The city of Rennes was built upon a confluence of two great rivers separating it into four parts, the Old City, the New City, and the two small islands La Cour and La Chapiteau. La Massif was in the New City, upon a hill overlooking the river and the city. The two islands were entirely different, linked to the other parts with bridges and barges. La Cour was home to the Hotel Guise and St Pieta's Abbey, apart from that it was a poor area that was favoured by the flower sellers and perfume maker's which gave the island a certain odour, that wasn't always pleasant for escaping the alembics. Le Chapiteau, however, was where the money lenders and the brothels stood, overlooked by the great Eglise de Montfaucon. It was a standing joke in Rennes that it's people could easily be accused of choosing the head over the heart because of it.
Catherine Galois lived in a manor on La Cour and no one could accuse her of choosing her heart over her head despite the common people's jokes.
Catherine Galois was the bastard sister of the King of Cambrai. She was a tall woman with dark brown hair and pale skin with dark red lips and brilliant blue eyes that spoke of a Stregha somewhere in her ancestry. Her mother had been a great beauty who had caught the eye of the old Queen before he had divorced his first queen , marrying Eostre to take control of the state of Ygrec, and they had continued their love affair openly for over ten years, until her mother's natural death. If Catherine had been a boy then perhaps both her and her mother would have had some terrible accident engineered by the queen, but Catherine had been a girl. The common folk called her La Delfine, but Etienne called her Cathy and trusted her counsel for she was one of the few people in court that did not covet his throne because she had no need of it.
From Etienne she had learned the truth of love, from Guy de Morangais she had learned the art of love, and from a baker in La Cour she had learned the pain of love.
Her illegitimacy allowed her luxuries that none of the Ladies of the great houses could afford, unlike Ariadne de Morangais who chose her lovers for what she could take from them and how it could help her and her house. Charlotte di Sauve's place at court was maintained by her lovers. Unlike those Catherine could take lovers as she wanted, casting them aside for whatever reason, and it allowed her friends of people who would normally not bother with royalty or bastards, let alone royal ones. She had a long correspondence with the poetess Veronica Franco who wrote beautiful stories of love and loss. She knew Fra Farrant who had accidentally created a heresy and the militant Huguenots wrote to her although she herself cared neither of those things. Despite being a great beauty and royally wealthy she was known as a woman of letters.
Now she stood on a small stool as she was laced into her corset, she stood there in her chemise bare foot as her maids pulled at the stays wondering why she had had that second slice of toast this morning. Her dress for the day hung facing her and her hair was dressed in a simple golden mesh and she knew she had to go and see Etienne today but she really did not want to. She was feeling lazy and wanted to retire back to her bed with the latest proofs of Veronica Franco's great work and a never ending pot of rose hip tea, with the occasional slice of toast spread with cream cheese and curls of fresh river salmon. She was just not in the mood for people today. With an oof her maid pulled the stays tight and had the gall to pat her on the ass and suggest that perhaps to maintain fashion she should eschew cake and wine for bread and water. Catherine sometimes favoured her maid's honesty, today was not one of those days.
Tomorrow the noblesse would gather in the cathedral for the official pronunciation of the Papess' murder, today the strongest, richest princes of the realm would gather in the war room and discuss what actions that Cambrai was to take.
Her page entered, his powdered wig, an affectation to cover the fact that the boy was newly bought and had had his hair cut away to remove him of lice, slipping on his head. “Milady Catherine,” he said trying not to shuffle in her presence. He was in awe of her, and she found that absolutely charming in the manner of small animals. “Sir Angelo Pardi brings tidings.”
cAtherine thought about it, taking the robe that her maid offered her, “I shall meet with him, but it's strange I thought he'd allied himself with the new queen.”
Angelo stood in the door, larger than life, with his black curls held by a ribbon, he wore red velvet jacket over a white silk vest, and tight white breeches. He was dressed like one of the lords of the stage, and she suspected that he had borrowed the clothes from one of his brothers. “As if my allegiances change the course of the court.” he said walking in, and poured himself a glass of wine, “I merely thought you would like the escort to La Massif, these are dangerous times.”
“I know better than to trust you, Angelo,” she said watching as he finished her breakfast with small quick bites, “I am not some country maiden to fall for your curls and dimples.”
Angelo laughed, “but who else will get you the early proofs of Veronica's writings?” She smiled with him, enjoying the baiting between them, “you know I have no interest in court except where it can aid me and thereby her.”
“Your blessed saint Veronica.” Catherine said, slightly jealous of Angelo's devotion to his mistress.
“Ah me, Catherine, she's not a saint, you should know that,” he took a bite of the thickly buttered bread with an impish look, “she's a goddess.”
“You only come here to abuse me,” she said twirling in a flash of batiste and lace, “and to eat my food, one wonders that the court does not, that perhaps Cesare forgets his most loyal servant.”
“Catherine,” he chided, “Cesare knows it is not to him that I am so loyal. Besides,” he lowered his eyes to look at her through his thick lashes, “you have the best cook in all of Rennes, and I would not insult her, for fear of her taking me across her lap with a wooden spoon.” It was a standing threat to Angelo that she had been making when he had been small enough to put across her knee and had stolen cakes fresh from the oven.
“She adores you,” Catherine said, “she often asks me why we don't marry.” It was something Catherine had asked him once herself, because he was a Castrato and she was just a bastard, no one had anything to lose in their union and they were thick as thieves, hanging on each other's sleeves.
“Ah me, my beloved Caterina,” he said saying her name in the Pavian manner, and dropping to one knee. “I have seen love,” he said, “true love, the soul destroying horror of true love, and how can I accept anything else, and you are not her, you are not the other half of my soul no matter how I would like it otherwise,” he looked around at the room and his impish grin returned with a flash of dimples, “I do love this house.”
“You sir,” Catherine said with the same good humour, “are a pig and a swine, and I would not have you to wed even if you did ask me, now let me dress and I shall accompany you to the palace, but first, my dove,” she said leaning forward so he could see the gathered bosom under her corset, “tell me, when you retired last night, was it with your brothers?”
“Ah me, first she tells me she would not marry me, and then she pictures me in bed with my brothers, what is a boy to do?” Catherine lifted a fan from the table to strike him mockingly with.
When they had stopped laughing Angelo softly said, “I do love you, Cat, you know that, don't you?”
“Of course, Angel,” she said, using her pet name for him, “otherwise I would have you killed.” And, even though she said it sweetly, that was the stark truth between them.
La Massif was a mess of warren passages, that often doubled back on themselves and servants in the process of making themselves look busy. It was a palace built for war and concessions to the comfort of it's inhabitants were made in the wooden panelling on the walls and heavy carpets that hung over some doors to keep out the drafts. Dowager Queen Eostre sat in her salon, a room with a small window that overlooked the upper cloister of the west wing, with her embroidery hoop hanging from her hands, her needle poised and her face caught in contemplation wondering exactly how these things had come to pass.
Her sitting room was a golden colour common in Ygrec made to look dirty by the grey stone walls of La Massif, and hard looking despite the soft frills and cushions. Her dog, Phoebe, lay at her feet, on it's back in front of the fire, appreciating the warmth even if it's mistress did not. Unlike it's mistress Phoebe was a simple creature who cared little for the world when she was warm and well fed, or even coddled about in her mistress' arms. She was a sweet animal, small enough to be carried, and long haired enough to be cute, but because of her mistress many of the maids were terrified of her, secretly whispering that her mistress had trained her to bite them. Eostre needed none to do her dirty work for her, she was perfectly capable of doing it herself.
Her embroidery hoop hanging uselessly from her hand Eostre wondered if she had not been usurped by this new queen, the charming and simple Aoife, and to complicate matters, if she had not arranged for it herself. It was too soon to rid herself of the girl, but soon, she knew, soon enough that Aoife would not have time to make allies enough to stand against her. Angelo Pardi was a pretty accessory but of no value to the court, and she could not imagine any others stepping to her aid when she was so patently heathen.
The marriage contract stated that Aoife could keep her faith on the condition that any children she had were baptised under the goddess, but Aoife was not simple enough that she might seduce her husband, and not clever enough to be guileless in her machinations. Perhaps, she wondered, pursing her lips in thought, if she eliminated the Pardi boy, but the Pardi boy had never wronged her and his paintings were truly wondrous.
She tapped the hoop against her knee, there was a solution here, she thought, she simply could not see it.
She stood up in a rustle of silk so heavy it sounded like the wind through the pines. It startled her maid, Gillonne, enough that she pricked herself with the needle she herself was embroidering with. Gillonne was a younger daughter of a minor house and was diligent in serving the Dowager. If she had any opinions she wisely kept them to herself. “Mistress,” Gillonne said, popping her finger into her mouth as she stood up, and bowed her head.
“Silly girl.” Eostre said quickly, almost instinctively. “I wish to visit an old acquaintance,” she said, “arrange a carriage for me.”
“At once, mistress,” Gillonne said, “might I know, perchance, where we are going?”
Eostre looked at her for a long moment before deciding the girl was guileless in this, if not in other things, “I am going to see the Venae witch who is said to talk to the dead, I have some questions, and if she cannot answer them then I will have her put to the stake.”
“By your will, mistress,” Gillonne said and Eostre wasn't sure if the tremor of fear she had seen in the girl was from the concept of a witch, or the fate promised her.
The house of the Venae witch was not what Eostre expected. It was a small manse along the river, for it was well known that Venae were drawn to water, but it was well kept, and the Venae witch herself, wore a dove grey lace veil that covered her, and her gown, from common view, suggesting that she was less human than most of her kind.
The Venae were the hybrid children of human and the Stregha, sea bound people who lived on an island to the west of the Deici. They were silvery blue with foam coloured eyes and hair and often when some woman, on either side, was ravished the Venae would be born, strange people half silver half human, with the same strange witch powers as their sire.
This Venae was said to be able to tell the future. It had been one of the few things that had saved her from burning as a witch, that she did not charge for her predictions, and kept entirely to herself.
Eostre was led into the Venae's chamber by a small Qin boy, such as one could easily purchase at the market, and urged to sit, and to avail herself of the wine. Gillonne, more nervous than her mistress, stood behind her with her hand on the chair, as if she might, at any moment, vanish.
“What would you have of me?” the shrouded Venae asked, her voice was like the ebbing of the tide.
“I would know the future of my son, he is lately married.”
The Venae nodded calmly. Eostre had heard that those Stregha and Venae who were cursed with future sight often went mad, and were controlled by those men and women clever enough to snap them up before they broke.
The Venae walked over to a small cabinet from which she pulled a small box, she set it down on the small table in front of the chair, “these are stones which allow me to foretell the future, I can not control the future that I see, I will not tell you what you want to hear, but what the stones tell me. Are you sure that this is what you wish?”
“Yes,” Eostre said.
She reached into the box and threw her handful unto the table, her hand was revealed from the veil and she had long silvery nails. The stones landed with a soft clatter and once they had settled she touched them, arranging them into a line.
“this is not for you,” the Venae said, “there is a girl, a queen,” she tilted her head slightly under veil, “but not your daughter, and she shall be live honoured, she shall die feared, she shall be greater than she been as a queen. She is coming, and everything will change in her wake.”
“You should know that such prophecies do not please me.” Eostre said.
The venae sighed and pulled out another stone, this one had a crack across it, revealing white striations underneath it. “Your son will grow old in his throne, his children will rule Cambrai for many years,” she ran her finger over the lined stones, “this I can see, but you will not be the one that they remember,” she rubbed the pad of her thumb over the crack in the stone, “there are things that are clouded, mysteries and lies obfuscate the future.” She threw down another two stones, “Arrange a hunt, that will take an ally and make things fall into place. I cannot tell you how it will be settled but it will.”
“You are honest, for a Venae.” Eostre said standing.
“You honour me, majesty,” the Venae said, curtseying under the veil, letting it drag across the tile floor. “I should also tell you, though this I have not seen through the stones, but through my own, more personal divinations, which show me not what I seek but what they will. Beware, madam, those gifts that appear to have no motive, for they may wound in ways that can not be predicted.” The Venae bowed her head again, “Goddess blessing upon you, majesty.” She said and went to leave.
“I don't understand.” Eostre said, “you will elucidate.”
The Venae tilted her head. “I cannot tell you what I do not know. I have told you all that was revealed to me. The stones are not the most detailed of methods of divination but they are the most reliable. Arrange a hunt, majesty, then come back to me, and I will tell you all that I can when the future is less obscured.”
“Dearly beloved,” the arch prelate said at the altar. She wore a black veil to show her mourning. “I truly wish that we were gathered under more joyous circumstances, perhaps for a birth or a wedding, or even a blessing. A conversion perhaps, or even a saint's day, but that is not why we are gathered here this day.”
Etienne reached beside him for Cesare's hand and squeezed it. He didn't turn around to look at the congregation, they all wore mourning grey and looked like a flock of pigeons gathered there, bobbing their heads in quiet gossip and laughter. He knew what they were about.
Some were notable for their presence, as all of the Huguenots had attended, and some for their absence, Angelo Pardi, for example had not come, preparing to mourn Lia separate from her incarnation as Papess. They didn't mourn the girl, as Angelo would, but the politcal entity who had stood under the triple throne.
Cesare had stood at the river, this morning, before dawn, and set loose a small paper sail boat with a candle upon it, for Lia, now he had to obey political protocol and attend as the king's consort although he was still deep in mourning, for he had adored her.
Aoife, at least, had the dignity to attend although she sat with the priest of her own faith, and she wore black instead of the traditional grey, it made her hair look burnished under it's veil, and her face was revealed under the simple twist of gold that held her veil in place.
“We are gathered to honour the Papess Pieta, third of her name,” The arch prelate turned to the altar, “beloved of the Goddess, the Holy Maiden herself. Some of you were honoured to have met her in her tenure as Holy Priestess,” she didn't turn back to the congregation but it was clear who she meant, “I was not similarly blessed despite her service lasting only twelve short years.” She took a deep breath past the lump in her throat, “and the horror that was wrought upon the church can not be borne, surely all men of faith would rise to arms in indignation against those who did her wrong, for she was merely a child, an arbiter so we can only believe that either Navarra or Hesse murdered her.”
The doors at the back opened but no one turned except a few who themselves had straggled in late, “Actually,” the girl said from the block of light at the door. She wore a simple peasant's cloak but it was fastened with a solid silver brooch with a strange design, at her word everyone turned to look at her. She was a simple featured girl with a wealth of straight black hair that fell loose down her back, “it appears that rumours of my death were exaggerated.”
Cesare stood up as soon as he saw her, “Lia?” he asked, and then pushed his way out of the pew, stepping over both Etienne and Eostre to do so, “Sweet goddess, Lia,?” and with a few sprinting steps he ran to her and wrapped his arms about her, “sweet goddess be blessed.”
“Who are you, child?” The prelate asked, taking a step down the dais but not enough to step unto the aisle.
“I am Lia,” she said and threw back her cloak to reveal a simple novice's smock, “I am the Papess Pieta, third of her name. I am the Holy Maiden, and it seems that you have gathered under bad information,” she said and her voice was like a thundercrack, “it was not Navarra or Hesse that tried to kill me,” a tall thin man with his hood around his neck revealing a shock of blonde hair entered and moved forward to stand beside her. “My poor maid Victoria was killed in my place, but the political machinations that saw me dead were engineered by the Curia.”
The collective gasp from the congregation did not need to be faked.
“I stand before you now and demand that you stand against the Curia and thee fak Papess that they have elected upon news of my death, Selene de Morangais.”
“What proof have you that it was the Curia that ordered such a horror?” The Arch prelate, herself a staunch follower of the Curia. “That you even are who you claim to be?”
“Me, most holy,” the blonde man said, “I am the man ordered to kill her.”
There was a silence to hear the pindrop
“Send to Nantes,” Lia said, “bring forth the Biscop who knows me well and is said to be able to see through dissemblance,” it was well known that the Biscop of Nantes could neither tell a lie or permit one to be told in her presence, it was almost proverbial. “For now you must take my word and the word of Cesare D'Aurro, who knew me in Pavia, though that was ten years past, and this man,” she gestured to her travelling companion, “who is known throughout the world as Michelotto.”
There was a clatter as someone dropped a prayerbook in surprise at that name.
“What shall we do, Majesty?” And although the Arch prelate addressed the question to Etienne everyone knew she spoke to Eostre.
“Send to Nantes.” Etienne said firmly, “until then we shall treat this girl as she claims to be, but if she is found false then she will suffer. If she is who she claims then we shall gather against the Curia and the Church with the aid of the Holy See, for this is treason, if her words are truth.” Cesare looked at Etienne, speaking as king and not his lover, and knew that Etienne could not commit himself to war so quickly against the De Morangais, but that this would open a rift between him and the most powerful family in Cambrai.