Catherine kept several toy dogs in her house, three pugs, a coarse haired terrier and a whippet. For the most part they adored their mistress but one of the pugs, Antoine, was curious about the people in the house. She always had been and it was not unusual for her to rise from Catherine's bed and investigate, so when she found the girl asleep by the fire in the blue room, with a rug pulled tight about her shoulders the dog jumped up and burrowed her way in, lavishing attention on a bare calf muscle with her tongue.
Lia awoke with a start at the feeling of something wrapped up inside the rug she had slept in with her. She threw the rug, and the unfortunate dog, away, causing the dog to scream in fear, as she snatched up a knife and wedged herself into the corner of the inglenook fireplace in the room prepared to take on all comers, her breath panting and her nightgown, forced upon her by Catherine, slipped off one shoulder to bare one breast.
The scream attracted the attention of most everyone in the vicinity. Catherine was among the first to enter the room to find the young papess, wild haired and half naked, eyes bulging with fear, brandishing a knife at anyone who tried to come near her, and Antoine leaping at her mistress's legs to be picked up and soothed, which Catherine did absentmindedly.
The papess' companion, Michelotto, entered, wearing only the shirt he had slept in. Catherine noticed, with the same absent minded attention she gave the dog in her arms, that he had a rather fine pair of legs on him. She was, she later conceded, still mostly asleep.
“Lia,” he said softly, lifting the rug from where it had landed and stretching it between his hands to wrap around her, “Lia, it's me.”
Lia blinked a few times, still offering up the knife, “Mika?” She said as if she was unsure.
“You're safe here.” He said and wrapped the rug about her shoulders, pulling her, knife and all into his arms, “shush, my dove, you're safe, I'm here, shush.”
Catherine watched this dumbstruck as she scratched between Antoine's ears idly, she had seen Cesare and Etienne, the way they touched, the way they gravitated to each other and their eyes lingered, and now, as Michelotto pulled the papess' nightgown back around her neck, cradling her within the confines of the rug as she started to cry, Catherine realised with dawning horror that this was the same, that the papess and Michelotto had the same bond. She knew it was horror, because it could not end except with death. The Holy Maiden might have had lovers, such was irrelevant as long as she took the precautions to prevent a child, but to have a love, especially when her position was so tenuous, it would end in death. She just didn't know whose.
Catherine wasted no time and dressed quickly, if rather severely, before strapping on a mask and visiting one of the inns in the seedier part of the city, the inn where Angelo Pardi chose to live. Eostre had made a huge noise about the iniquities of such places and so ladies who called there, whether about iniquities or not, were required to wear masks that concealed their identity. Catherine only bothered because she could not be bear to listen to another of Eostre's sermons about her ill behaviour. She had other plans at the inn today, even if in the past, she had taken advantage of the nastier things it offered.
She bowed to the innkeep and he nodded, letting her know that the Pardi brothers were in residence, even if he, like everyone else, assumed she wanted the other brothers. After all what business did a lady have with Angelo, the eunuch?
It was Tonio, the younger, who opened the door. “Catherine,” he said, “just the girl I was about to send a runner for.” Catherine did not believe for an instant that that was true. “you can possibly get the boy out of bed and appreciating grief the way a normal person does, in the bottom of a bottle and the lap of a woman.”
“It is that I came to see him about.”
“I told you, Guiseppe.” Tonio called back into their apartment, “that all those ladies charmed by the tongue of our Angelo would come a calling, look it's Catherine Fitzroy come to keep him company.” Most of the common people called her Catherine Fitzroy and it had been a long year since it had bothered Catherine at all.
“Cate, I'm fine on my own.” Angelo called out from one of the back rooms. He came to the door, looking tired and wan, wearing only the shirt he slept in.
“I'm sure you are,” she said sweeping into the room with her head held high, “I'm not here about that, I'm come to steal you away, I have a visitor in the house and well,” she stopped, “bugger me if I can think what to do with her, foreign dignitaries and all – in my house.” She said this with a tone that suggested she would much rather have had rats. “In fact I can barely manage a conversation with her, and so I thought and I thought and I thought, who do i know who knows more than Cambrain to speak, and immediately thought of you, my dove, so come on, get dressed and you can come help me out, friend to friend.”
“Cate, I'm not fit for company, I was up all night.”
“Nonsense,” Catherine said breezing past him, “get dressed, splash some water upon your face, possibly run a comb through those curls, oh Tonio, wouldn't you kill for those curls.” Tonio laughed because when Catherine was like this, pretending to be the vapid lady of court she was a force of nature and could not be stopped. “And you can come play cards with this lady from some part of the Deici I can't pronounce and everyone's happy.”
“Cate,” he replied.
“Come along,” she said with a smile, and walked to his wardrobe, “I do like you in the brown, but the blue is so flattering,” she said throwing the blue jacket on the bed, then looked at him, “ah, me, Angel, you'd think I wasn't going to feed you the way you're behaving.”
“Cate,” he insisted.
“I know what's best for you,” she said, “after all I've proposed marriage three times, it's not my fault that you are too,” she stopped, “much a man to accept.” At that he smiled and she knew she had won. “I would never hurt you, Angel, but there is a time to wallow, and a time to gamble with ladies of the Deicin nobility that I can't talk to.”
Angelo got out of Catherine's small carriage with a frown at the driver, Catherine had, with her typical alacrity, kept a fur in the carriage for him, because Angelo hardly ever wore a cloak, only if it was snowing, and although the day was brisk it was clear. She had fussed until he had simply given in, climbing out of the carriage, under a wealth of black bear and scowled at everyone, the carriage driver; the groom, and the maid who opened the door to them with cups of steaming hot wine. Catherine took hers with a gracious smile but Angelo just walked past her and up the stairs to the main salon.
Catherine's guests were installed in the blue salon, they were a tall blonde man with a full lower lip but otherwise was incredibly lanky, and Angelo did not know him, the other sat in the inglenook with her dark head down over the dog that she lavished in her lap. “Lia?” He asked, “Lia?” He repeated as she looked up, and then seeing him a great smile crashed across her face, she pushed the dog to the floor and stood up in a rustle of over large and borrowed gown before she ran across the room to him.
“Angelo!” She enthused running into his arms. She was so much smaller than him that he cast off the bear skin as he lifted her up and twirled her around.
Behind them Catherine laughed, “See, Angel,” she said, using her pet name for him, “don't I always know what's best for you.” He didn't begrudge her a smirk at this at all.
“You must tell me everything,” Angelo said as he guided Lia to the couch, “to make up for the fact that I thought you were dead.”
And the young Papess smiled, it looked like her face would erupt from the very joy of it “of course,” she said, “there's so much to tell, I don't know where to begin.”
“Michelotto,” Catherine said from the door, “would you accompany me, now that your lady has another guard, to the tailors that we might arrange some clothes that fit her?”
Michelotto looked across at his young charge, talking animatedly to Angelo, and then to Catherine, then back to Lia, and the dress that swamped her, before nodding.
Michelotto, unlike Angelo, pulled a heavy cloak from the rack before he left the house, to climb into the carriage. “I know what you're going to say,” he said calmly, “that I should leave, that I should abandon her.”
Catherine arranged her gloved hands in her skirts, so that the squirrel fur stood stark against the silver blue fabric of the dress she wore. Her black cloak was gathered about her neck to show the ribbon tied there. Her mask still lay on the carriage seat. She stilled her face carefully before she spoke. “There are few weaknesses a woman in this court is allowed,” she said, “and love is not one of them. She has a crossroads before her, she can remain in your shadow a silly little girl waiting for Selene De Morangais to slit her throat one dark night, or she can become the Holy Maiden and gather her armies of men and angels to protect her.” She templed her hands in her lap. “She cannot rely upon you to protect her. She must protect herself.” She tilted her head and one lock of her perfectly coiffed hair fell down to her jaw, “We cannot afford love, we cannot afford weakness. If she was a princess she could take a lover, discreetly, until she married for her kingdom, but she cannot be discreet and the Papess. She must either give up her claim and wait for Selene to kill her, or accept what she is.”
Quietly he said.“You're a hard woman, Lady Catherine.”
“I am Cambrain.” She shrugged, “I live in the Rennish court, and amongst those vipers,” she laughed, “I'm nothing, just a bastard with an indulgent brother.” Her face calmed again, like the moon hiding itself behind a cloud, “train her, devote your life to her,” she looked down at the floor of the carriage, “advise her, but don't love her, it'll just get you both killed.” She stopped for a moment, the fingers of her gloved hand finding it's way to her lips, “better yet, if you truly want to protect her, kill you herself.” The pads of her gloved fingers were drawn to the purse of her lips, “we are allowed anything we like, we women of court, that we can hold in our hands, but not love. Power, greed, wealth, revenge, those we can have, but never love.” She took a deep breath then folded her hands in her lap again, “perhaps Miss Franco was right in her last discourse,” she laughed, “that love is a snare created by men that women might better do their bidding.” It was a false laugh but Michelotto didn't know what to do or say, so he did and said nothing.
Aoife made her decision as she stood in her chemise waiting for her maid to decide which dress she was going to wear for the day. She stood there in front of the fire and the window, appreciating the cold and brittle ice designs on the small glass window and the popping of the fireplace behind her. “Today,” she said, “I will have a small luncheon,” she said, “with the heretics, my husband neither allows them to flourish nor annihilates them, so I will understand their heresy that I might better understand my lord's lands.”
Madelon, upon hearing this, shook her head, and decided on the black wool gown. She piled her orange golden hair up around a small crown, and a high lace collar that sat around her face like a halo. She reached up under the heavy skirt and tied the garter to make sure her queen was perfect even as the other servants came in to tell her that the luncheon had been arranged. She took a quick breakfast of bread and strawberry conserve, served with a tea thick with honey, then took a short, brisk walk about the battlements that put colour in her cheeks before she settled into her salon, a room that Etienne had put aside especially for her, a small room with a large fireplace and comfortable new furniture, to read. She had had gathered, during her breakfast and constitutional walk, the fly sheets of the heretic argument that when the heretic lords came, as she knew they would not ignore her summons, she would at least know what they were talking about.
The two leaders, in Cambrai, of the Huguenot religion were Alinson and Angouleme, and they seemed convinced that she had invited them here for the sole purpose of their murder. Her salon was small but well equipped but both men had arrived with armed guards, and refused any offer she made to them of food and drink. “I would hardly be so crass as to invite you here,” she said offering the tea pot, “and then poison you when I have nothing to gain from it. I am not so new to court that I would be so blatant.”
“There are others in court who would take such opportunities.” Angouleme said, still refusing the tea.
“Of course, and I might be one of them, for all that you know, but I act on the behalf of my husband, he does not see your altered faith as a threat to Cambrai and I must reserve judgment until I know what it is. I am not a follower of your goddess so how you worship her cannot offend me.” She reached forward, her corset creaking under the movement where Madelon always fastened it too tightly, and lifted her tea, holding it under her nose, to breathe in it's scent. “Ah me,” she said emulating the common slang, “is there a greater rapture,” she smiled against the cup, “than a well made cup of tea?”
Alinson laughed. “I understand such,” he said, finally sitting down on the upholstered chair she had provided for him, “but please forgive me that I might not take of your fine tea, Majesty.”
“Certainly,” she said, “but you do not know what it is you're missing,” she smiled over the rim of the cup. “It is very fine tea, I did not invite you here, unfortunately, to discuss the wonders of tea, it is worth becoming queen for such a vintage,” she offered the joke to Alinson but it was Angouleme who laughed. “Tell me of your goddess, I would know your heresy, if it is such, that I might understand the people who espouse it that I might better represent all of the people of Cambrai to my husband.”
“Majesty, is it true that the Papess was not murdered? That she fled her and another died in her stead.” Alinson asked.
“She is currently in the care of the Galois,” Aoife conceded placing her half full cup on the table, “at the moment she is weakened by her long journey and the stress that the very people who were supposed to protect her tried to usurp her. My husband believes the word of his consort that she is the woman he knew, but at the same time he knows that the word of Cesare is not enough for the church so he has sent for Judith of Nantes to verify or deny her claim.”
“Do you think she might hear our arguments?” Angouleme asked, “I understand she is very well educated in the matters of faith, that she has grown up in the libraries of the Haga Sophia.”
“I could ask, I am not the master of her any more than I am of my husband, she may refuse you on strictest principle, but I will ask.” Aoife poured more tea into her cup and placed the teapot back unto the plate, “you really are missing out on a rather magnificent pot of tea, as you can see,” she poured a splash of milk into the cup, “I am drinking it, I can reassure you that it is not poisoned, or if it is, I will join you in the royal crypts.” She smiled again at them, “I am not so disingenuous that I would poison myself in hope I would cure myself later.”
“You walk a very fine line, majesty.” Alinson said calmly. “Asking to stand between Cambrai and the king.”
“I have no allegiances, or agenda to promote,” she said, “I am not of Cambrai therefore all I can be is Cambrai, a place between my husband and his people, whoever they might be, great or small, without allegiance or agenda.”
“Lady Eostre will not care for such.” Angouleme continued, “she has worked long and hard to consolidate the throne and it's absolute power.”
“I do not question that power,” Aoife replied calmly, “merely working to create an allegiance within Cambrai. To maintain absolute power my husband must distance himself from his nation, therefore someone must come between them. My husband does not love me, he will never love me, but I will bear his children and I will stand for Cambrai.”
Alinson hearing that reached forward and took one of the cups. “I would be honoured, majesty, to drink your tea and to tell you about our faith that you might represent us to our king.”
Eostre heard of her daughter in law's meeting and flew into a terrible rage. She smashed her coffee cup against the wall, staining the wood where it struck. She struck Gillonne driving her from the room. So it was with some trepidation that Danielle du Mauvais, her primary lady in waiting, entered the room. “Majesty, what is it that has so enraged, do you not know that such a distemper will simply ruin your complexion. Sit, majesty, and I shall burn chamomile in the grate, and place cold compresses on your cheeks to soothe you.”
“You silly girl,” Eostre snarled, “do you not realise what my stupid son has done? He has brought ruin on us all by marrying that creature.”
“Majesty.” Danielle said, “I do not understand.”
“Of course you don't,” Eostre sniped, “there is not a brain in that pretty head of yours that has no interest in cosmetics or jewels.” She whirled in a crackle of stiff black taffeta to stand over her fireplace. “She has invited the heretics into the house for lunch, and I am informed she has no intention to arrange their murder. She seeks to ally the Galois with the heretics. We stand alone in the known world, Hesse and Navarra at our throats seeking an excuse to bring their armies to our lands, and she espouses the heresy.”
“But Majesty,” Danielle started.
“Do not interrupt me, Danielle,” Eostre fumed, turning her head, “I must think of a way to salvage this, “I do not know which it would be better to murder, my daughter for this idiocy, or my son for bringing this upon us with this,” she stopped searching for the word, “this Ieran witch.” She tried to compose herself by pressing her gloved palms over the open panels of her skirt and the petticoat underneath but it failed. “I must salvage this, Danielle, I must save Cambrai from this stupidity.”
“Can you act against her, majesty?” Danielle asked.
“No, I cannot, until she has borne a child and we come into her bride price,” Eostre frowned, “truth be told we do need what we bargained for her.” She started to drum her fingernails upon the fireplace beside her face, “Danielle, bring me Castellani,” she said, “I cannot act against Alinson or the Queen, but Angouleme will make a powerful target.”
“But Majesty,” Danielle protested, “Castellani could not hit a barn door with his rifle if he stood next to it, I have heard you say so a hundred times.”
At that Eostre smiled, “I know,” she said, “but sometimes a botched job can be more powerful than an actual murder.” Then she smiled again, “of course, if Angouleme were to act against the royal family,” the smile slowly crawled across her cheek, “we could easily act against him with the law on our side.”
“I shall fetch you Castellani,” Danielle said, “but please madam, take some tea and rest, or you will be mottled for supper and your beauty wasted.”
Lia clapped her hands together with glee as she looked at Angelo noticing the card she had laid on the table. “I win,” she said, “again.” She pursed her lips and looked somewhat mischievous as she stretched out her legs under the table, “you're not letting me win just because you thought that I was dead, are you, because I'm sure we can fake your death to make it even.”
Angelo could not help but laugh at that, because as terrified as Lia clearly was, the way she constantly checked the windows and doors was proof enough of that, she hadn't changed at all. Antoine, Catherine's fat and lazy pug bitch was lolling on Lia's knee and yet she just reached over her to play cards, any resentment to the dog who had frightened her so this morning long forgiven in exchange for long wet licks from one and soft scritches behind the ear from the other. In fact according to Lia's story Angelo hadn't been sure which of the two had been most scared, Lia or Antoine. For the first time since she had come to Rennes, Lia smiled and Angelo knew that all was well with the world.