The Cathedral was full for the royal wedding. Ladies in heavy dresses of bright and brilliant colours sat with heads bowed and veiled in black Chantal lace, in a concession to the goddess who lived in this place. Beside them, with their hair oiled and shining, their doublets embroidered and embellished, sat their husbands looking like peacocks.
The cathedral was dressed as brilliantly as they were. Flowers, grown in hothouses despite the winter chill, were hanging from the pews and candelabrum, the thickest dark blood red carpet had been laid down the aisle and the air was heavy with chill and expensive incense made from myrhh, ambergris and dried lavender. It poured from the censers like a sweetly smelling fog, drifting and twining its way around the kneeling couple like an eerie premonition.
The groom was clear skinned and lovely, with hair haloed by the coloured glass to make it seem like licks of fire, bound back above his ears with twists of gold wire. He wore white and gold brocade and even his tights were a white colour to complement his golden boots. He wore his chain of office around his shoulders like an albatross.
The bride sat silent and still as a dead thing. Her gown was elaborate with gold and red and white flowers woven into the fabric and and the train tarried down the steps behind her. Her hair was the colour of old gold polished to a rosy glow, held back by a mesh of pearls and a crown of gold but her skin was like milk.
The ceremony had two officials, both the Arch prelate of the Triple Goddess, who stood with her hair held high with the two braided crowns of willow and laurel holding back her hair which was iron grey. She had shaved away her eyebrows and pushed back the line of her hair giving her an austere timelessness of smooth skin and no expression. The red velvet of her gown was split to reveal a dark pink satin underlay and bare feet that revealed her age with liver spots and curled yellow and broken nails.
Beside her, looking like a indigent, was the priest of the Elder god, wearing a shabby brown robe and a garland of winter foliage. There was a dark red mark that covered most of his face and neck and he wore his hair long, draped loose around his face. He would stay after the wedding as the bride's confessor.
The bride, Aoife, looked everywhere but at her groom, the king, Etienne, and in turn stared at the carpet he knelt on as if it knew the answers to the questions he didn't want to voice, and the objections he knew that if he raised would be yelled aloud.
In the transept the voices of the castrati were raised to the vaulted ceiling, eerie unearthly noises led by the famous Pardi brothers singing their hallowed hymns to heaven. Etienne couldn't help but notice how it sounded like screaming.
He looked around and there, sitting beside his mother, batting her lace fan against her face and looking away to the side of the radiating chapel, where the statuary of the Mother stood with a fat toddler at her feet and another in her arm with her faceless head turned towards it, was Cesare.
From a pretty boy Cesare had grown into a beautiful man, with dark deep set eyes and a splendid mouth with a chipped front tooth that gave his expression a certain naughtiness it had not had before. As Duke of Pavia in exile, and Lord of Lozari in exile, he wore solid black but it gave his olive skin a certain richness, as Etienne, the groom, looked at him, Cesare nodded with a ruesome smile and taking a deep breath, Etienne raised his head. “I accept.” He said after what had been a torturous silence.
There was a quiet muttering about the cathedral that might have been relief and might have been snickering, it was hard to tell from the apse.
The Queen Mother, Eostre, cast hard black eyes like daggers around the congregation and they fell silent.
Standing the king offered his hand to his queen and she took his hand helping her to stand under the weight of her bridal gown. She was as tall as he was, and as slender as a boy, with a square face and a handsome expression. She did not have a soft beauty but the sort of look that would give her admiration in later years, when her hair darkened and took on hints of silver to match the old gold.
She was milk pale, her skin sugar-dusted with freckles, which were set off by the rouge she wore and the way she held her strong chin aloft where skin showed above her white lace ruff. She stood as tall as her husband, and as broad. Her dress was tightly laced and her skirt lingered behind her, rustling like pines in the wind as she walked, rigid beside her husband, like him, her eyes cast straight forward. “I'll never love you.” He said calmly under his breath for only her to hear, “I'm truly sorry about that.”
If Aoife reacted to that she did not show her, every inch a princess, going to her coronation as queen, without flinch. She took a few steps and then in the same quiet tone said, “Love and marriage do not bedfellows make.”
“It was not my choice to make you unhappy.” He told her, face forward as they walked through the congregation towards the city.
“It was not my choice to marry a heathen for my country.” She replied, with her eyes forward and her head held firm.
“But here we are, my lady, here we are.”
Rennes was a fortified city built around the central palace of La Massardiere, or La Massif as it was known around the city. From the Cathedral to the Massif Etienne led his bride down the slush wet pavement of the Rue D'Enfer to their palanquin where they would be carried up the hill in front of the cities gathered populace. Along the tightly packed houses, built in such a way that they seemed to clamber over each other, there were people in drab clothes, dressed against the winter, with heavy shoes and boots in the dark coloured slush. They were cheering and chanting and throwing dried grain at the palanquin to wish them joy in their marriage, but neither the bride nor the groom spoke a single world to each other, sat facing the Massif with their faces held high as the people of Rennes cheered them onwards on their way.
Although the cheering was triumphant the smiles on the faces of the bride and groom were shallow and fake.
“Milady,” the young noble said bowing to Aoife from one knee, “I hope you find La Massif to your liking, I know it will be a big change from your father's clan hold.” He looked up at her and smiled with a handsome face, though perhaps his jaw was too strong for a very feminine face, his hair was a mass of black curls around his ears and he looked somewhat familiar to her. “There are pleasures that we simple folk of the Goddess cannot understand.” He held out his hand, “I have travelled many lands, My lady, including your own, and I speak your language well, if not fluently, I would be honoured if I could be your guide.”
Aoife's expression hardened looking at him. “I am not in the mood for so forward a lover.” She said and went to push past him, she had heard of the scandalous behaviour in Rennes, every one had.
“My lady,” the man said behind her, “I am castrati,” there was no shame in the way he said it, “I have no interest in such, just that I know your homeland, if only as a traveller, and my own mistress, though she live distant, would be disappointed in me if I did not befriend you for the stories you could tell me and I could tell her.” He offered her his hand, unlike most of them he did not wear embroidered silk and lace ruffs, just a simple wool and silk jacket with embroidered black crewel work around the cuffs.
“And who, sir, is your mistress?” She asked. “There are those I know not to ally myself with, I am new here, but I am not naïve to the machinations of such a court.”
The man smiled, “My mistress, majesty, is Veronica Franco, the poet, who has gone to Navarra in retreat to better promote her own writing, I am merely her factor here in Rennes, you may have heard of me, though I admit my name is not so well known as hers, I am Angelo Pardi.”
She narrowed her eyes and appraised him. “I would have thought him older than you, to have such adventures behind him.” They both spoke exquisitely formally.
“I was but a boy when I travelled the seas with Miss Franco,” he told her, “and I came here when she married, I still illustrate her work, but now it is over a distance. Your husband wishes to appoint me court artist but I have no interest in the position. I must admit, that even now, these ten years later, I am more interested in my mistress' opinion of me than his, and so when I learned that his majesty would wed and that his bride would be from Iera I guiltily thought that I might present myself to her to acquire her stories for my mistress that she might smile upon me.”
“Is not your goddess jealous of such devotion?” Aoife asked suddenly.
“I have no goddess but Veronica.” He answered calmly.
“You say you do not want to be my lover.” Aoife stated, “but yet you do not offer friendship.”
“My lady is clever, something this court will deny her, she does not need friends, she needs allies. My purpose is not altogether altruistic, it serves me no purpose if you are poisoned or killed before I garner such stories from you. I have no need of wealth as the heir to Miss Franco, I have no need of power for I would have great influence if I wished to pursue it. I have angered neither the royal Galois family, nor any of the major houses for I am insignificant. I cannot marry their daughters and I have no interest in their sons, my wealth is mine alone. I have allied myself to none here, but I would ally myself to you.”
“You don't know me.” She protested.
“Perhaps not,” he smiled, “but I know them.”
His smile that time was infectious and she smiled with him taking the hand he offered her, “I would be honoured to be such a guide, if I may be so forward as to call you by name, sir.”
“Certainly, my lady, I am Angelo and am uncomfortable with titles, but I must ask in exchange, is your name pronounced Eva as they are speaking it or Eefa? I would not anger such a powerful ally over so trivial a matter.”
“Eefa.” She answered, “and please, call me that. We can't be allies if we must couch our words in such formal speech. I, as a point only speak so when I don't know those who I speak to, or I am hoping someone will write down my words for history to remember.”
He nodded his head, “certainly, Aoife,” he said, “I find it takes a long time to decide what I am saying, but there are those here you must maintain it with, especially him.” He pointed over the revellers at the wedding reception at a burly man with short tan hair shot with grey and a well clipped silver beard, he was dressed handsomely but not with any great riches. Those who fluttered around him like butterflies however, wore the bright colours of the rainbow. “That's the Duc De Morangais, he is the father of both the First Priestess of the Curia and so far two mistresses of the Emperor of Hesse. His son is trying to arrange a marriage with the Queen of Lyonesse.” Aoife blinked, for she had heard that the Queen of Lyonesse would never marry, she had cast aside such things to maintain her throne. “He is a power equal to the king, and for now their aims coincide so he can be considered something of an ally.”
“I understand, I know such men.” She answered calmly, “even my father's court had it's share of them.”
“Now that,” He looked at the queen mother, “is the queen mother, Eostre.” He said, “She is from Ygrec, to the south east, near Ottoma.” He went to push past her, “if any here arranges your murder, it will be her, I would not be surprised if she didn't arrange the marriage with that in mind.” He smiled sweetly at the queen mother, in her black gown.
“This,” he said leading her to a young woman with clear skin in a pale yellow dress, her hair was loose down her back, apart from two lengths which were gathered into a knot held with a golden comb, she wore light rouge, but trusted in her skin's beauty to recommend her. “Majesty,” he said including the girl, “is Charlotte di Sauve, she was one of the queen mother's attendants before she fell from favour.”
The girl curtseyed, “Majesty.” She said quietly, “I am honoured to make your acquaintance.”
“And I yours, Carlotta.” She said using an affectionate version of her name, “I have only one lady waiting on me, perhaps later I might acquire others, perhaps,” she looked at Charlotte calmly, “even yourself.”
“As your majesty decides.” The girl said, “if I may be excused, the Duc de Guys is signalling for me. Perhaps he wishes to see if you have given me some gossip, he may be among the premier princes of the realm,” Charlotte said in a very conspiratorial tone, “but he adores gossip, it is said that he might ransom his lands for the proper piece of news.” She laughed and then vanished across the room to a young man with lank dark brown hair that was ill washed across the room, he had a straggly beard and a long thin face with poor complexion suggesting ill health.
“Charlotte,” Angelo said behind her, “is the mistress of de Morangais, his power protects her at court, and she has powerful allies, she has no real pretensions of her own towards power, but enjoys it's trappings. She's right about de Guys, he enjoys the intrigues of court than court itself, he tries not to get involved but he is a better spymaster than Maitre Rene who actually holds the position, two glasses of wine and he would spill all the secrets of the realm.”
“That's good to know.”
“He thinks himself sickly,” Angelo continued, “see how he drinks medicinal tea instead of wine, even at a celebration like this.” She nodded, he changed languages from Cambrain to that of Iera so no one else could understand what it was he said, “the queen mother made an attempt on his father's life, but he caught part of the poison in the gloves when he removed them from his father, he was made barely ill but he sees poison in everything.” He smiled and moved her on, making it look like they were pleasantly conversing and not discussing the cold hard politics of the court. “This court is very dangerous, do not count on your position as queen, even one that Etienne has no interest in, to save you. I don't think Etienne could save you if his mother turned against you. The Queen Mother should be treated as if she were the incarnation of the Ieran myth of the Morrigan, if not more dangerous.” He looked around pointed out a spray of winter flowers, “we cannot often speak like this without people assuming that we are plotting against them, even if we are.” She smiled at that, “they will find those who speak it to listen if we are too clumsy in such things.”
“Oh my,” Aoife said looking at the triptych. The first panel showed a great storm of clouds in the centre of which was a dark hole from which angels, their wings ripped asunder fell to a broken city. The third panel saw the seas rise up and throw out men who were half wish ripping their tails into legs so that they fell against the ruins of a silver city. The figures in both were silhouetted. The third image showed children, backs and legs bloody coming to the veiled image of the triple goddess. The whole was both beautiful and disturbing.
“Thank you.” Angelo said, “I thought I'd go mad painting it.” He went to walk on.
“Rapture,” she said calmly, “and the Eparkhiya, the Stregha and the Alfar, thrown from the sight of the Elder God.”
He looked at her calmly then, “I saw the Eparkhiya,” he said then walked on, clearly not wanting to say more than that.
Etienne was leaned back on a plush chair drinking wine as Cesare watched the room for him, sat beside his thigh, his hand resting softly on his knee. “What do you see?” Etienne asked him.
“Angelo has befriended your bride.” Cesare said, “it looks like she fell on her feet there.”
“Did you suggest that?” Etienne asked leaning forward to see, “he is your countryman and allegedly your man.”
“No,” Cesare replied, “you told me to let her find her feet before we either stepped in to protect her or control her. Angelo must have done it on his own, the only way I could control him would be in chains.”
“Hmmn, chains,” Etienne mused with a smile, “of course they'd look prettier on you, rabbit-love.”
“Can you be serious for a moment?” Cesare said batting the hand on his shoulder in mock affront, “things are changing and it might not work in our favour. I still say it might be worth arranging an accident for the entertainment value.” His eyes fell on Eostre across the room, “some of the passages in La Massif are very dangerous.”
“I know, Rabbit, but at the same time, when we know of such dangers we take extra care.” Etienne said resting his jaw on Cesare's shoulder. “And you know to have been here so long, with such dangers, you know, you have to be in control of them.” He nuzzled Cesare's ear as he spoke before whispering, “She's a canny old bitch, it would take a supreme effort to take her out. She eliminated everyone who stood between her and power, including, I think, my father, and I'm only king because it suits her.”
“I know, love” Cesare said, “It is terrible that this is your wedding night.” He reached across and began to openly stroke the inside of Etienne's knee, “I won't have you all to myself tonight, you'll have to go to her.” He sighed, “and it is I who loves you to distraction.”
Etienne laughed, “you love me because I am the other half of your soul, I imagine that if I wasn't you would have left me for Angelo years since.”
Cesare turned around so that his face was almost pressed against Etienne's, “love, you are most probably right,” and then kissed him.
Guy De Morangais watched the king kiss the exiled duke of Pavia with some distaste, though he wasn't sure if it was disgust that they were so openly deviant, or that they were just so open in their allegiances. Although ten years of hard work had revealed that neither could be turned against the other at all. Perhaps he even felt a little envious, for he himself was on his third wife and he could not stand the mousy creature even if she had lips like plums and the same freshness of a peach, and had brought with her from Thuringia a huge dowry. He knew that he would never know such devotion.
He also knew better than to trust that their open show of devotion was all that it was, Etienne was Eostre's son and that made him as dangerous as she was, and it was the court's open secret that she had killed de Morangais' second wife, Constance, of whom he had been fond, although nothing could be proved.
It seemed however, as he looked around the hall, that the heretic lords had come as well to celebrate the wedding. It had been six years since Fra Farrant had posted his arguments for debate, but the printers had circulated them and what had been a simple argument had turned into the Huguenot heresy. It seemed half the world had gone mad, eschewing bright colours and some aspects of the faith, the only reason, he decided, that he did not gather his own armies to destroy their taint was that they did worship the Triple goddess in their own way, unlike the new queen. Her open worship of a false god left a sour taste in his mouth.
Alinson, the head of the Huguenots was talking to his son, Roi, which on one hand made perfect sense, as Roi had pretensions to the throne of Lyonesse which was held by a Huguenot queen. The boy had his own machinations and as long as they did not cross those of his father, or the long term plans of his sisters' who were often greater for the long term plans of House de Morangais. Mariette and Selene were much better at politics, and held higher positions, than Roi ever would, even if he did marry the Queen of Lyonnesse.
There were better matches about for the boy, but he had, like his sister's had, to learn how to manage his own politics.
The youngest girl, Ariadne, had been groomed to be Etienne's bride, or whichever of his brothers had taken the throne, she would have married, and, like Eostre had done with her own son, he would have eliminated those brothers that stood between Ariadne and the throne. That would have given the de Morangais control of Hesse, through Mariette, the church through Selene and Cambrai through Ariadne. Ariadne would be presented to the new queen as a lady in waiting in the hope that she would net herself a fine husband and at the same time promote the new queen's politics from inside.
Ariadne was now sat with the Queen mother's ladies, giggling and laughing like geese, because Eostre liked her girls to be dim and at the first sight of any wit they fell into disgrace, Charlotte di Sauve had maintained her position longer than most simply because she played dumb so very well.
She sat there now, amongst the giggling girls, with Duchess Henriette and the young king's younger sister, Catherine Galois, the illegitimate girl. Comtesse Danielle de Mauvais was with them and normally such a gathering would make most of the politicians in the room quiver, but judging by the dirty laughter that was escaping the group, and the amount of the gold flecked liquor that the ladies preferred politics was the last thing that they were discussing.
Admiral Angouleme was with Alinson, which was not surprising as he had recently joined the heresy, and he was looking at Ariadne with a sort of hungry stare, if he was not a heretic he would suggest her to him, but he would not promote such a pairing, even unofficially, with a Huguenot. They were whispering.
Ariadne had noticed their attentions and said something which caused the gaggle of ladies to laugh loudly, perhaps it was simply a comment on his advanced age but the entire country knew that Ariadne's lovers died and that she kept their hearts in golden boxes, it suited her to have them think so too. It suited her father too, so when her latest lover, young Monsieur de Boniface walked into the room Guy did not question his presence. Others around the room, however, looked at him. “Majesties, Nobles all, I bring terrible news,” He said and everyone in the room went quiet and looked at him, “I have just received a raven from Muro with the most awful news.”
There was a moment of silence as the entire gathered noblesse looked at him and waited.
He took a deep breath. “Muro has fallen to the armies of Hesse,” he said and then closed his eyes before he said, “and the Papesse, Pieta, has been murdered.”