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Here's the place," said the Queen of France, whispering in Italian. She pointed to an almost invisible seam in the floor of the gilded room. The flickering light of a single candle cast distorted shadows on the walls. The night air of summer was fetid and oppressively hot. The stone halls and bare summer fireplaces reeked of urine, of dankness and mildew, of summer fevers. The court had remained too long at Saint-Germain, and the palace had begun to stink. In another month or two, the king would order the court's removal to another, breezier stronghold. One where the game in the park had not been exhausted by his hunts. One where his nose would not signal for yet another few weeks that it was time once again to move. "I've had the carpenter make two holes in the floor," whispered the queen. "Her bedroom is below. Tonight we'll learn how that old woman does the witchcraft that steals my husband's love from me."
"She is twenty years older than you both. Surely, if you could find someone younger, more beautiful, but utterly obedient to you, you could break her hold, and then..." the queen's Italian dame d'honneur whispered in reply. The alien language seemed to flow like smoke, swirling past the carved satyrs' heads on the fireplace, and clinging in the corners, the sound of foreign conspiracy in the ancient stronghold of the French kings.
"Do you think I have not tried that? A moment or two, and then he is back with her, flaunting the ancient whore in public, hiding me as if I were the mistress. I want to destroy her influence over him forever. I want to be rid of her."
"Madame, you are queen-"
"And my hand must never be seen in anything that happens to her," said the queen. "While he loves her, should ill befall her, he will take revenge on me. But if he ceases to love her..."
"Then you must find the witchcraft that holds him," whispered her companion.
"Exactly. And then destroy it with more powerful sorcery." Catherine de Medici, Queen of France, her bulging, heavy-lidded eyes lit deep from within with long-concealed resentment, fingered a magic talisman cast with human blood that hung around her neck. "She has found a powerful spell-caster. But where? Only the Ruggieri have such powers, and they are mine. I swear, if Cosmo has betrayed me-"
"Surely not, Majesty. There are other sorcerers in the realm. Cosmo Ruggieri came with us from Florence. His father served your father-why would that woman turn to your servant? He might betray her."
"And he might not. Never underestimate the slyness of the Ruggieri. They are as treacherous as a nest of snakes-I know them well. I will find the magic and make Cosmo remove it, and he and I will both pretend that he never had knowledge of it before. It is time; I have lived long enough under the shadow of that old woman. She turns all my happiness to dust."
"Surely, Majesty, it can only be the ring," whispered her dame d'honneur, Lucrèce Cavalcanti, Madame d'Elbène. "All the court whispers that the ring she gave him was cast with the blood of an unbaptized infant. It is the ring that enslaves him. Tonight you will see that that is so." She leaned down and held the candlestick closer to the spot, while Catherine de Medici knelt and scrabbled for the catch that would release the floorboard.
"Blow out the candle," the queen whispered to her. "I don't want them to see the light from above." Only faint starlight illumined the room, as the two women lay on the floor to peer into the brightly lit bedchamber below.
The king's mistress lay stretched naked upon her back on the canopied, heavily draped bed, her arms behind her head, and her graying hair fanned behind her on a jumble of richly embroidered silk pillows. The pallor of her flesh formed a stark contrast to the rich green velvet of the coverlet below her. Her black eyes glittered in the candlelight, and her narrow, painted lips smiled triumphantly, while the king, vigorous, black haired, and twenty years her junior, stripped off his robe de chambre. It was almost as if she knew there were witnesses, this night, to her power.
Diane de Poitier's face, taut, seamed with fine lines, the eyes set in sunken, dark circles, held no surprises for the watchers. But at the first sight of the older woman's body the two watching women suppressed a gasp of amazement. It was white, slender, agile, like the body of a twenty-year-old set beneath an old woman's head. With icy discipline, the barren mistress had protected this pallid imitation of a younger woman's form, while the queen, with steel stays and jeweled dresses, could not conceal the shapeless body ravaged by annual pregnancies. Schemer, monster, thought the queen. The Devil has done this for you. When I am rid of you, I will make myself beautiful, too. I'll have masseurs, I'll have potions. Then I will ride at the king's side at his grand entries, with my colors and device displayed at every tourney, instead of being hidden like an ugly secret. Today the sight of me humiliates him. But tomorrow he will love me.
In the gilded bed beneath the peephole, two athletic bodies, one dusted with dark hair, the other whiter than milk, entangled in complex postures completely novel to the watchers above. There in the dark, the queen's eyes widened and she gasped softly. Now they had twisted about, and the old mistress had mounted King Henri the Second. His face was distorted with pleasure. Never had the queen imagined that such curious embraces, such lingering caresses could exist. Why had she not known of such things? Why had he never shown her these things? Was she that unworthy of passion, as well as respect? Now the king and his aged mistress had rolled to the side, and the fierce, furious rhythm so shook them that they fell from the bed in a cascade of sheets, completely oblivious, onto the cool, hard tiles of the floor. The king's cry of passion was still resonating in the room below when his wife replaced the floorboard. Tears of rage, invisible in the dark, ran down her podgy face.
"In all the years we have been married," she whispered, "he never once has touched me like that. My hair-it was beautiful-he never stroked it like that-never-ten children, and he never kissed me. He comes in the dark, and leaves without a candle-what am I, that he treats me like a cow, and her like a woman?"
"But, Majesty, you are the true queen. She is, after all, only the king's whore." The dumpy little woman with the chinless, goggle-eyed face wiped her eyes secretly, there in the dark.
"Yes, I am queen," she said. "I am queen, and she is not." She straightened herself up, and brushed down her crumpled, dusty skirts. "Can't he see that she is old, old? I was fourteen when I came to him. My uncle the Pope sent me in honor, in a gilded galley with slaves in silver chains. Who was she? A nobody. An old nobody. It has to be the magic ring that's blinded him. The ring she gave him. I don't care what it takes; I'll have that ring from his hand." And then I'll have Cosmo compound me a love potion, she thought. Something strong, something that will bring me more than cold leftovers.
"It's just a matter of waiting for the right moment," said Madam d'Elbène.
"I, of all people, have learned how to wait," said the queen, patting back her tight, artificial curls. "I have waited for many things. Still..."
"When I was young, they called me beautiful. Why did the king, my husband, never love me like that?"