Paris, Autumn, 1587
THE FOG ROLLED THROUGH THE STREETS OF THE CITY, turning day into twilight. Even by mid- afternoon, the haze remained so thick that two companions strolling side by side could have lost each other in the mist.
Shops closed up early, citizens retreating behind locked shutters and doors. Nerves were stretched taut in a city that already seemed on the brink of revolution. The more superstitious declared that the fog was an omen of an impending disaster, the herald of some great approaching storm.
Others far bolder muttered that the fog was a sign of only one thing, that the witch they had tolerated in their midst for too long was practicing her foul sorcery again. That Italian sorceress, that devil’s daughter, that Dark Queen . . . Catherine de Medici, Dowager Queen of France, peered down from the heights of her astrological tower affixed to her private residence, the Hôtel de la Reine. The cold damp weather had settled deep into her aching muscles and joints, making her feel every one of her sixty- eight years. She dabbed her handkerchief, wiping a drop of moisture from her rheumy eyes. For once the obscurity of her vision could not be set down to her fading eyesight.
The fog blanketed everything. She could not see even into her own courtyard let alone the streets beyond her gates. But she found the heavy fog a mercy, a brief respite protecting her from all those sullen faces, those hate- filled eyes that followed her every time she left the Hôtel de La Reine to travel through the city to the Louvre.
It should not have bothered her, she thought. She ought to be accustomed to being hated and reviled. She had certainly experienced enough of loathing during her lifetime. She had only been eight years old the first time a mob had cried out for her blood, an orphaned heiress in Florence, a city seething with rebellion.
Catherine closed her eyes, and felt her mind slipping back across the years, as the old vision resurfaced, part memory, part nightmare.
Caterina’s small hands clutched at the rough stones of the palazzo walls. Her heart thudded with fear as she peeked down into the courtyard, the angry mob painted in hellish hues of fire and shadow in the flickering torchlight. “Give us the girl,” coarse voices roared. “Surrender the young witch. We want no more Medicis lording over us. We’ll hang her from the city walls.”
Past and present merged in Catherine’s mind, her imagination transposing Florentines with Parisians. If Paris ever rose against her, she had no difficulty picturing who the leader would be.
Her longtime enemy, the duc de Guise, handsome, arrogant, a warrior’s scar bisecting his cheek. François de Guise was the darling of Paris, their great Catholic hero. Catherine could envision so clearly how his aristocratic features would look etched in the firelight of the mob’s torches. A thick rope of a noose coiled in his elegant hands, she could see his smile, almost hear his silken threat.
“Soon, Your Grace. Soon . . .”
Catherine clutched at her throat and opened her eyes. She was behaving more and more like some foolish old woman, she thought. Brooding over the past or worrying about a future that might never come to pass.
De Guise and his army were camped far from Paris. Even the ambitious duke would not dare invade the city and strike openly against the king, no matter how weak and ineffectual her son Henry had become. No, de Guise certainly would not dare, Catherine assured herself.
At least, not yet . . .
She turned away from the tower window. The folds of her mantle and her dark skirts brushed against the rough stonework. She had long ago eschewed the brilliant silks and jewels that had delighted her in her youth. Since the death of her husband almost thirty years ago, she had worn nothing but black, her thin silver hair scraped beneath a bon grace cap, her only adornments a white ruff encircling her plump throat and a jeweled cross.
Today she had not even donned a farthingale, the tower chamber too small to allow for wide skirts. The room seemed crowded enough just with herself and the two other occupants. Perhaps because one of those occupants was such an alarming specimen, a tall dark- skinned man, his fierce countenance tattooed with strange symbols, colorful feathers adorning the thick braids of his hair.
One by one, he lit the candles placed at the points of a pentagram drawn on the floor. He moved silently. Catherine had never heard the native speak beyond a grunt. But the white man who knelt half- naked within the circle of candles struck Catherine as being more the savage.
The candlelight played over the cords of Xavier’s throat and sinewy shoulders, the dark dusting of hair on his bared chest. His long black hair fell forward, partly concealing the scar from a wound where someone must have come close to slitting his throat. His face was lean and weather- beaten, thick black brows jutting over deepset eyes, the blue- gray hue of an icy winter sea.
Catherine had consulted many astrologers and seers over the course of her lifetime, the clever and learned Ruggeri brothers, the venerable and ancient doctor, Nostradamus. There was nothing venerable about Xavier. He was a virile animal. A powerful wind blown in from distant lands few civilized Frenchmen would ever set eyes upon. He flexed his shoulders more like a man readying himself for battle than one preparing to sink into a trance. Then he nodded at his dark- skinned . . . Amanuensis? Guardian? Companion? Although Catherine had received the two men at her palace several times before, she had yet to determine the exact nature of their relationship.
Xavier’s nod sufficed to make the native retreat from the circle of candles and take up a small primitive-looking drum. He began to tap out a low beat. Xavier stretched out his arms and commenced a rhythmic chanting in some guttural native tongue.
Catherine was far too old and wise to be taken in by some exotic performance, by a mere display of masculine pulchritude. Yet she devoured Xavier with her gaze. The insistent beat of the drum, his deep chanting echoed through her, causing her heart to speed up, her sluggish blood to course through her veins.
Despite the chill of the day, she felt flushed and warm. She experienced a fluttering the like of which she had not known for years. Perhaps not since she had been a bride of fourteen, presented for the first time to the stalwart young prince who was to be her husband.
The drum and Xavier’s chant throbbed harder, faster, until Catherine felt as though her heart must burst from her chest. He flung back his head and emitted a savage cry, his eyes rolling white in their sockets.
Abruptly both the drum and Xavier fell silent. His arms dropped to his sides and he stared straight ahead, his eyes glazed, as sightless as though he had been struck blind. The only sound in the tower was an indrawn breath and Catherine was startled to realize it was hers. She pressed her hand to her thudding heart. Xavier had told her when he plunged into the deepest part of his trance, she could pose her questions. Questions that would help
her determine whether this man was the sorcerer he claimed to be or one of the cleverest frauds she had ever encountered. Catherine cleared her throat, endeavoring at the same time to clear her wits.
“Tell me what you see, monsieur,” she commanded.
“What lies ahead in the coming year?”
“A time of great change and upheaval,” Xavier replied in a deep monotone. “There will be a mighty battle, a war costly in bloodshed.”
“Bah!” Catherine snorted. “The civil war between the Catholics and those blasted Huguenots has been raging on forever and shows no promise of ending soon. Any fool could offer me such a vague prediction.”
“If you want better answers, ask better questions.” Catherine thought for a moment and then said, “Can you see anything regarding the duc de Guise? Will he ever march on Paris? Will he wrest control of the throne from my son?”
“King Henry is safe for now and will be as long as he never seeks to harm the duke. If His Majesty sheds so much as a drop of de Guise’s blood, Paris will rise up in revolt.”
“A clever answer, monsieur, but again, no great revelation. I have been warning my son about that very thing these past two years and more. Tell me something specific. Tell me . . .”
How much longer do I have? Will I be dead soon?
Catherine moistened her lips, but could not bring herself to ask. Did she really want to know the hour of her own death? It was her greatest dread, facing the emptiness of the grave, being forgotten, her life and power reduced to nothing but dust.
Instead she framed the one question that would be the true test of Xavier’s abilities.
“There is an object that I have long been searching for. Will I ever find it?”
Long moments passed without Xavier answering, beads of sweat gathering on his brow as he stared intently at something veiled from her gaze. Or feigned to do so. “Aha,” Catherine thought cynically. “So, my clever rogue. I have stumped even your ability to come up with a glib answer.”
She was on the verge of bringing this farce to a halt when Xavier replied, “No, you will never find the Book of Shadows.
It was destroyed in London.”
Catherine stiffened in shock. Few besides daughters of the earth like herself even knew of the existence of the Book of Shadows,
a compendium of ancient knowledge and dark secrets long lost to the present- day world. And fewer people still knew that Catherine’s desperate search for the book had stretched across the channel to England. “How?” she demanded. “How was the book destroyed?” “By fire. An Irishwoman named Catriona O’Hanlon, an emissary of the Lady of Faire Isle, battled with your agent, Ambroise Gautier. The O’Hanlon woman triumphed and set the book ablaze.”
Catherine emitted a soft cry. How could Xavier know about these things unless the man did indeed possess the sight? Not since the late Nostradamus had Catherine encountered anyone possessed of such great ability. But any elation she felt at acquiring such a powerful seer was dimmed by what Xavier was telling her.
It had been over a year since she had sent her spy Ambroise Gautier to England in quest of the book. As the weeks had stretched into months, Catherine had been nigh feverish in her impatience, but she had had more pressing matters to occupy her, the constant civil war that threatened to bankrupt the royal treasury, the rising power of the ambitious duc de Guise, her son Henry’s increasing instability, and her own failing health.
She had fretted, wondering if Gautier had acquired the Book of Shadows
and decided to keep it for himself. But the book would be useless to him. The grimoire was written in code, a language so ancient, most wise women would not be able to decipher it.
Catherine had continued to hope that Gautier would return to her with the book, eager to claim the generous reward she had offered him. Xavier’s words had extinguished that hope at last. Catherine wrapped her arms across her bosom to stem the tremors of emotion that coursed through her; bitter disappointment warred with red- hot fury, her rage directed at Ariane Cheney Deauville.
As the Lady of Faire Isle, Ariane was acclaimed as a leader among the daughters of the earth. Especially among those wise women who believed as Ariane did, that a daughter of the earth’s sole purpose was to be a healer, a beacon of light in an ignorant world.
As much as Catherine had been determined to acquire all that dark knowledge contained in the Book of Shadows,
Ariane had been just as bent upon seeing it destroyed. It appeared that Ariane had won.
Damn the woman for her ignorant naïveté and shortsightedness. Catherine’s very soul sickened when she thought of how she could have used that Book.
The grimoire was believed to have described weapons so fearsome, Catherine could easily have crushed the duc de Guise and any other enemy that threatened her. Spells so potent her youth and vigor could have been restored. Some said the Book of Shadows
even contained the answer to the riddle of life itself, the secret to immortality. Now all those powerful secrets were lost forever. Gone, all gone, taking all hope with them.
Excerpted from Twilight of a Queen by Susan Carroll. Copyright © 2009 by Susan Carroll. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.