Paris, 1393. Recent widow Christine de Pizan became a scribe to support her family, but when she is called to the palace to work, she dreads going. There, everyone fears the king’s attacks of unreason and they believe the charlatans who claim they can cure him with vile potions. But when a mysterious book of magic leaves a trail of real murdered bodies in its wake, Christine has more than black magic to worry about.
Then one of the king’s favourites, Hugues de Précy, is found murdered and his wife Alix de Clairy is blamed. Can Christine prove Alix’s innocence and save her from being burned at the stake?
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Alas! Poor widows who have lost everything! Who will comfort them?
Christine de Pizan, Ballade, c.1405
Christine didn't believe in omens and signs. But her mother did, and she talked of them all the time. Sometimes the predictions came true, and then Christine was sorry she hadn't listened. Especially on the morning when she went to the palace and discovered the first murder.
The day seemed ill-starred from the moment she was startled out of sleep by the sound of her shutters rattling in the wind, long before the bells at the nearby priory of Sainte-Catherine sounded prime. She cried out to her husband. But Étienne wasn't there beside her, never would be again. She rose from her bed, wrapped herself in a woolen coverlet, lit a taper by holding it against the smoldering embers in her fireplace, and staggered downstairs to the kitchen.
In the grey half-light, she could barely see her mother's dark shape kneeling in front of the fireplace, but she heard her call out, 'You must not go out today, Cristina. It is snowing. And I saw a blind man in the street yesterday. That is a very bad sign.'
Christine crept across the room, wincing as her bare feet touched the cold floor, and stood on the warm hearth. 'I have to go to the palace,' she said.
Francesca jabbed a stick into the nearly dead ashes. 'Stupida!' Christine hoped her mother was referring to their hired girl, who had forgotten to bank the fire the night before. Francesca uncovered some embers, added more sticks and a bit of charred tow, leaned forward, held her long hair away from her face, and blew until sparks caught. Flames leapt, and light swept around the room, setting reflections dancing in copper pots hanging from the ceiling and shiny pewter platters standing on the shelves. Francesca looked up and laughed. She struggled to her feet, nearly falling in her haste, and limped across the room.
'There they are, Cristina!' she cried. 'The spirits!'
'Nonsense! It's just the flames.'
'It is the spirits. They are trying to tell us something. And there is your father!' Francesca pointed to one of the glinting shapes. Her husband had been dead for six years, yet she found him everywhere. 'Povera Cristina. I ask myself why she never sees him.'
Christine glared at her mother, though to be honest about it, she sometimes thought she heard her own husband, dead for several years too, talking to her.
Francesca glared back at her. 'Your father is saying to you, do not go to the palace.'
'Blind men in the street! Reflections in the frying pans! How can you believe things like that mean anything?'
'The king did not observe the signs, and demons took his mind away. Therefore, you must not go to the palace. There is evil there. Something terrible will happen to you.' Francesca smoothed her black dress down over her hips.
Christine ducked around her mother and stalked into the pantry. There the sweet scent of dried apples and pears soothed her – until she realized that the yellow slices of fruit hanging from the ceiling in long chains reminded her of her father's wrinkled face as he lay on his deathbed. She had the unhappy thought that perhaps her husband's face had looked that way, too, when he died, although she would never know, because Étienne had been far away in another part of the country on a mission with the king when he was taken from her. She reached up to the shelf for a cheese tart. A mouse ran across her hand. 'The devil take Georgette,' she muttered. Now she, too, was angry with the hired girl, who had left the plate uncovered.
In a temper, she strode back into the kitchen and found her children, wrapped in their bedclothes, their faces gleaming in the firelight, clustered around their grandmother.
'You woke us up with all your arguing,' announced Jean, who was nine. He put an arm around his twelve-year-old sister, Marie, but she pushed him away, her prim little face set in a scowl. Thomas, a chubby eight-year-old, snickered. Five-year-old Lisabetta, Christine's niece, who lived with the family, leaned against her grandmother and started to cry.
Francesca, large and round in a dress that was a bit too tight for her, drew the little girl close and shook her finger at Christine. 'See what you have done!'
Christine, who was small and thin, with none of her mother's softness, suddenly felt like a child herself. 'I'm twenty-eight, Mama. You shouldn't talk to me like that.' She stalked out of the kitchen and hurried up the stairs to her room, where she sat on her bed, shivering in the cold and listening to Francesca comforting the children in the kitchen. She's a much better mother than I am, she thought.
She ate the tart the mouse had tasted first, then rummaged through her clothes for her warmest chemise and a heavy blue wool cotte, which she pulled on even though it had threadbare spots she knew she should have asked her mother to repair. She started to put on a starched linen headdress, then threw it aside and shoved her black hair under a plain grey hood, feeling as she did so a tiny indentation on her cheek, left there by a recent illness. She reached for a small bowl of flour soaked in rosewater and gently applied some of the mixture to the pockmark, thanking God there were not more. By that time, it was light enough to go out. She collected quills, knives, parchment, and an inkhorn from her desk, tossed everything into a large leather pouch, and tiptoed downstairs, where she threw on a much-mended brown cloak, struggled into her boots, and hurried out the door before her mother could accost her with more warnings about the dangers awaiting her at the palace.
Francesca heard her go, but she said nothing. She waited until the older children left for school, thrust Lisabetta into the arms of the hired girl – who had arrived late, as usual – and limped up to Christine's room. Ignoring twisted covers on the bed and discarded clothes on the floor, she went straight to her daughter's desk and searched through the clutter. A small piece of unused parchment was all she needed, and when she found one, she seized it and concealed it in her sleeve. She went downstairs, told Georgette to make sure the fire didn't go out, and threw on her cloak. Francesca wasn't going to sit idly at home while Christine walked into danger. She was going out to get something to protect her daughter, something that would have made Christine even angrier than she already was, had she known about it.
Out in the street, Christine was greeted by falling snow and a fierce wind that seemed to have been waiting there to attack her. Tears stung her eyes – from the wind, and from anger at her mother, anger mingled with shame that she had been so unkind. What Francesca had said was true; the king had lost his mind, and evil seemed to stalk the palace.
Christine was no stranger to the court. She'd lived there as a child, for her family had moved from Italy to Paris after her father, the renowned physician and astrologer, Thomas de Pizan, had become an adviser to the present monarch's father, King Charles the Fifth. Everyone at the court had doted on her then. But when the old king died, things changed. His son Charles the Sixth was only twelve, and the government fell into the hands of his uncles, greedy, power- hungry men who had little use of the old king's advisers. By the time Thomas de Pizan died several years later, he had lost much of his influence at the court, and even Christine's husband, who was well established as one of the royal secretaries, had found his salary reduced. And then Étienne died, too, and Christine was left a widow with little source of income. To support her family, she'd become a scribe. She was occasionally called to the palace to work as a copyist, when the royal secretaries had too much to do, but she dreaded those times, because everyone there lived in fear of the king's attacks of unreason and distrust of the charlatans who prowled around claiming they could cure him with vile potions and spells.
The wind blew her cloak open and nearly succeeded in pushing her off her feet. She shook her fist at it. A snowstorm like this was unusual for Paris, and she was annoyed that she had to be out in it. A few years earlier, it wouldn't have been necessary. Now worries about money troubled her constantly, for she was responsible for her three children, her mother, and her niece Lisabetta, whose mother had died and whose father was away in Italy. To make matters worse, she'd been ill and had only recently been able to work again. The royal librarian, Gilles Malet, who'd been a friend of her husband's, had learned of her troubles, and he'd spoken to the queen, who wanted a copy of a book to give one of her ladies-in-waiting as a wedding present. Christine was glad to have the job, but it meant that she had to go to the palace, no matter how apprehensive she was about the perils lurking there.
Bent over against the wind, she trudged along the street where she and her family lived, in a marshy section of Paris between the old city wall and the new one King Charles the Fifth had built farther out into the countryside. It was a district with only a few houses and many open spaces planted with market gardens. She loved those gardens in summer, when they were lush with vegetables, fertile and warm like the rich farmlands around Bologna, where she'd lived until she was four. Now the gardens were nothing but barren furrows, rapidly turning white. Shriveled leaves fluttered over the frozen ground, and there were a few dry weeds with heavy seed pods bent down by the snow; they made her think of her children, who would have said they looked like little goblins wearing white caps.
Suddenly a gust of wind burst out of a garden, and with it, as if one of those goblins had sprung to life, came a tiny white dog, fleeing from a pack of hounds. With a crooked tail, a muzzle covered with long, bristly hairs, and ears flapping like rags, the little dog was such a comical sight that Christine started to laugh. But he was about to be mauled. She leaned down, scooped him up, and stuffed him under her cloak, all the while shouting abuse at his tormenters. The hounds turned and fled, their tails between their legs.
Bracing herself against the wind, she walked on, holding the dog close and keeping her head down to escape the cruel blasts. She passed the enormous hôtel built by the King of Sicily, its innumerable gables and turrets hidden behind a veil of swirling snowflakes, and turned down the rue Saint-Antoine, the broad, paved street that led to the king's palace. This street was usually alive with the clatter of hoofs and the babble of voices – knights prancing by on horseback, couriers scurrying along with messages for the king, merchants driving mules laden with supplies for the court, street vendors hawking their wares. On this day, however, as she stumbled along through the wind and snow, her sense of foreboding increasing with every step, the street was deserted and silent. She looked in vain for the gawky man who cried the virtues of his crispy meat pasties and the snaggletooth crone who always managed to thrust one of her fragrant honey cakes right under her nose so she couldn't resist buying it. Bells chiming tierce at the priory of Sainte- Catherine reassured her, until the wind stole their intonations and smothered them with its own dismal song. The air tasted like metal. She felt comforted when the little dog reached a soft paw out from under her cloak and touched her cheek.
But when she came to the cemetery next to the church of Saint-Pol, the dog began to twist and turn in her arms. Wild dogs roamed the gloomy burial ground, and she sensed that he felt their presence. Then she remembered her mother's beliefs about the loup-garou, a werewolf said to prowl around the city, feasting on the flesh of children and drinking the blood of dead men. What nonsense, she thought. She clutched the dog tighter and started to run.
Suddenly, a girl in a red cloak dashed past her, swinging a large brown sack over her head and taunting someone who came rushing out of the cemetery. When Christine tried to step aside, she collided with a man in a hooded black cloak and fell to the ground. The girl with the sack started to run in the other direction, but the man was too fast for her. He grabbed her around the neck and wrenched the sack from her hands. Then the white dog jumped out of Christine's arms and ran toward the pair, snarling and barking. The man let out a terrified scream, dropped the sack, and fled. Before he disappeared from sight, Christine, watching stupefied from the ground, noticed his feet: he wasn't wearing shoes.
The girl in the red cloak looked at the dog and laughed. 'A man like that, afraid of a runty little thing like you!' she said. She picked up the sack and hurried off. Christine knew she was a prostitute named Agnes who worked at a brothel on a nearby street. She struggled to her feet and called after her. But the girl was gone.
Christine looked down and saw that her cloak was caked with mud. She would have to go home and clean it before she went to the queen.
She hoped this was the end of the trouble her mother's signs had warned about, but she had the uneasy feeling it wasn't.CHAPTER 2
Everywhere there are more brothels than any other kind of house.
From a thirteenth-century poem
The brothel where Agnes worked was in an old cottage on a little street known as the rue Tiron. Seen from the outside, the building looked neglected, for its roof tiles moldered under grey-green moss and its half-timbered walls dripped with rot. On the inside, however, it was well tended, and even on snowy winter days it was warm and comfortable. Rushes blocked the cold air seeping up through cracked wooden floorboards, oiled parchment over the windows shut out the wind, and a fire blazed in a large fireplace. Private spaces, partitioned off by cracked leather curtains, offered stained but serviceable straw-filled mattresses and hot-bodied women to go with them. Used only during the daylight hours, the brothel was a popular stopping place.
On the morning of the day of Christine's encounter with the hooded man with bare feet, a prostitute named Marion arrived late at the cottage. She was a tall girl with bright red hair bound in strings of glittering gold beads, and she wore a fur-lined purple cloak and a green and yellow dress decorated with handmade embroidery. Marion cared little for laws forbidding prostitutes to wear such colorful clothes. As she strode through the falling snow, she glowed like a tropical bird.
Pushing aside the snow-covered canes of brambles sweeping over the path to the door of the cottage, Marion sang a ditty about a nun and a priest and was just getting to the bawdy part when a man in a hooded black cloak came from behind, pushed her down, and rushed into the brothel. 'Son of a whore,' she cried as she picked herself up. She ran in after him and watched in amazement as he raced around overturning everything in sight. Benches teetered on their sides, a trestle table lay on its back like a beast with its legs in the air, and drinking cups and wine jugs flew by her head. Startled prostitutes and their clients emerged from the curtained rooms and shrank back as the man dashed past them into the private spaces and ripped apart the mattresses. Finding nothing in any of those, he darted back into the communal room and hurled himself up a ladder to the loft. There he found what he was looking for. Clutching a large brown sack to his chest, he jumped down to the floor below and stood for a moment, glaring at the prostitutes and their clients with red-rimmed eyes half-hidden in the shadow of his cowl. Marion, the only one who was fully dressed, lunged at him, but he shoved her away, dropping the sack as he did so. A large book tumbled out. He grabbed it and thrust it back into the sack, but not before she had seen the book's leather cover, which was inscribed with strange symbols. The man stared at her and said, 'Tell your friend Agnes she's as good as dead if I ever see her again.' Then he ran out the door.
Marion was too stunned to cry out. But before the door swung shut, she noticed that the man's feet were bare.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "In the Presence of Evil"
Copyright © 2018 Tania Bayard.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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