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March 1661, France
A young woman galloped headlong and recklessly down half-wild trails in the immense forest of Fontainebleau. Her fair hair had come loose from its pins, and she leaned low against her horse's neck and whispered the filly onward, as if she were being chased by murderers. It was said she possessed magic with horses, and the groom attempting to follow behind her believed it. She was like a picture he'd seen once-of a centaur, a creature of mythology, half man, half horse. The only souls to hear the sound of thudding hooves were birds, rabbits, foxes, in burrows or hollow logs or nests of green moss and twigs, all of which stayed hidden, out of sight and harm. The forest around them was wild, huge, one of France's glories. For centuries, kings had hunted under its majestic and ancient trees. It was said to be filled still with forest spirits, shy, sly, summer-like sylphs who blended into the leaves that would unfurl soon and blessed or cursed the humans impinging on their malachite- and emerald-hued domain.
The horses galloped into a clearing in which a tree lay fallen. The young blond leaned forward in her sidesaddle and told her horse that the beast could do it, and the filly responded, sailing over the tree effortlessly. Afraid to take the dangerous jump, tired from their long gallop this day, the groom pulled hard on his reins, and the horse under him snorted and jerked its head and turned in circles, while the blond trotted her horse back to him. Her face was lovely, flushed, incandescent-the way it could be when she was this happy and carefree. Her name was Louise de la Baume le Blanc, and she was just on the cusp of ten and six, and she had no idea of it, but her life was about to change forever as certain stars finished their alignment.
"You ride better than a man, miss," said the groom.
"What a day we've had. So wonderful." She dropped the reins and put her hands to her hair, fallen from its many pins onto her shoulders.
"Ow-w-w," came a long, low yowl from the woods around them.
Startled, both Louise and the groom turned in their saddles. From between trees whose trunks were the size of Egyptian obelisks, a boy appeared. Waving his arms, breath growling rasps in his lungs, he howled like some demon in a church passion play.
The howls took their breath away, but so did what was upon the boy's face: an iron mask, its visage grim and terrible, with holes for sight and a raised impression for the nose. Dark hair fell through leather straps to cascade down the sides of the child's head. Only his mouth, where a string of slobber hung, was visible, and his continuing cries sent shivers down the spines of both Louise and the groom. He ran straight toward Louise, and her horse laid back its ears, reared, danced backward, and she fell.
From atop the other horse, the groom began to hit at the boy with a riding crop, lashing at thin arms and shoulders, and the boy staggered, holding up his hands to protect himself.
"Get away from here! Brigand! Thief! Murderer!" Circling around the boy, the groom hit him everywhere: soft neck, thin shoulders, long arms, bare hands. The boy howled louder and ran toward trees behind them. The groom jumped down from his saddle to Louise, who hadn't moved since her body hit the ground.
"Miss! Oh please, miss!" he cried.
Now others ran into the clearing. The groom cursed himself for letting her ride so far from the château. Were they in danger? What was happening? Who was this now? A band of thieves? Decent people pursuing a mad, nearly grown boy? What? Then he saw that one was a soldier, a musketeer, wearing the colors of the great and powerful Cardinal Mazarin, first minister to the king, dying now-all France knew it-power and wealth unable to stop that grimmest of cutthroats and thieves: death.
The musketeer, gaunt and fierce-faced, made a signal, and every man halted where he stood. The musketeer walked forward, his glance taking in both groom and the immobile young woman on the ground.
"Have you seen someone on foot? A boy, nearly grown?" he asked.
"Yes, he ran at our horses." The groom pointed toward the thick trees behind them. "He ran that way." And then in a pleading tone, "This young lady needs help. Is there a farmhouse near?"
The musketeer shouted orders, and at once the others ran off in the direction in which the groom had pointed.
"Who is he? What is his crime?" the groom asked.
The musketeer didn't answer, asked instead, "Did you come from the palace?" The royal palace of Fontainebleau was some miles distant.
The groom shook his head. "From Madame de Choisy's."
"You're not to speak of this to anyone." The musketeer's face had been beaten by weather and life to a flint-hard grimness. "I command it in the name of the cardinal. Do you know who he is?"
Who did not? Cardinal Mazarin had been virtual ruler of France for years.
The musketeer strode away, picking up his gait into a trot, already halfway across the clearing before the groom dared to open his mouth again. "Sir! Wait! I beg you. My lady is in distress-"
But the man was lost to the thickness of the woods. The groom looked down at Louise, and to his immense relief, her eyes were open.
"Can you sit up, miss?" he asked. "Your horse is gone. You'll have to ride mine. Move slowly and see if anything is broken. Is this the first time you've fallen from a horse, my lady?"
"No. Who was that soldier?"
"He did not say, my lady." The groom helped Louise to rise, brushed at leaves and dirt on her skirt. "He did say we were not to speak of this." Her conduct was, of course, not his concern. He could still see the musketeer's cold eyes. His own mouth was sealed. He was no fool.
"Obscene," said Louise, "that thing on his head, as if he were a monster instead of a man. Not even a man. A boy. What can he have done to deserve such a fate?" In her eyes were tears of distress and pity.
The groom held his hands so she could hoist herself into the saddle. Her legs were slim and colored blue by the stockings she wore. The sight of them-she had to ride astride now, as men did, rather than on a sidesaddle-softened him for a moment, as did the tears and her fresh prettiness. He decided to warn her again.
"The musketeer commanded silence, and his master is master of us all, the great cardinal," he repeated.
Reviled, feared, obeyed, Cardinal Mazarin was the most powerful man in the kingdom of France, first minister to the young king and lover, it was said, to the Queen Mother.
Louise didn't answer. She was a tenderhearted girl, too gentle really for the court she was about to join. But in her was an untested streak of sword's steel. One day, it would move her from the glamorous, wicked salons of court to an isolated nun's cell. It would keep her from going mad with grief at all that was no longer hers and bring her to a solace deeper than she could imagine, but that was years ahead, ten or more, a world away from this moment. This moment, this day, she was just a girl who-like all wellborn girls of the time-would blaze brightly a moment or two before she married, except that only the blazing was in Louise's stars. And it was just as well she didn't know it.
The half-wild, lanky boy in his iron mask was all she could think about on the ride back to the château where she was visiting. She couldn't wait to find her cousin, Choisy, to tell him what she'd seen. Leaving the groom in the château's stable, she walked through ornate halls and antechambers looking for her cousin, but he was not to be found. His mother was busy with guests in the grand salon.
"Women's virtue is man's greatest invention," she heard Madame de Choisy say to a burst of laughter. Madame de Choisy was one of those women who knew everyone and thrived on the whispers and webs of intrigue that were court life. The only way she had consented to leave Paris was to make certain a steady stream of visitors would journey out into the forest-in the middle of nowhere, she'd lamented, but my suppers will be worth it-to visit her. The Choisys were an important family in France, swirling around the throne like bees, and Louise felt fortunate that Madame de Choisy had taken such a liking to her. She peeped into the salon and saw guests gathered around their hostess, as always, enthralled and amused by whatever it was that she was saying-and she was always saying.
She had an opinion about everything and everyone, her family having been near kings and queens for generations. But she was so good-natured and so genuinely amused by life and its variables that no one minded. Certainly not Louise. There was a kind vibrancy about her that Louise found irresistible. Madame de Choisy's humor and laughing eyes were like balm, especially when contrasted to Louise's mother's tight, thin smile and tight, thin heart. Your mother's a merchant. As she had said those words, Madame de Choisy had held up a hand to stop any argument that might come from Louise. I hate to say it, she had continued, but it's true. Blue blood does not guarantee a noble heart. For her, all is transaction. Truth had shown its face then in such a blinding-flash-of-light kind of way that Louise hadn't been able to respond. She was wordless at this older woman's succinct summation of her mother's character. So that's what it's been, she'd thought to herself, transactions between us all this time. Of course.
In her bedchamber, Louise sat down on the stool in front of her dressing table, thinking about the boy. There were worse sights in Paris on any given day, weren't there? So she'd seen a mad, nearly grown boy escaped from his captors. It didn't have to affect her the way it had, as if someone had hit her on the heart. You're too touchy by far, my girl, she could just hear her mother say. Don't take your softness to court, her mother had warned. It won't do there. I certainly hope you are on your knees thanking the saints every night that you attracted Madame de Choisy's eye. She has launched you, my girl, in a way I could never have done.
It was true. At the end of this month, she would join the new Madame's household as a maid of honor, something so amazing she couldn't quite yet imagine it.
This new Madame-well, the fact was she wasn't Madame yet because she wasn't officially married-but anyway, she was a princess and would soon be the second most important woman in the kingdom because she was marrying the only brother of the king. Everyone was talking about it. That's what they'd been speaking of in the salon when Louise glanced in. Talking about how happy Monsieur-which is what the king's brother had to be called and thus his wife must be called Madame-was, saying how much in love he seemed.
It was as if some delightful spell has been cast over the court, said Madame de Choisy. Never has there been so much fun. An enchanting world is just ahead on the horizon, beckoning, smiling, promising things unnamed, things delightful and beguiling. And you, my Louise, shall be right in the middle of it, she'd said. Everyone must see your charming eyes, and Madame de Choisy had taken Louise's chin in one hand. Rings all over her fingers-she always wore all her rings; one must exhibit one's jewelry, she said; our jewels are our medals of valor; the tales I could tell-she had smiled at Louise, as excited as if she herself were going to court for the first time.
I should call my servant, thought Louise, the small mirror propped on the table before her showing her the tangle her hair was in, but she didn't want the company of another just now. So even though a lady wasn't supposed to do her own hair, so said Madame de Choisy, scandalized at Louise's self-reliant-and truth be told, rather shabby-upbringing, she began to search for any pins that might be left among her curls, concentrating as she did so on counting her blessings, as she'd been taught when troubled, so that the echo of the boy's yowls would still inside her.
Blessing one: She might have been stuck forever serving the whining Orléans princesses if not for dear Cousin Choisy. No more ennui. No more complaint. No more endless prayers and pulled-down faces and long days of nothing to do.
Blessing two: She was going to meet Monsieur, the younger brother of the king, great fun, promised Cousin Choisy, there is no one like him. A prince, a worthy child of France.
Blessing three: Cousin Choisy was fairly certain that the new Madame-to-be was nice. What would that be like? Kindness had not been a feature of the bitter household she'd left. Then, there again in her mind was a thought of the boy. It wasn't kind to put a boy in an iron mask. Why would anyone do so?
She brushed out her hair until it was vibrant with life and springing like a blond mane all around her head. He had howled like a wolf, like a ghost, like a banshee, sorrow and fear in the sound. She had had the sense that he was near her age. As she began to tame curls around her fingers, to bunch them so they would hang properly, she mulled over what she'd seen. Gangly. Perhaps in that awkward spurt of growth that came to boys somewhere around ten and four-
"Let me do that."
She leapt off the stool.
Her cousin, Choisy, closed the bedchamber door behind him.
She frowned. "You startled me."
He motioned for her to sit back down, selected a comb to his liking, and began to create the required long bunched ringlets for the other side of her face. "Your hair is so biddable. Mine always requires a curling iron," he complained.
It was the style for men to wear their hair long and flowing, but her cousin had his own style, to say the least. The truth was, it was his habit to dress as a woman. Right now, for example, he wore his mother's dressing gown and diamond earrings and rouge and beauty spots, those little bits of shaped velvet one pasted to the face. During Carnival-when everyone masked and wore costumes and went to party after party as a matter of course-Louise had watched him flirt with other men, none of them aware that the pretty young thing dressed in a low-cut gown and batting eyes behind a fan was a man. It's a game, he had told her, my particular game. A game his brother despised, which was why they were in the country for a while. There had been an escapade in Paris, something that had enraged his older brother, now head of the family, and his mother, who cosseted Choisy, had whisked him out of sight and reprimand, and had brought Louise along to keep him company. Besides, she'd said, I need to train you for court, my dear.
"You were gone a long time," he said, pouting at her. He was as pretty as she was. They'd compared faces in the mirror and agreed on that.
"I fell from my horse." And then the story spilled from her pell-mell: the wild gallop, the jump over the tree, the boy in the mask, its terrible simplicity hiding his face, his heartrending howls, the fall, her opening her eyes to see a musketeer, his strange command. A tear rolled down one of her cheeks as she finished.
Intrigued, Choisy pulled a chair forward, sat down so that they were knee to knee. "Describe the thing on his face again."
She did so.
"Like a disguise," Choisy said, "a mask made by demons. An iron mask. I love it, the boy in the iron mask. Are you sure he was a boy? Might he not have been a small man, like me? Look how slight I am. The man in the iron mask. Yes. That sounds better. More dashing. And the musketeer was wearing the cardinal's colors, you say?"
"Well then, my sweet, you really had best keep silent. It's a wonderful story, but I'd hate to see something happen to you just when you're on the threshold of your grand new life because you've been foolish enough to repeat it."
"What could happen?"
"You could disappear like that!" Choisy snapped his fingers. "Do you know what a lettre de cachet is?"
She didn't know. "A love letter?"
"It is a letter signed by the king that places a person in prison with no record of the arrest. A carriage appears outside your door. Musketeers drag you off, and it's over. You're never heard from again. Trust me, the cardinal has used it more than once."
Choisy would know things like this, thought Louise. His family had been up to its neck in all the intrigue and warfare between the king's mother and uncle. Not pretty on anybody's part, as Choisy liked to say, dismissing disloyalty with a shrug.
"And if you do disappear, don't you dare tell them you said a thing to me, or they'll take me away, too, and I'd die in prison like a flower plucked before its time."
He stood up and pantomimed being dragged off by guards, standing in his lonely cell, weeping silently, then he folded forward. "I was meant for the stage. Unfortunate that actors are cursed by the church." Still folded, he spoke to his knees, his long, dark hair sweeping the stone floor.
"I asked the fairies to bless him."
He straightened. "Who?"
"The boy in the iron mask."
"A word to the wise, country mouse. I wouldn't mention forest fairies when you join the new Madame's household."
Louise wished she hadn't mentioned them to him. "Because they'll laugh at me?"
"Far worse. They'll scorn you."
"Do you scorn me?"
"My darling cousin, I adore you." He stood in front of her, put his hands on her shoulders, and kissed the top of her head.
Louise felt confused. There was nothing feminine in the grip of his hands on her shoulders. Usually, he was soft and purring, but she didn't have that impression now.
"Your hair smells sweet," said Choisy, "as if it has been washed in clear spring water. You're so pure, so sweet and clean-hearted. I'm half in love with you-"
The door swung open.
"There you two are." Madame de Choisy walked in and didn't bat an eye at the sight of her son standing a little too close to Louise, still in his nightgown with her own embroidered and heavily laced dressing robe atop it, as well as her best earrings in his ears.
"Cardinal Mazarin is dead," she announced. "The Duchess d'Orléans has sent a letter by special messenger. We return to Paris tomorrow. You, my precious, are riding out this afternoon so that you can present our regards to the viscount tonight. Yes, I know your brother will do it, but he'll wait until everyone in Paris has been there before him, and he'll say the wrong thing." She rolled her eyes at Louise as if everyone knew what a fool the head of the family was. "I should never have left Paris, but I truly thought the cardinal would last longer. You are to present our regards with all the grace and polish imaginable. It is to be your finest performance. Change your clothes, my boy. At once."
She clapped her hands together, the way one would summon dogs or servants, and obediently, her favorite child left the bedchamber. She turned to Louise.
"We thought he'd live forever," she said. "Such changes ahead. And here you are about to join the new Madame's court where you'll be in the midst of everything. If I were your age, I would be half dead with excitement." She spoke affectionately.
"Will Monsieur's marriage be delayed because of the cardinal's death?" The thought of returning to serve in the household of the Orléans family again was too awful. She couldn't go back to being a piece of furniture, taken for granted and ignored, after the fun and liveliness and kindness of the Choisys.
"I very much doubt it. Monsieur's marriage is important for many reasons." Madame de Choisy reached out to caress Louise's cheek. "So," she said, "it's true."
"That your cheek has the texture of a rose petal, or so my Choisy says. Has my son told you he loves you yet?"
The question was casual, no heat or accusation in it, but almost cheerful.
"N-no." Unused to such directness, not wanting to make trouble for Choisy, yet not liking to lie, Louise stammered.
"You really must learn to lie more gracefully, my sweet. He is always falling in and out of love, so don't take what he says to heart." Madame de Choisy spoke as if they were discussing the weather or the merits of a horse rather than her adored and spoiled child. "And, of course, you must wait until you've been to court before you settle on anyone. And when you do, as all girls must, find someone with more fortune than my Choisy. He is the youngest son, you know."
Louise could think of nothing to say to this worldly, kind, amusing woman. No one older had talked to her in this manner before with such unarmed frankness, laughter in its corners.
"What lovely eyes you have, child! A man could fall into them. Those naughty boys at court will do so, bad things that they are. What fun. I do so like bad boys. Now come here and give me a hug so I know I'm forgiven for my lecturing. It's the cardinal's death that's made me so dreary. We all knew it would come, and yet, now that it's here, it is unimaginable."
Absently, she stroked the curve of Louise's arm, not bothering to tell her what the kingdom owed the man now gone. The young never cared about the past, did they? she thought, looking past Louise to a window, not to its view, but to all that had been. The young saw only this moment, she thought. The cardinal's presence had been controversial, wars fought more than once because of it, but he'd kept the kingdom cobbled together for France's young king. And now he was vanquished. All his diamonds, all his tapestries, all his statues from Rome, his palaces and musketeers and affectations, couldn't keep the dark angel away. So it was now and forever, amen. How grieved the royal family must be.
Choisy, whose full name was François-Timoléon de Choisy, ran upstairs, Louise's tale of boys and iron masks forgotten. Born to privilege, he belonged to the cream of the nobility and was as attuned in his own way to the nuances of court as his mother was.
The world as we know it is ending, he thought, initial excitement and surprise turning to elation as possibilities unfolded one after another in his mind. The cardinal was dead. Amazing. For Choisy's entire life, the cardinal had been alive and in power either directly or indirectly. But there was more than that in his jubilance. For the first time in years, France was in the hands of the young. Did anyone but Choisy comprehend that? The king was only twenty and two. Monsieur, the king's brother, was twenty. They were young and mettlesome and high-spirited, as he was. He'd ask Monsieur for a place on one of the king's councils. Why not drop a young man who liked to wear earrings among the old graybeards? It would liven things up. Off with the old, on with the new.
Once he was on horseback, gown gone, diamonds glittering sedately-for him-here and there among his clothing, he told his mother and Louise his intention, and his mother nearly snapped his head off.
"Ask the viscount, my Choisy, not Monsieur! Have you lost your senses? Now, be your most silver-tongued, my angel, your most charming. Even if you have to wait in an antechamber for hours, see the viscount tonight if possible. And call upon the Queen Mother and tell her I return tomorrow and that I send her my deepest condolences."
As the sight of Choisy and his horse faded into the distance, Louise and Madame de Choisy turned to walk back, their heels crunching in the gravel of garden paths, birds filling the country silence with a sunset song, the château looming large and grand before them, forest just beyond its gates.
"Does he call upon the Viscount Nicolas?" asked Louise.
"Who else? There is none other who matters!" Madame de Choisy sounded scandalized, and Louise lowered her head in embarrassment as Madame de Choisy stopped right where she was and looked Louise over. "Mother of God, tell me you're not completely ignorant. Did the Orléans never talk of court?"
The family her stepfather served, this princely house of Orléans, talked of how they'd been wronged over and over again. "I didn't pay much attention, I'm afraid."
"The Orléans's great stalk of a princess could have been the queen of France, you know, only she fired a cannon at His Majesty during one of the misunderstandings. I'm appalled that your mother has not prepared you for the court you will grace."
Misunderstandings? Louise was shocked in her turn by Madame de Choisy's blithe description of what had been civil wars. This stalk, as Madame de Choisy called her, was the king's first cousin who had taken up arms against him. So many of the king's family had done so. It's the history of our kingdom, her mother said, but it was a history of disloyalty that Louise didn't understand.
"Was the exile hard for you?" No longer scolding, Madame de Choisy's expression had shifted from dismay to soft pity, both of which were uncomfortable to Louise.
"You forget I was born in the country. I knew no other life until we came to Paris," she answered.
"You've been in Paris nearly a year," countered Madame de Choisy. "Surely that's given you some sense of court."
Some sense of court? thought Louise. How? The widowed Duchess d'Orléans must mourn by shutting herself away in the Paris family palace, where she must have endless headaches and need her head bathed in lavender essence and be read to and be irritable if the reader became tired, be angry if there were too much laughter or talk. Louise's life had gone from the freedom of the country, where escape was easy-she might ride wherever she liked, for almost as long as she liked-to a cage bound by the four walls of a Paris palace garden. She knew all the world was just across the river at the palace of the Louvre, where His Majesty lived, from which word came of fêtes and parties and dancing and marriage arrangements. The king and his new queen were all that were talked of. To hear of their comings and goings, to be so close and yet so far, had been hard. If Madame de Choisy-well, really Choisy; it was he who had taken an immediate liking to her-had not lifted her out of the purgatory she endured, she didn't know what she would have done. Strange and very wonderful not to endure anymore, Louise thought, and some of the strain that had played across her face eased. Please, she thought to herself, may my good fortune continue.
"What a dear you are," said Madame de Choisy, who had missed none of the various emotions playing across Louise's face, "not to complain. I find the Duchess d' Orléans quite difficult, and as for those daughters of hers-well! I see you're loyal. Not a word against them has escaped your lips. I commend you upon that; such loyal silence will make you a rarity at court, which I must explain to you-otherwise I will be dropping a lamb among lions, and that will never do."
Talking all the while about past intricacies of the court to which Louise was going: the Queen Mother's widowhood, the cardinal's rise, the fact that he had been the Queen Mother's secret lover, Madame de Choisy swept Louise into a exquisitely appointed little antechamber with bowls of flowers and huge tapestries covering the walls and settled her into a chair as if she were an invalid. Her kind briskness touched Louise to the heart, and she almost couldn't listen to everything Madame de Choisy was attempting to make certain she understood.
"You must upon all occasions be polite to him," Madame de Choisy was saying of the Viscount Nicolas. "Cardinal Mazarin, God rest his soul, was His Majesty's foremost minister, and now it is the viscount's turn. The man is handsome and well enough born and has an eye for art and an ear for music and an ability to conjure funds when there are none, all a first minister should be."
"Does His Majesty desire the viscount as his first minister?"
The sharp precision of that question made Madame de Choisy widen her eyes. "My word, does a mind reside amid all this dewy-eyed beauty I see before me? You surprise me, child. I think he has no choice."
"But he is the king!"
Genuinely amused, Madame de Choisy laughed. "Your innocence is most charming, but such does not thrive at court. His Majesty is not an innocent and is wise enough to do what must be done. I'm certain, therefore, the viscount will be first minister. None of us can get along without him, you know."
Louise sat up very straight, her clear eyes suddenly brilliant. "I saw His Majesty once, when he stopped at Blois." The moody face under its great hat was unforgettable.
"I'd forgotten His Majesty made a visit to the old duke. That was when the world and he traveled to Spain for the royal wedding, wasn't it? So you saw the one and only, did you?"
"Yes." It had been the absolute romance of the kingdom, the royal wedding last summer. All the nobility had traveled to see it, one huge, merry entourage, but of course, that did not include the presence of the king's once rebellious, once very dangerous uncle, the Duke d'Orléans, or his household or, therefore, Louise.
Louise began to blush, not some slight flattering coloring of cheeks, but a deep hue that stained her neck and shoulders in splotches, as well as her face. "He's very handsome, very gallant."
"Isn't he though? So, will you flirt with him at court? You'll see him there, you know, quite often."
The terrible staining blush deepened. "He-he is married. It would not be proper."
"Oh...are you going to be proper?"
There was a silence.
Madame de Choisy threw up her hands, the jewels on her rings catching sunlight. "Don't tell me I've selected a secret Huguenot or worse, a devotée-yes, you know them, don't you? Dry, somber, pruned-up Catholics, not an ounce of fun anywhere. And you going to serve in what I predict will be the most exciting household in court!"
"I will try, of course, to be proper, but I am-" Louise didn't know the words, but a lovely smile spread across her face in excitement at all that awaited her. The smile was more than lovely; it was incandescent and glowing.
"Charming? Adorable? Fallible?" Madame de Choisy leaned across and pinched her cheek. "And quite extraordinarily beautiful when you smile that way. You take my breath away. I see why Choisy flirts so. You are going to grace Madame's court and make all the gentlemen swoon, and everyone is going to say to me, where did you find her, my dear? A hidden jewel, that's what she is, they'll say. That's what you've been, haven't you? A shining little diamond hidden under the dreariness of the Orléans. Poor dear. Well, what fun you're going to have now! Ah, to be twenty again. Thirty...Mother of God, I'd take forty! Come, my sweet, let's have an early supper, and I'll tell you all I know about our very handsome king of France."
"I would like that!"
"So would I!" Madame de Choisy's infectious laughter pealed out like the clap of bells into the little antechamber, while the sweet light of a cold spring afternoon spilled in to highlight all the beautiful objects placed here and there, to highlight Madame de Choisy with her rings and fashionable gown and lively gestures and love of life, and Louise thought, I can never go back. Never.
A few hours later, in a handsome château just on the outskirts of Paris, Choisy sat with one or two others in the Viscount Nicolas's antechamber. It was late, and most people had gone away to supper and cards, but Choisy waited, as he'd been ordered by his mother.
"Everyone who is anyone has already been here," said a young nobleman waiting with Choisy. "You should have seen the crowd earlier. Do you know what they're saying?" continued the young man. He and Choisy knew each other well, were members of the king's brother's circle of friends. "They're saying the king summoned his principal ministers today to tell them he would have no more first ministers, that he would oversee the details of the running of his kingdom himself."
He raised an eyebrow in disdain, then laughed. Choisy joined him. It was a ridiculous gesture on the king's part. Overseeing the details of a kingdom was tedious. It was why courtiers were invented, to run the kingdom for a king.
"The Prince de Condé has already sent a message to the viscount, I'm told."
"Well..." said Choisy. What a delicious piece of gossip. Condé was a formidable prince who'd warred against the king and his mother.
One half of a set of huge doors opened, and Choisy's name was called. He stood, shook out his hair and the long lace hanging from his sleeves, and smiled significantly at his friend. Even though the other had been waiting longer, Choisy had been admitted first, a testament to the power and high birth of his family.
He walked into a chamber as beautiful as a king's-thickest velvet draperies, embroidered chairs, armoires of wood patterned with ormolu and filigree, paintings by the finest artists in the world, solid silver candlesticks the size of boys-and bowed to the figure sitting in a chair, awaiting him. The viscount held out his hand, and Choisy knelt, as if the man were a bishop of the church, and made a kissing sound above the slim, white fingers, one of which wore a giant emerald set in a ring.
"I'm not the Holy Father," protested the viscount, but he smiled, and Choisy knew he had pleased.
That was good. This man was the only man with the wealth and connection and verve to step into the enormous space the cardinal's death had just created, and so Choisy began the game of court, making certain one's family was allied with those most influential and powerful, and if that wasn't possible, making war.