We’ve all heard of the overbearing mother-in-law. Imagine if you were a queen and your mother-in-law was queen before you. This is my picture of how it would go, taken from my Nanowrimo 2013 novel, Enter. As always, please feel free to let me know what you think.
Atossa did not wait until Astra’s visit, but interrupted the queen’s breakfast under the pretence of congratulating her, but really to congratulate herself.
“Of course I have many grandchildren already—you’ll know the king has other children, as well as his brothers and sisters. But you’ll find every little one is another jewel in the royal nursery. One can never have too many sons. And of course, this is your first. All the more precious for you.”
The dowager queen sat at the table across from Astra, not waiting for an invitation but receiving one anyway as she reclined. Her sister Artystone and her niece Parmys, never far from her side, took up their posts on her right and left.
“Indeed,” Astra replied, offering a dish of stuffed dates. “I am delighted with the news.”
“Of course, you won’t see much of your child, off in the royal nursery. But I did make time to see my sons. You have to, if you want to have any influence over them when they rule.”
“Oh, but your majesty, my son will not rule. The king has sons by Queen Vashti who are older than mine.”
Atossa smiled mildly across the table. “Of course, dear. How could I forget. Oh, and you ought not to call her queen anymore. It undermines your position and contradicts the king’s ruling that her title be stripped from her. He wouldn’t like that.”
“Yes, mother,” she said.
I hid a smile as I caught Astra’s eyes over the table. I knew the dowager queen was not her favourite person, but she responded admirably to what others might perceive as a constant challenge, never losing her temper over a torrent of veiled insults and barbs and overt commands, always humble despite her exalted station.
She had told me once that the queen, despite her prickly exterior, was really a dedicated mother who only wanted the best for her son, and by proxy her daughter-in-law. Atossa had learned more than any other woman alive about statecraft, and Astra meant to glean from her as much as possible.
“You say your son will never be king,” Atossa continued. “But you never know what may happen. Ahuramazda forbid it, but children are susceptible to sickness. Young men fall in battle. And if you please Xerxes well, he may simply overturn the succession, as his father did for me.”
Astra nodded sagely at this, not wanting to further contradict her influential mother-in-law.
“Whatever happens, I will consider myself blessed to be a mother.” She laid a hand flat against her abdomen and the invisible mystery forming within.
They passed the rest of breakfast discussing protocol in the royal nursery, confinement and birth, and good royal names for sons and daughters. Atossa stayed long after the meal was done, dominating the hall as she had when she had lived here as queen. Then, at last, she withdrew for a mid-morning nap.
“You’ll find when you are old you haven’t the stamina of your youth,” she said with a sigh. “What I wouldn’t give for the wisdom I have now in the body I had thirty years ago.” She shook her head and left, with her companions in her train.
After she was gone, I leaned close to Astra and said, “So, will you name your son Cambyses, like she suggested?”
She smiled, not quite a laugh. “I will name my child whatever the king—may he live forever—desires.” Then she dropped her voice for my ears alone. “But in my heart of hearts I will give him another name. Jeremiah—exalted of the Lord.”
I smiled conspiratorially. “It is a good name.”