Read an Excerpt
The Palace of Fontainebleau, January 1527
Marguerite Dumas walked slowly down the corridor, gaze straight ahead, hands folded at her waist, her face carefully blank as she ignored the whispers of the courtiers loitering about. In her fingers she clutched the summons of the king.
She had known this day would come. A new assignment. A new mission for the Emerald Lily. If only this one ended better than the last, that night in Venice!
Marguerite paused at the end of the corridor, where a shadowed landing became a narrow staircase. Here, there was no one to see her, and she closed her eyes against the spasm of pain in her head. It was no illness, but the memory of Venice, the thought of the handsome Russian encule. The coppery, bitter taste of humiliation and failure.
The king had said nothing when she returned to Paris with her report of the Russian's escape. He had said nothing when he sent her back to her "legitimate" duties as fille d'honneur to Princess Madeleine, her ostensible reason for being at Court in the first place. There she had languished for months, walking with the other ladies in the gardens, reading to the princess, dancing at banquets. Fending off the advances of useless, arrogant courtiers.
They could do her no good, those perfumed popinjays who pressed their kisses on her in the shadows. Only one man was useful here, King François himself. And he maintained his distant politeness, merely nodding to her when they happened to pass in the garden or the banquet hall.
Marguerite knew the whispers, that she and the king had been lovers who were estranged now that he was involved with the Duchesse de Vendôme. If they only knew the truth!They would never believe it. Not of her.
She scarcely believed it herself, in these days of quiet leisure in the princess's apartments. Had she truly ever been sent to the far corners of Europe, to defeat the enemies of France? Had she once used her wits, her hard-learned skills, to find a secret victory over those who would defy the king? It did not seem possible.
Yet at night, alone in her curtained bed, she knew it was true. Once, she had had adventures. She had won a place for herself in the wider world. Had one mistake, one instant's miscalculation, cost her all she worked for?
It had made no sense to her that she would be dismissed in only a moment, when now more than ever her special skills were needed. Since the king's humiliating defeat against the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor at Pavia, since his two sons were sent to Madrid as hostages, dark days had descended on France. Her enemies were becoming ever bolder.
Marguerite knew she could be of use in these new, dangerous games. Why, then, was she relegated to dancing and card playing? All because of the Russian, damn his un-earthly blue eyes!
But those days seemed to be at an end. She held the king's note in her hand, so tightly the parchment pressed her rings into her skin. It was time for her to redeem herself.
As she climbed the narrow, privy staircase, the sounds of hammering and sawing grew louder, more distinct, shouting of the king's new mania for building. Since his return from Spain in defeat, François had thrown himself into a frenzy of remodelling, of making his palaces ever grander.
Fontainebleau, one of his favourite castles thanks to the seventeen-thousand hectares of forest ripe with deer for hunting, was his latest focus. Since the Christmas festivities, so muted without the presence of the Dauphin and his brother, work was begun in earnest. The old keep of St Louis and Philipe le Beau was being demolished, replaced by something vast and modern.
Marguerite lifted the hem of her velvet skirt as she stepped over a pile of rubbish. A shower of stone dust from above nearly coated her headdress, and she hurried to the relative safety of the great gallery.
This was one of the few rooms in the place to be almost finished. A long, echoing expanse of polished parquet floor swept up to walls of pale stuccowork, inlaid dark wood in the panels of the boiserie. A few of the many planned flourishes of floral motifs, gods and goddesses, fat little Cupids, were in place, with blank spaces just waiting to be filled.
At the far end of the gallery, leaning over a table covered with sketches, was King François himself. He was consulting with one of the Italian artists brought in to take charge of all this splendour, Signor Fiorentino, and for the moment did not see her. Marguerite slowed her steps, studying him carefully for any sign of his thoughts and intentions. Any hint that she was truly forgiven.
François was very tall, towering over her own petite frame, and was all an imposing king should be, with abundant dark hair and a fashionable pointed beard. His brown eyes were sharp and clear above his hooked Valois nose, missing nothing. After Pavia and his captivity, he seemed leaner, more wary, his always athletic body thin and wiry.
But his famous sense of fashion had not deserted him. Even on a quiet day like this, he wore a crimson velvet doublet embroidered with gold and silver and festooned with garnet buttons, a sleeveless surcoat of purple trimmed with silver fox fur to keep the chill away. A crimson cap sewn with pearls and more garnets covered his head, concealing his gaze as he bent over the drawings.
"There will be twelve in all, your Majesty," Fiorentino said, gesturing toward the empty spaces on the gallery walls.
"All scenes from mythology, of course, to illustrate your Majesty's enlightened governance."
"Hmm, yes, I see," Francois said. Without glancing up, he called, "Ah, Mademoiselle Dumas! You surely have the finest eye for beauty of any lady in my kingdom. What do you think of Signor Fiorentino's plans?"
Marguerite came closer, peering down at the sketches as she tucked the king's note into her tight undersleeve. The first drawing was a scene of Danaë, more a stylish lady of the French Court in a drapery of blue-tinted silk and an elaborate headdress than a woman of the classical world. But her surroundingsbroken columns and twisted olive trees, her attendants of fat cherubs and even more fashionable ladieswere very skilfully drawn, the scene most elegant.
"It is lovely," she said. "And surely the dimensions, the way the scene is framed by these columns, make it perfect for that space there, where the afternoon sunlight will make Danaë's robe shimmer like a summer sky. You will use cobalt, signor, and flecks of gilt?"
"You are quite right, your Majesty! The mademoiselle has a most discerning eye for beauty," Fiorentino said happily, clapping his paint-stained hands. Perhaps he was just glad he wouldn't waste expensive cobalt.
"Bien, signor," the king said. "The Danaë stays. You may commence at once."
As the artist hurried away, his assistants scurrying after him, François smiled at Marguerite. Try as she did to gauge his thoughts, she could see nothing beyond his courtly smile, the opaque light of his eyes. He was even better at concealing his true self than Marguerite herself.
"Shall we stroll in the gardens, Mademoiselle Dumas?" he asked lightly. "It is a bit warmer, I think, and I should like your opinion on the new fountain I have commissioned. It is the goddess Diana, a great warrior and hunter. A favourite of yours, I believe?"
"I would be honoured to walk with you, your Majesty," Marguerite answered. "Yet I fear I know little of fountains."
"Egremont will loan you his cloak," he said, gesturing to one of his attendants, who immediately presented her with his fur-lined wrap. "We would not want you to catch a chill. You have such important work, mademoiselle."
Important work? Was this truly a new task, then? A chance for the Emerald Lily to emerge from hiding? Marguerite was careful not to show her eagerness, settling the cloak over her shoulders. "Indeed, your Majesty?"
"Oui. For does my daughter not depend on you, since the death of her sainted mother? You are her favourite attendant."
"I, too, am very fond of the princess," Marguerite answered, and she was. Princess Madeleine was a lovely child, charming and quick-minded. But she was hardly a challenge. She could not offer the kind of advancement Marguerite's ambition craved. The kind she needed for her own security. She thought of the stash of coins hidden beneath her bed, and how they were not yet enough to gain her a vineyard, a life, of her own.
"Indeed?" François led her down the stairs and out into the gardens, now slumbering under the winter frost. They, like the palace itself, were in the midst of upheaval, their old flower-beds being torn up to be replaced by new plantings, a more modern design. For now, though, everything was caught in a moment of stasis, frozen in place, overlaid by sparkling white like an enchanted castle in a story.
François waved away his attendants, and led her down a narrow walkway. The air was cold but still, holding the echo of the abandoned courtiers' voices as they lingered by the wall.
"It is most sad, then, that my daughter will have to do without your company for a time," the king said.
"Yes, for I fear you must journey to England, mademoiselle. And the Emerald Lily must go with you."
England. So the rumours were true. François sought a new alliance with King Henry, a new bulwark against the power of the Emperor.
"I am ready, your Majesty," she said.
François smiled. "Ma chère Margueritealways so eager to serve us."
"I am a Frenchwoman," she answered simply. "I do what I can for my country."
"And you do it well. Usually."
"I will not fail you. I vow this."
"I trust that is true. For this mission is of vital importance. I am sending a delegation to negotiate a treaty of alliance with King Henry, and to organise a marriage between his daughter Princess Mary and my Henri."
Marguerite considered this. Despite flirting with English alliances in the past, including the long-ago Field of the Cloth of Gold, which was so spectacular it was still much talked of, naught had come of it all. Thanks to the English queen, Katherine of Aragon, aunt of the Emperor, England always drifted back to Spain. Little Princess Mary, only eleven years old, had already been betrothed to numerous Spanish grandees as well as the Emperor Charles himself, or so they said.
"What of the Spanish?" Marguerite asked quietly.
"I have heard tell that Henry and his queen are not asunited as they once were," François answered. "Katherine grows old, and Henry's gaze has perhaps turned to a young lady who was once resident of the French Court, Mademoiselle Anne Boleyn. Katherine may no longer have so much influence on English policy. Since the formation of the League of Cognac, Henry seems inclined to a more Gallic way of seeing things. I will be most gratified if this treaty comes to completion."
Marguerite nodded. An alliance with England could certainly mean the beginning of brighter days for France. Yet she had dealt with the Spanish before. For all their seeming piety and austerity, they were just as fierce in defending their interests as the French, perhaps even more so. It was said that in their religious fervour they often employed the hair shirt and the scourge, and it seemed to sour their spirits, made them ill humoured and dangerous as serpents. "The Spanishand Queen Katherinewill not let go of their advantage so easily as that," Marguerite said. "I have heard Katherine seeks a new Spanish match for her daughter."
"That is why I am sending you," François answered. "I have assigned Gabriel de Grammont, the Bishop of Tarbes, to head the delegation, and I am sure he will do very well. As will his men. But women can see things a man cannot, go places a man cannot, especially one as well trained as my Lily. Keep an eye on the queen, and especially on the Spanish ambassador, Don Diego de Mendoza. It is entirely possible they have plans of their own, of which Henry is not aware."
"And if they do?"
François scowled, gazing out over his frozen gardens.
"Then you know what to do." He drew a small scroll from inside his surcoat and handed it to her. "Here are your instructions. You depart in two weeks. I will have dressmakers sent to you this eveningyou must order all that you require for a stay of several weeks."
With that, he turned and left her, rejoining his waiting attendants. They all disappeared inside the château, leaving Marguerite alone in the cold afternoon. There were no birds, no bustle of gardeners or cool splash of fountains, only the lonely whistle of the wind as she unfurled the scroll.
The words were brief. The king's kinsman, the Comte de Calonne, was to be part of the delegation, along with his wife Claudine. Marguerite was ostensibly to serve as companion to Claudine, to accompany her when she called on Queen Katherine and attended banquets and tournaments.
But Marguerite knew well what was not written there. At those banquets, she was to flirt with the English courtiers when they were in their cups, draw secrets from them they were not even aware they were sharing. To watch the queen and the Spanish ambassador. To watch King Henry, and make sure the notoriously changeable monarch did not waver. To watch this Anne Boleyn, see if she had real influence, if she could be turned to the French cause.
And, if anyone stood in France's path, she was to remove them. Quickly and neatly.
It was surely the most important task she had ever received, a test of all her skills. The culmination of all she had learned. If she did well, if the treaty was safely signed and the betrothal of Princess Mary and the Duc d'Orléans sealed, she would be handsomely rewarded. Perhaps she would even be given leave to travel, to seek out the one man who had ever defeated her and thus finally have her revenge.
The Russian. Nicolai Ostrovsky.
The soft crackle of a footstep on the pathway behind her startled her, and she spun around, her knees bending and hands forward in a defensive position.
It was Pierre LeBeque, a young priest in the employ of Bishop Grammont. His eyes narrowed when she turned on him, and he fell back a step, watching her warily.
Marguerite dropped her hands to her sides, but still stood poised to dash away if need be. She did not often see Father Pierre, for he was usually scurrying about the Court on errands for the bishop, but when she did encounter him she didn't care for the sensations he evoked. That prickling feeling at the back of her neck that so often warned her of "danger."
What danger a solemn young priest, tall but as thin as a blade of grass, could hold she was not sure. He seemed to bear nothing but dutiful piety on his bony shoulders.Yet he always watched her so closely, and not as others did, in admiration and awe of her beautyit was as if he was trying to see all her secrets.
And she well knew how often appearances were deceiving. "Father Pierre," she said calmly, drawing her borrowed cloak closer around her. "What brings you out on such a chilly day?"
He did not smile, just stared solemnly. His face, white as the frost, was set in stony lines too old for his youthful years. "I am carrying a message to the king from Bishop Grammont, mademoiselle."
"Indeed? Such industrious loyalty you possess, coming out on such a day, when everyone else is tucked up by their fires."
"You are not," he pointed out.
"I felt the need for some fresh air. But I am returning to my warm apartment now."
"Allow me to escort you back to the palace, then." Marguerite could think of no graceful way to decline his company, so she merely nodded and turned on the pathway. Pierre fell into step beside her, the hem of his black robes whispering over the swept gravel.
"I understand from the bishop that you are to join our voyage to England," he said tonelessly.
Alors, but news did travel fast! Marguerite herself had only just learned of her assignment, and here this glorified clerk already knew.
What else did he know? "Indeed I am. The Comtesse de Calonne requires a companion, and I am honoured that my services have been requested."
"You are very brave then, mademoiselle. They say the English Court is coarse and dirty."
"I have certainly heard of worse."