Paris, 1393.A masquerade ball at the palace ends in tragedy, with four revellers burned to death. Was it an accident... or did someone deliberately hurl a flaming torch at the dancers? Convinced it was an act of murder and that the king himself was the real target, Queen Isabeau has asked Christine de Pizan to spend time at court in an attempt to uncover the identity of the would-be assassin.
With the king struck down by an illness no one can understand, Christine finds the palace to be a hotbed of rumour, suspicion, petty rivalries and dark secrets: a place where no one can be trusted. Could the king’s ambitious brother, the Duke of Orleans, be responsible for the deaths? One of his embittered uncles? Or could the killer lie even closer to home…?
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On the twenty-ninth of January they assembled at the royal Hôtel Saint-Pol for the marriage celebration ... There were various masquerades, and they danced to the sound of musical instruments until the middle of the night ... Then, while the young lords thought only of amusing themselves, someone threw a spark at those taking part in the masquerade. Immediately, the clothes of the dancers went up in flames.
The Monk of Saint-Denis, Chronique du Religieux de Saint-Denis, contenant le règne de Charles VI de 1380 à 1422
Paris, late February 1393
She was surrounded by burning men, hairy savages who shrieked and writhed and tore at their blazing costumes. Naked flesh peeled away. Twisted bodies fell to the floor and curled up in agony. Friends rushed to help them; the flames seared their hands, and they recoiled, crying in pain. A little white dog howled as sparks reached out and transformed him into a glowing ember.
Musicians high in the air dropped vielles, trumpets, pipes, and a bagpipe that squealed as it fell. The king's brother stood at the door holding lighted torches. Another torch flew through the air, landed at her feet, and threw off sparks that ignited her gown. She plunged into a large vat of water. The water turned to blood, churned, and spewed her out, along with a naked man who hurled bloody platters and goblets. Flaming knives and spoons spun around her head, setting her hair on fire. The burning men, now reduced to red-hot skeletons, lurched toward her, and she ran to a woman dressed in silver and crawled under the train of her gown, only to be pushed out by a madman wearing a large jeweled crown. She tried to pull the train back over her head, but it slithered away. The fiery skeletons pounced. She screamed.
She sat up, trembling.
'You had a nightmare.' Francesca bent down and picked up the twisted bedcovers lying on the floor. 'Tell me about it.'
She shook her head. She'd never told her mother, or anyone else, that she'd seen the masquerade, and she wasn't about to do so now. But in the nightmare, it had all come back. The king and his friends, dressed as hairy savages, mocking the bride, set on fire by sparks from a lighted torch; the man who jumped into a vat of water; the little white dog that got too close; the musicians looking down from their balcony; the king cowering under the train of the Duchess of Berry's gown. Only one thing was different – the lighted torch lying on the floor; the only torches she remembered seeing that night were those in the hands of the king's brother, the Duke of Orléans.
The burning men were gone, and she could speak calmly. But her mother was shaking.
'I'm sorry I frightened you, Mama.'
'It wasn't you. I've just come from a procession. Everyone walked so fast, it was hard to keep up.'
Christine knew all about the processions, and she despised them. The king had gone mad, and day after day people marched through the city, crying and wailing and tearing their hair, praying for a miracle that would deliver him from the evil spirits that had taken his mind away. To her, it seemed absurd.
'Do you have to join every procession you see?'
'How else can we dispel the demons?'
Francesca saw malevolent beings everywhere, and she blamed them for the king's illness. Christine didn't believe in such things, but as she sat on her bed, still under the influence of her terrible nightmare, she couldn't help being affected by her mother's apprehensions. The shadows that moved around the room seemed ominous, the sudden gusts of wind that beat against the windows threated to tear away the oiled cloth that covered them, the burning logs in the fireplace sent off sparks that crackled and spit menacingly as they shot up the chimney. She smelled something burning and shuddered.
Francesca went to a chest, took out a little sack filled with rose petals, lavender, and rue she'd laid away with the clothes to discourage moths, and handed it to her. Christine disliked the smell of the rue, but it was better than the stench in the air, and she held it to her nose and breathed deeply.
'Georgette tripped on the hearth and nearly fell into the fire,' Francesca said. 'The towel she was holding went up in flames, but she did not get hurt. It will take more than that to deliver us from her.' She smoothed her black dress over her ample hips.
Christine had to smile. She imagined the ways her mother thought they might be delivered from their clumsy hired girl; perhaps she'd be transformed into a sprite and blown away by the wind, still wearing her rumpled dress and grimy apron. Or lifted up through the chimney by a helpful hand from heaven.
The children pounded up the stairs and burst into the room. Their little white dog, Goblin, pushed through their legs and raced to Christine, who picked him up and buried her face in his soft coat, remembering the white dog that had perished at the masquerade.
'Georgette burned a towel,' twelve-year-old Marie said.
'We know. It is not the first time,' Francesca said.
'Were you afraid, grand'maman?' asked Jean, who was nine.
'After what happened at the palace ...' Francesca hesitated and glanced at her daughter. Christine wondered whether her mother had guessed what her nightmare had been about.
'I know what happened at the palace,' eight-year-old Thomas said. 'All those men burned up.'
'Why was the king there?' Marie asked. 'Isn't he supposed to conduct himself properly and run the country?'
Christine looked at her daughter and smiled. 'I'm sure if you were in charge, Marie, there wouldn't be any masquerades.'
Five-year-old Lisabetta, Christine's niece, tiptoed over and touched Christine's hand to get her attention. 'There won't be any more fires, will there?' She pushed out her lower lip and seemed about to cry.
'Of course not,' Jean said. A lock of brown hair fell over his eyes and Christine felt a pang of sadness. Tall, thin, and serious, he looked exactly like his father, who'd been dead for several years.
'It happened because of the evil spirits at the palace,' Francesca said. 'You must not go there any more, Christine.'
'Don't start that again, Mama. You know I need the work.' She looked around the room. 'Only now I don't have any work.'
'Were you not copying a book about a saint for the queen?'
'The queen wanted to give it to the bride, her favorite lady-in-waiting. I don't think Catherine de Fastavarin will care to have it now, after the tragedy at her wedding ball. And the queen has probably forgotten about it.'
'Then what about those?' Francesca said, pointing to a stack of manuscript pages on Christine's desk.
'Why would anyone be interested in a book of instructions on housekeeping and morals?' Christine asked. 'It was only a whim that prompted the old Duchess of Orléans to ask me to make a copy for the queen's ladies. They certainly won't bother to read it now that the duchess is dead,' she sighed. 'She promised to pay me well. After what's happened, there won't be any payment, that's for sure.'
'You told me there are recipes there,' Francesca said. 'Now you can keep them, and we can try some.'
Christine had to laugh. 'Most of them are complicated. Not like your simple Italian cooking.'
'Nothing is too complicated for me,' Francesca sniffed. 'But the French use too many sauces.' She pointed her finger at her daughter and announced, 'I will try one, Cristina. Pick out something.'
'I prefer your Italian recipes, grand'maman,' Thomas said. 'And you can teach me all the Italian names. Then when you take me back to Italy I'll be able to talk to everybody.'
'Nobody's going back to Italy,' Christine said. 'But I'll try to find a recipe for you, Mama.'
'Good. Now we will go down and see if Georgette has recovered from her fright.'
They trooped out of the room. Christine set Goblin on the floor and laughed as she watched him run to catch up with them, his crooked tail waving and his ears flopping like little rags.
When they'd gone, she got up, dressed, and pondered her situation. For many years she and her family had been safe from any kind of want, for her father, the renowned Italian physician and astrologer Thomas de Pizan, had been an adviser to the present monarch's father, King Charles the Fifth. As a child, after her family had moved from Italy to Paris, she'd even lived at the palace. But then the old king died, and everything changed. The present king, Charles the Sixth, was only twelve at the time, too young to govern, and his uncles took over. These men, greedy and power-hungry, had little use for learned men like Thomas de Pizan, who lost much of his influence at the court and died several years later. Christine and her family were secure for a while, because her husband, Étienne, was well established as one of the royal secretaries. But then he died, and it was left to Christine to support her family. Using what she'd learned from her husband, she'd become a scribe. Francesca had objected, telling her that a woman should attend to her cooking and sewing, but she'd ignored this useless advice and found enough work to provide for their needs. Until now. She'd been counting on the money the Duchess of Orléans had promised to pay her for copying the manuscript on her desk.
She picked up the pages and leafed through them. The duchess hadn't said who the author was, but it was obvious he was well-to-do, and he seemed kindly enough, for he'd gone to the trouble of writing this tome for his fifteen-year-old bride, evidently an orphan who needed to learn how to manage his household. Christine pictured him sitting at his desk in a comfortable room, his young wife leaning over his shoulder as he wrote that he liked to see her dance and sing and tend the plants in her garden. Perhaps it was springtime and she had just come in bringing a bouquet of primroses and violets. He told her when to sow seeds and set out plants, and how to harvest and preserve herbs and vegetables. Or perhaps it was winter, and the couple sat in a tapestried room, close to a large fireplace where logs blazed and the flames threw light onto a crowd of embroidered ladies who seemed to glide around the room. The husband told his wife how she should care for him, especially whenever he came home from a journey, wet and cold and expecting to find his house in order and his every need attended to.
These were pretty images, and the man's instructions were appropriate for an elderly man who'd taken a young, inexperienced bride. But there were many pages devoted to religious instruction, decorum, and humility. Apparently the young woman needed an inordinate amount of guidance in these areas, especially concerning the requirement that wives obey their husbands in everything. Christine questioned that, but she told herself it was none of her business and vowed to find out who the author was and return his manuscript before she could brood on it further. She turned to the pages of recipes, found something simple for her mother to make, and hurried downstairs to tell her about it.
But she couldn't stop thinking about the wife whose behavior needed so much correction.CHAPTER 2
When the news of the king's illness spread throughout the kingdom, all true French people cried as though an only son had died, so much was the well-being of France attached to his health.
The Monk of Saint-Denis, Chronique du Religieux de Saint-Denis, contenant le règne de Charles VI de 1380 à 1422
The kitchen smelled of ashes, and the children danced around Georgette as she swept them into a corner. When Thomas began to taunt the hired girl with a silly poem about a servant who'd fallen down a well, Christine stamped her foot and cried, 'Stop that.'
Francesca, sitting at the table cutting carrots and cabbages to use in soup, tried not to smile.
'You are as bad as Thomas,' Christine said.
'There is no point in scolding him.' Francesca put down her knife, went to her youngest grandson, and gave him a hug.
Lisabetta picked up some of the ashes and smeared them on her face. 'I'll be like the burned men,' she announced.
Jean frowned at her and wiped the ashes off with his finger.
Christine sat on a stool next to the fireplace and drew Lisabetta onto her lap. As she hugged her, she thought of another child, the little prince she'd known when she'd lived at the palace. He'd been a happy, fun-loving boy, and when his father died and he became king, he'd seemed so strong and capable, even taking part in an important battle in Flanders when he was only fourteen, riding proudly with his troops, vanquishing the Flemish at Roosebeke, and laying siege to the city of Courtrai so his soldiers could bring home the golden spurs stolen from the French after their disastrous defeat there eighty years earlier. The people of France loved him then, and they still did. But everything had changed. He'd been struck down by an illness that had shattered his mind, and all of his subjects suffered because of it. To make matters worse, he'd participated in the lewd masquerade, and for many people that meant he'd become a fool as well as a madman. She'd seen for herself how much he'd changed when, a few days earlier, she'd found him walking in the palace gardens with his brother, wan and nervous, biting his fingernails down to the quick. Her heart ached for him.
Lisabetta jumped off her lap and ran to join Thomas, who was scampering around the room, pretending he was on fire. When the boy came close to Christine, she reached out, caught him in her arms, and held him tightly.
'I've got a recipe for you, Mama,' she said. 'I know you're going to buy fish at the market today, so you can make this simple soup. The old man writes that all you have to do is bray some almonds, boil them with powdered ginger and saffron, and pour the mixture over the fish after you've fried it. We'll have it for supper.'
'But you told me not to buy saffron, Cristina,' Francesca said.
'That's true, I did.' Christine frowned. 'Make it without the saffron.'
'The soup won't be any good without the saffron,' Thomas wailed. 'Why can't we have the saffron?' 'Saffron is expensive, and we have to be careful with expenses,' Christine said. 'I don't have any work.'
'Why do you not go to the old man who wrote the manuscript on your desk and see if he will pay you for the copy?' Francesca asked.
'I'd have to find him first. The duchess never told me anything about him. I don't even know his name.'
'I do,' said Georgette, who'd stopped her sweeping and stood resting her chin on the top of the broom handle as she followed every word of the conversation. 'I know his name.'
'What?' Christine cried. She jumped up from the stool, letting go of Thomas. 'How is that possible?' 'You're talking about those pages you brought home the day before the masquerade at the marriage ball, aren't you?' Georgette said.
Christine, so amazed she didn't know what to say, nodded.
'Well, I know who wrote them. My brother told me.'
'Mon Dieu! Who is he?'
'His name is Martin du Bois. He lives near here, in a big house on the corner of the rue des Rosiers and the rue des Escouffles.'
'How does Colin know?'
'He knows a boy who lives with him. The boy's sister is married to the old man. He wrote something for her, and he told her she could have it after he loaned it to the Duchess of Orléans for a while. That must be what you brought home.'
Georgette thought for a moment. 'Oh, something else,' she giggled. 'Colin says the wife told her husband that for all she cared the duchess could keep the silly book.'
'I can't believe she said that!' Christine exclaimed, although when she thought of the pages devoted to a wife's duty to obey her husband, she wasn't so sure.
'Well, I'm only telling you what Colin told me,' Georgette said as she started sweeping again. 'Colin always finds out about things.'
How true, Christine thought, remembering her own dealings with Georgette's brother, who ran errands for the queen and seemed to have his nose into everything. She said, 'I hope Colin knows what he's talking about, because I'm going to visit this man and return the manuscript. If it's not the right person, it will be very embarrassing.'
'You won't find him,' Georgette said. 'He's disappeared.'
'Disappeared? What are you talking about?'
'Martin du Bois is gone. No one knows where, not even his wife.'
Christine had to sit down again. 'Come over here, Georgette.'
Georgette set the broom against the wall, wiped her hands on her grimy apron, and stood in front of Christine, who asked, 'What other interesting bits of information do you have about this man?'
'Nothing. Just that he's gone.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "In the Shadow of the Enemy"
Copyright © 2018 Tania Bayard.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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