First chapter of THE DEVIL’S QUEEN by Jeanne Kalogridis:
At first glance he was an unremarkable man, short and stout with greying hair and the drab clothes of a commoner. I could not see his face from my vantage two floors above, but I watched him recoil as he emerged from the carriage and his foot first met the cobblestone; he signaled for his cane and reached for the coachman’s arm. Even with these aids, he moved gingerly, haltingly through the sultry morning, and I thought, aghast, He is a sick, aging man – nothing more.
Behind him, clouds had gathered early over the river, promising an afternoon storm, but for now the sun was not entirely occluded. Its rays slipped through gaps and reflected blindingly off the waters of the Loire.
I receded from the window to settle in my chair. I had wanted to dazzle my summoned guest, to charm him so he would not detect my nervousness, but I had no heart in those days for pretense. I sported mourning, black and plain, and looked anything but grand. I was a thick, unlovely creature, very worn and very sad.
Thank God they are only children, the midwife had muttered.
She had thought I was sleeping. But I had heard, and understood: A queen’s life was valued more than those of her daughters. And they had left behind siblings; the royal bloodline was safe. But had I not been drained of blood and hope, I would have slapped her. My heart was no less broken.
I had approached my final attempt at childbirth without trepidation; the process had always gone smoothly for me. I am strong and determined and have never feared pain. I had even chosen names – Victoire and Jeanne – for Ruggieri had predicted I would have girl twins. But he had not told me they would die.
The first infant was long in coming, so long that I and even the midwife grew anxious. I became too tired to sit in the birthing-chair.
After a day and half a night, Victoire arrived. She was the smallest infant I had ever seen, too weak to let go a proper wail. Her birth brought me no respite; Jeanne refused to appear. Hours of agony passed, until night became day again, and morning led to afternoon. The child’s body was so stubbornly situated that she would not pass; the decision was made to break her legs so that she could be pulled out without killing me.
There followed the midwife’s hand inside me and the dreadful muffled snap of tiny bones. I cried out at the sound, not at the pain. When Jeanne emerged dead, I would not look at her.
Her sickly twin lived three weeks. On the day Victoire, too, succumbed, a cold, prickling conviction settled over me: After all these years, Ruggieri’s spell was failing; my husband and surviving children were in mortal danger.
There was, as well, the quatrain in the great tome written by the prophet, the quatrain I feared predicted my darling Henri’s fate. I am dogged in the pursuit of answers, and I would not rest until I had learned the truth from the lips of the famed seer himself.
A knock came at the door, and the guard’s low voice, both of which drew me back to the present. At my reply, the door swung open and the guard and his limping charge entered. The former’s expression grew quizzical at finding me entirely alone, without my ladies to attend me; I had busied Diane elsewhere, and had dismissed even Madame Gondi. My conversation with my visitor was to be strictly private.
“Madame la Reine.” The seer’s accent betrayed his southern origins. He had a soft moon of a face and the gentlest of eyes. “Your Majesty.” Madame Gondi said that he had been born a Jew, but I saw no evidence of it in his features. Unsteady even with his cane, he nonetheless managed to doff his cap and execute a passable genuflection. His hair, long and tangled and thinning at the crown, hung forward to obscure his face. “I am honored and humbled that you would receive me,” he said. “My greatest desire is to be of service to you and to His Majesty in whatever manner most pleases you. Ask for my life, and it is yours.” His voice shook, and the hand that gripped the cap trembled. “If there is any question of impropriety, of heresy, I can only say that I am a good Catholic who has endeavored all my life to serve God. At his bidding, I wrote down the visions. They are sent by Him alone, and not some unclean spirit.”
I had heard that he had often been accused of consorting with devils, and had moved from village to village over the past several years to avoid arrest. Frail, vulnerable, he regarded me with hesitation. He had read my letter, yet he had no doubt heard of Henri and Diane’s hatred for the occult and for Protestants; perhaps he feared that he was walking into an inquisitional trap.
I hurried to put him at ease.
“I have no doubt of that, Monsieur de Nostredame,” I said warmly, smiling, and extended my hand. “That is why I have asked for your help. Thank you for traveling such a distance, in your discomfort, to see us. We are deeply grateful.” His body shuddered as fear unclenched it. He tottered forward and kissed my hand; his hair fell forward again, soft against my knuckles. His breath smelled of garlic.
I looked up at the guard. “That will be all,” I said, and when he lifted a brow – why would I be so eager to forsake propriety by dismissing him? – I subtly hardened my gaze until he nodded, bowed, and departed.
I was alone with the unlikely prophet.
Monsieur de Nostredame straightened and stepped back. As he did, his gaze fell upon the window, and the scene beyond; his nervousness vanished, replaced by a calm intensity. “Ah,” he said, as if to himself. “The children.”
I turned to see Edouard running after Margot and little Navarre on the grassy swath of courtyard, altogether ignoring the cries of the governess to slow down. “His Highness Prince Edouard,” I said by way of explanation, “likes to chase his little sister.” At five, Edouard was already unusually tall for his age.
“The two younger ones – the little boy and girl -- they appear to be twins, but I know that is not the case.”
“They are my daughter, Margot, and her cousin, Henri of Navarre. Little Henri, we call him, or sometimes Navarre, so as not to confuse him with the King.”
“The resemblance is remarkable,” he murmured.
“They are both three years old, Monsieur; Margot was born on the thirteenth of May, Navarre on the thirteenth of December.”
“Tied by fate,” he said, thoughtlessly, then glanced back at me.His eyes were too large for his face, like mine, but a clear, light grey. They possessed a child’s openness, and beneath their scrutiny, I felt uncharacteristic discomfort. “I had a son,” he said wistfully, “and a daughter.”
I opened my mouth to offer sympathy and say I had already heard of this. The most talented physician in all France, he had earned fame by saving many sick with plague – only to watch helplessly as his children and wife died of it.
But I had no chance to speak, for he continued. “I do not wish to seem an ogre, Madame, mentioning my own sorrow with you here dressed in mourning; I do so only to explain that I understand the nature of your grief. I recently learned that you mourn the loss of two little girls. There is no greater tragedy than the death of a child. I pray that God will ease your grief, and the King’s.”
“Thank you, Monsieur de Nostredame.” I changed the subject quickly, for his sympathy was so genuine, I feared I might cry if he said more. “Please.” I gestured at the chair set across from mine , and the footstool which had been placed there expressly for him. “You have suffered enough on my behalf already. Sit down, and I will tell you when the children were born.”
“You are too gracious, Your Majesty.”
He eased himself into the chair and settled his affected foot onto the little stool with a faint groan. He propped the cane next to him so that it remained within reach.
“Do you require paper and pen, Monsieur?”He tapped his brow with a finger. “No, I shall remember. Let us start with the eldest, then. The Dauphin, born the nineteeth of January, in the year 1544. To cast a proper chart, I need--” “—the hour and place,” I interrupted. Having a talent for calculation, I had already taught myself to cast charts, though I did not entirely trust my own interpretations – and I all too often hoped they were wrong. “No mother could ever forget such a thing, of course. Francois was born at the Chateau at Fontainebleau, a few minutes after four o’clock in the afternoon.”
“A few minutes after…” he echoed, and the finger that had thumped his brow began instead to massage it, as if he were pressing the fact into his memory. “Do you know how many minutes? Three, perhaps, or ten?” I frowned, trying to remember. “Fewer than ten. Unfortunately, I was exhausted at the time; I cannot be more precise.”
We did not speak of the girls, Elisabeth and Margot; under Salic law, a woman could not ascend the throne of France. For now, it was time to focus on the heirs – on Charles-Maximilien, born the twenty-seventh of June at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, in the year 1550, and on my darling Edouard-Alexandre. He was born the year after Charles, on the nineteenth of September, twenty minutes past midnight.
“Thank you, Madame la Reine,” Nostredame said, when I had finished. “I will give you my full report within two days. I have already done some preparations, since the dates of the boys’ births are widely known.”
He did not move to rise, as would be expected. He sat gazing on me with those clear, calm eyes, and in the silence that followed, I found my courage and my voice.
“I have evil dreams,” I said.
He seemed not at all surprised by this strange outburst.
“May I speak candidly, Madame?” he asked politely. Before I could answer, he continued, “You have astrologers. I am not the first to chart the children’s nativities. I will construct them, surely, but you did not call me here to do only that.”
“No,” I admitted. “I have read your book of prophecy.” I cleared my throat and recited the eighty-fifth quatrain, the one that had brought me to my knees when I first read it:
The young lion will overcome the old, in A field of combat in a single fight. He will Pierce his eyes in a golden cage, two Wounds in one, he then dies a cruel death.
“I write down what I must.” Monsieur de Nostredame’s gaze had grown guarded. “I do not presume to understand its meaning.”
“But I do.” I leaned forward, no longer able to hide my agitation. “My husband, the King – he is the lion. The older one. I dreamt…” I faltered, unwilling to put into words the horrifying vision in my head.
“Madame,” he said gently, “You and I understand each other well, I think – better than the rest of the world understands us. You and I see things others do not. Too much for our comfort.”
I turned my face from him and stared out the window at the garden, where Edouard and Margot and little Navarre chased each other round green hedges beneath a bright sun. In my mind’s eye, skulls were split and bodies pierced; men thrashed, drowning, in a swelling tide of blood.
“I don’t want to see anymore,” I said.
I don’t know how he knew. Perhaps he read it in my face, the way a sorcerer reads the lines of a palm; perhaps he had already consulted my natal stars, and read it in my ill-placed Mars. Perhaps he read it in my eyes, in the flash of knowing fear there when I uttered the eighty-fifth quatrain.
“The King will die,” I told him. “My Henri will die too young, a terrible death, unless something is done to stop it. You know this; you have written of it, in this poem. Tell me that I am right, Monsieur, and that you will help me to do whatever is necessary to prevent it. My husband is my life, my soul. If he dies, I will not want to live.”
I believed, those many years ago, that my dream had to do only with Henri. I had thought that his violent end would be the worst that could possibly happen to me, to his heirs, to France.
It is easy now to see how wrong I was. And foolish, to have been angered by the prophet’s calm words.
I write what God bids me, Madame la Reine. His will must be accomplished; I do not presume to intervene.
If God has sent you these visions, you must strive to discover why He has done so. You have the responsibility.
I had a responsibility to keep the King safe, I told him. I had a responsibility to our children.
Your heart misleads you, he said and shuddered as if gripped by invisible talons. When he spoke again, it was with another’s voice… another who was not altogether human. These children, he murmured, and I knew then that even the darkest secret could not be hidden from him. I pressed a palm against the bloodied pearl at my heart, as if the act could conceal the truth.
These children, their stars are marred. Madame la Reine, these children should not be.