Sleep," she repeats, leaning over and pressing a gentle kiss to Kristina's lips before she turns to the candle at their bedside and blows it out, leaving them in quiet darkness.