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Another burst of activity erupted near the gate. The king's cuirrasiers, garbed in black and crimson, sporting brass and steel, threw open the double gate. Riders thundered into the courtyard as though pursued by fiendish gargoyles.
Fabien recognized le Duc de Guise mounted on a black charger with a jeweled harness and gold velvet housing edged in green braid. Guise's men-at-arms followed, bearing the flag of the House of Guise from the duchy of Lorraine.
Fabien straightened from the embrasure, clamping his jaw. The secret rumblings of hatred smoldered in the rocky caverns of his soul at the sight of the duc.
Le Duc de Guise looked up toward the balcony. His gaze appeared to search, as if he could sense a burning pit of hellish emotions attacking him from somewhere, as if he was a jackal smelling a rotting carcass to feed upon.
Then le Duc de Guise locked gazes with Marquis Fabien.
Guise's lips turned into a hard, faintly mocking smile. Fabien smiled in return and offered a bow.
Guiseturned his head away and peered over his shoulder toward the gate. He raised a gloved hand whereupon a masked, black-cowled rider burst through the turret gates, dusty, his horse sweating. Fabien tensed. Who was this? A moment later the duc's men-at-arms tightened their escort around the mysterious rider, encircling him within their midst.
Is Guise protecting the masked figure or confining him? Why the cowl and mask? Fabien narrowed his gaze, as if by staring he could bore through the mask to identify the messire.
He was here at Chambord at the invitation of the boy-king Francis and his petite reinette, Mary of Scotland, but not to become ensnared in whatever ongoing intrigue the House of Guise was presently hatching.
Fabien left the balcony. Patience, he reminded himself. The longawaited hour to apportion revenge upon the head of le Duc de Guise would eventually dawn.
The marquis pulled his brows together as he walked along the gilded salle in the direction of his chambers. If anyone at court understood the reasons behind the unexpected arrival of Guise, it would be Comte Sebastien Dangeau, a member of Catherine de Medici's privy council and Fabien's relative through marriage.
Sebastien's position was a precarious one since the House of Guise might discover he was of the Huguenot faith. There were other Calvinists at court, and they too walked the edge of a precipice. One faux pas and they would slip from the slope into the bloodied clutches of the Guise brothers' inquisitional penchant.
* * *
Comte Sebastien Dangeau, upon hearing that le Duc de Guise had ridden into the courtyard with a masked rider, joined other esteemed courtiers on one of the balconies. He held back, keeping behind the others so as to not be seen, as he managed a survey of the courtyard.
Sebastien's gaze stumbled over a masked figure cowled in black, being escorted by some dozen men-at-arms under the proud flag of le Duc de Guise. The duc himself led the way into the palais. No doubt on his way to see the king. Ah but yes, there is something familiar about the hesitant gait of that hooded figure-
Footsteps pattered up behind him, the scampering feet reminding him of a mouse-or a rat?
Sebastien turned sharply. His gaze lowered to rest upon an expressionless face with brown eyes. The Italian demoiselle stared up at him. She was Madalenna, the young servant girl in bondage to the queen regent, Catherine de Medici. The Queen Mother had brought Madalenna with her from Florence, Italy, when Catherine first came to France to marry Henry Valois II. Madalenna, secretive, spying; Madalenna, always approached in a whisper of movement, emerging from some shadowy corner where one least expected to see her. Madalenna the spy.
Madalenna curtsied. "Monsieur le Comte, my mistress, Her Majesty the Queen Mother, bids you come to her state chambers tout de suite."
Sebastien glanced again toward the courtyard, then turned and departed for the chambers of the Queen Mother, known by those who knew her best as Madame le Serpent.
* * *
Mademoiselle Rachelle Macquinet felt her heart thump and a trickle of perspiration ran down her rib cage. This was to be the telling moment. All she had labored for these many weeks, sometimes working twelve hours a day, would be held to the crucible of scrutiny. For this day Princesse Marguerite Valois, the youngest daughter of the Queen Mother, would try on the unfinished gown. The cut and flow, the stitching, all must be exact. Rachelle would measure and tack the hem with a steady but feathery hand and bring the gown back to her chamber to complete tomorrow. The gown was but one of several in various degrees of completion, however this particular gown was mostly Rachelle's work, and her future as a couturière depended on the princesse's pleasure.
Rachelle, a grisette from the Chateau de Silk in Lyon, was yet under the supervision of the grand couturière herself, Henriette Marie Loiselle Dushane, otherwise known to Rachelle as her adored grandmère, a dainty widow in unrelieved black satin, with silver hair and sparkling dark eyes. Rachelle knew her to be no easy mistress with the needle, nor did Rachelle wish her to be otherwise. It was her desire to follow in her steps.
Rachelle stood on the terrace of the royal chambers facing Princesse Marguerite and her ladies-in-waiting. Her wine velvet pincushion with her initials, R.D.M., was strapped to her wrist with a black velvet band, while a pair of specialized Dushane scissors swung from the chatelaine. Her measuring strip draped about her slender neck. She took the widths of sheer burgundy silk, draped gently over the cloth of gold, and with trembling fingers allowed it to fall gracefully over Marguerite's dark hair. The garment settled softly around her feet, shimmering.
"Ooh ..." came the sigh of the ladies-in-waiting.
"C'est magnifique," Marguerite purred, holding a section of the silk to her cheek. "It is perfect. La, la, Rachelle, you will always do my gowns. I insist. You and your famous Grandmère."
"Merci, Mademoiselle Princesse." Rachelle curtsied, dipping her head and offering a quick thanksgiving to God. "But the work, it is not yet finished. If it please my lady princesse, I would measure now for the hem and the addition of the Brugesse lace."
Marguerite stepped onto the small stool, and Rachelle knelt to smooth out the folds on the bottom of the gown.
Marguerite spread her arms gracefully, lifting her face toward the March breeze and allowing the sparkling material to float. "Monsieur Henry should see me now," she whispered, drama in her voice. "Ah, but he is not here ..."
Her ladies uttered sounds of sympathy.
Rachelle admired Grandmère's embroidery work on the burgundy silk. The tiny gold rosebuds were sewn with a secret stitch Grandmère had perfected at the Macquinet Chateau de Silk, and Rachelle was determined to master the stitch as well. She was already practicing on leftover sections of silk. Each section of crafted rosebuds left a glittering mound of gold thread, yet the silk material around it lay smooth and unpuckered, a most difficult technique to master. Rachelle could only marvel. Not even Maman could make a perfect rosebud, and Maman too was a seasoned couturière.
The gown shimmered with Princesse Marguerite's every movement. Diamonds could be added to the bodice after the gown was finished, but only under the watchful eye of a guard. Rachelle had no desire to handle the diamonds. A tale had circulated at court of a certain grisette, who during the reign of King Francis I, had stolen rubies meant for the queen's bodice. The grisette, believed to have swallowed them, was sent to the Bastille. Rachelle shuddered, imagining what had befallen the woman. As for Marguerite's gown, Rachelle was of the opinion that any addition of diamonds would add little to its beauty, but the princesse insisted on jewels, jewels, and more jewels.
To Rachelle, Grandmère represented the heart of the family silk enterprise, for she had carried with her all of the prized secrets of silk weaving, when as a Dushane, she had married into the Macquinet family, who had been their competitors.
Rachelle was thrilled when Grandmère had first been summoned to court by Queen Regent Catherine de Medici to design and oversee the intricate cutting and sewing of gowns in the new shades of Macquinet lavender blue, rosy pink, and the deep burgundy that was Rachelle's favorite. This newer cloth had been developed in Lyon, known for the finest silk weavers in France, a matter of which Rachelle was most proud.
Princesse Marguerite desired a dozen new gowns, and eighteen-year-old Mary Stuart of Scotland, the new Queen of France through her recent marriage to seventeen-year-old King Francis II, wanted two gowns and a farthingale. The queen regent, Catherine, however, wore naught but black since the death of her husband.
Rachelle shuddered suddenly. She remembered what Grandmère told her and her sister Idelette after meeting with the Queen Mother in her state chambers. Catherine, after asking Grandmère questions about silk in general, had then casually inquired about its possibilities as a medium.
"I have heard of a certain deadly poison being used in silk undergarments in the twelfth-century Moslem East by harem women wishing to remove a dangerous foe. Is this so, Madame Henriette?"
Grandmère, the emissary for the Dushane-Macquinet Chateau de Silk at court, had confessed to the Queen Mother she had heard such things but knew naught how such murders of ancient times were committed. Afterward, Grandmère returned to the Macquinet chamber looking troubled. She had commented: "Remove a dangerous foe, she said, I vow! Such liberty these royal persons take with the French language. Her study of my person after I deliberately interchanged the word murder gave me a tingle, I assure you. Murder, or if you prefer, assassination, continues unabated in the courts of Europe, not merely among the Moslem Turks."
Rachelle was helping with the cutting and sewing of the princesse's gowns while Idelette, more advanced than she, was assisting Grandmère with Mary of Scotland, now Queen of France, everyone's charmante darling-except the Queen Mother's.
The Macquinet women, entitling themselves the Daughters of Silk, had departed Lyon two months earlier by calèche and wagon for the journey to the Louvre Palais in Paris. However, soon after their arrival the boy-king's health had so deteriorated that the doctor had advised the royal family to leave the unhealthy air of Paris in search of fairer weather in the French countryside, where fragrant greenery and flowers adorned the region of Touraine.
So once again the Daughters of Silk had overseen the tedious packing of their supplies, which included large rolls of various cloths wound on smooth ash wood lined with velvet to protect the filaments, and they had traveled to Blois.
Rachelle and Idelette had assisted the younger grisettes-in-training to pack the Genoan velvets, the brocades with interwoven threads of gold or silver, and of course, the Dushane-Macquinet silk. They had carried lace of every variety: ivory Alençon with tiny rosettes, the heavier Brugesse so wonderfully used for ruffles and clusters in diagonal shapes, the princely Burgundy style used for softer draping of waterfalls at the throat, and edging that was gathered on cuffs.
So also had many of the sewing and design instruments journeyed with them in wagons, for Grandmère insisted the equipage used at court was not as fine as her own.
The large trunks were a sight to behold and always thrilled Rachelle. They were embossed, either in gold or silver, with the famous name Dushane-Macquinet emblazoned with artistic flair. Upon their arrival here at the Chambord palais chateau, she had been amused to see wondrously garbed servants bearing the trunks on their shoulders in a long, somber train as though they carried the remains of a king. "A flurry of trumpets would be a pleasant touch," Rachelle had whispered with a subdued laugh to Idelette.
Each of the Daughters also carried a personalized hand case: Grandmère's was gold-embossed Italian leather; Idelette had chosen a deep rose brocade; and Rachelle, who had recently received the honneur of becoming a full-fledged grisette before departing Lyon, had chosen the burgundy velvet out of a secret infatuation for the good-looking Marquis Fabien de Vendôme, born of the princely Bourbon blood.
Each of their names was inscribed in gold on their small case, which contained all manner of sewing equipment. Rachelle and Idelette were in the process of earning additions to their treasure of special needles, pins, cutting instruments, and spools of colored silk thread-some from Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands.
Presently, as she knelt before the stool where the princesse stood in pose, Rachelle considered her work as anything but elegante. She was perspiring beneath the direct sunlight which blazed down unsparingly. Her undergarments were binding tightly about her middle, and an annoying section of her thick auburn hair had come loose from its pins to hang across her damp cheek and neck while she stooped, bent, and crawled around the princesse, gauging the hemline on the draping cloth of gold for accuracy. She slipped her highly sharpened Italian pins into the cloth of gold as sparingly as possible so as not to leave marks. It would be to her shame if she snagged a single filament of this costly material with one of her pins.
Rachelle was paying scant attention to Princesse Marguerite's maid-of-honor, Madame Charlotte de Presney, who stood near the balustrade, peering below and commenting on an arrival in the courtyard. "Le Duc de Guise just rode through the gate from Paris. Ah, what a worthy retinue rides with him," Charlotte de Presney was saying in her indolent voice.
"I care naught except if the duc's son is with him, ah my darling Henry de Guise," Marguerite said. She snapped her fingers at one of the ladies to hand her a sweetened glass of lemon water.
"The duc brings a stranger, Princesse. How curious, I promise you. The stranger hides behind a mask." Charlotte leaned against the balustrade.
Rachelle, interested, glanced toward Charlotte.
"Your joie de vivre will soon return, Princesse, for I see your monsieur Henry de Guise among his father's entourage."
Marguerite gave a shriek at the name of her lover and jumped down from the stool, spilling some of the lemon water.
Rachelle groaned. Did any splash onto the dress?
"And why did you not tell me at once?" Marguerite rushed toward the balustrade to see for herself. Rachelle, gritting her teeth, scrambled after Marguerite in desperation, trying to keep the half-pinned hem from dragging.
"You did not tell me Monsieur Henry is here? Perhaps you have designs upon the prince yourself, Charlotte?" Marguerite accused her in a warning voice.
"Monsieur Henry de Guise is loyal to you, Mademoiselle Princesse. I am sure of it ... just as loyal as you are to him," Charlotte said too quietly.
Rachelle held her breath. She watched the princesse's dark eyes turn upon Charlotte, then flash with molten rage. She reached over, cuffed her, and grabbing her earlobe between her thumb and forefinger, she drew Charlotte toward her.
Rachelle winced along with Charlotte.
Marguerite glared as she pinched Charlotte's earlobe. "Careful, little fox, or I will have you beaten."
An uneasy hush descended over the ladies.
Charlotte, stoic as always, gave a submissive curtsy to the princesse. She then turned her attention once again to the courtyard.
Rachelle, having made certain that the silk was neither stained with lemon water nor the hem stepped upon, stood with Marguerite's ladies at the balustrade. Her gaze sought the masked rider, but neither he nor le Duc de Guise was in sght.
Excerpted from Daughter of Silk by Linda Lee Chaikin Copyright ©2006 by Linda Chaikin. Excerpted by permission.
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