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Chained by War and Love

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 Prologue: The Scythe of Cronos

May 17, 1536, the Tower of London, London, England

"Viciousness has Henry's face," stated Anne Boleyn, the condemned Queen of England. "Henry is killing all of us because I haven't given him a son."

Assembling all her strength, she compelled herself to stand up from the bed. Fearing that she would be too late, she dashed across the queen's chambers like a scared doe running for its life from a predator. Dragging a chair to the window, Anne climbed onto it and peered out.

At this moment, George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, ascended the wooden platform with impressive firmness. Swathed in black cloth, the scaffold was guarded by arquebusiers. Pointing to the White Tower, where she was incarcerated, George said something to Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and Anne's heart constricted at the realization that he thought of her.

At the sight of him addressing the spectators, Anne braced herself against the tide of bereft nothingness. She strained her sight to behold her brother's final moments.

She regretted that she could not hear George's speech. She saw that there was a peculiar air of serene tranquility about him, tinged with a cast of melancholy. Yet, his eyes were so bright, almost feverish, as if he were dying a death by burning with the resignation of a Christian martyr.

"Christian men, I'm born and judged under the law, and die under the law, and the law has condemned me. Masters all, I haven't come here to preach, but to die, for I have deserved to die if had twenty lives, for I'm a wretched sinner, and I have sinned shamefully."

As he paused, the crowd that had gathered on Tower Green didn't insult and curse him. A sliver of sadness veiled their features, a leaden weight of unsaid words upon their lips. Had the folk's sentiments towards the Boleyns softened? She'd believed that the spectators would be happy to see the alleged traitors dead. But as her brother went on, a pall of gloom shrouded everyone.

"I have known no man so evil, and to rehearse my sins openly would be no pleasure for you to hear them, nor yet for me to rehearse them, for God knows all. Therefore, masters all, I pray you take heed by me, and especially my lords and gentlemen of the court which I have been among, take heed by me and beware of such a fall. And I pray to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, three persons and one God, that my death may be an example to you all. And beware, trust not in the vanity of the world, and especially in the flattering of the court."

"What is he saying?" Anne asked herself, her scrutiny riveted on him. "What?"

Visions of their childhood flitted through her consciousness. The three Boleyn children running through Hever's gardens … George hugging Anne after her return from France… Her brother teasing her and mocking her skills at chess until Anne had sputtered... Again, George joking that the Boleyns would always have to fight against gory hordes of relentless foes.

Something vivid had emerged in those days, prophetic like a solar eclipse. Perhaps there was an appointed time for every affair under the heavens, as justice was as fleeting as the wind.

Stilling for a split second once more, George moved to the closure. The queen yearned for time to cease, but instead, it ticked like a slow march of mortality.

"I cry God mercy, and ask the world forgiveness, as willingly as I would have forgiveness of God; and if I have offended any man that is not here how, either in thought, word or deed, and if you hear any such, I pray you heartily on my behalf, pray them to forgive me for God's sake. And yet, men do come and say that I have been a setter forth of the word of God, and one that have favored the Gospel of Christ; and because I would not that God's word should be slandered by me, I say to you all, that if I had followed God's word in deed as I did read it and set it forth to my power, I had not come to this. I did read the Gospel of Christ, but I did not follow it; if I had, I had been a living man among you: therefore I pray you, masters all, for God's sake stick to the truth and follow it, for one good follower is worth three readers, as God knows."

His expression devoid of earthly trappings, the Viscount of Rochford knelt on the block, courageously and with the grace of an elegant courtier. Perhaps, impressed by the dignity of his farewell, the throng broke into loud cries, their faces anything but hateful. The prisoner veered one sad glance of bitter anguish towards the White Tower, as if remembering his sister.

"I'm here, George," whispered Anne, tears moistening her eyes. "I'm with you…"

At the drop of a hat, the executioner raised his hand. The axe flashed and descended like the hatchet of destiny. The head was severed from the torso with one clean strike.

Antoine de Castelnau, Bishop of Tarbes and the French ambassador to England, winced at the sight of the blood spurting out of the militated body. It was not the first time he had attended an execution, but this was awful, for they were all innocent. As his master, King François had said in his codified message, the English king had stepped on the path of unholy darkness.

At the same time, a horrified Anne agonized over the tragedy. "It flashed like the scythe of Cronos." Even in such minutes, her magnificent intelligence didn't sleep, flowing inside her head in whimsical patterns. "Cronus was King of the Elysian Fields, where admission was reserved for heroes. So, my brother shall become a hero in heaven."

Seizing it with his left hand, the axeman held the head aloft, shouting to the assemblage, "Behold the head of a traitor!" Surprisingly, the folks observed it with mournful eyes.

Her sobs rising like sails, the queen crossed herself. "Rest in peace, sweet brother."

Her heart broke into numberless smithereens as the two pieces left of George were taken away. Forcing herself to control her emotions, Anne watched the ghastly spectacle until every of her alleged paramours – Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, Francis Weston, and William Brereton – were dead. Littered with their corpses, the scaffold was now deluged with innocent blood.

Finally, the tiny thread of her control broke like a tree limb under too much weight. The snap impelled her to howl with horror, and she slipped from the chair to the floor.

"Oh God!" sobbed a distraught Anne, her face a mask of excruciating agony, wet from tears. "Oh God!" She clutched her chest, as if she were having palpitations.

All of the queen's ladies had huddled in the corner, staying at a distance from her since dawn. They had all been handpicked by Thomas Cromwell to act as his spies, but some of them emphasized with her. She was grateful that they had left her to her grief.

Her tear-filled eyes flashed like those of a Cyclop. "Henry! It is your entire fault! Your lust for that Seymour strumpet killed them all. The Titan Cronus used a scythe to castrate and depose Uranus, his father, and I would gladly have done the same to you."

A cavalcade of remembrances of Elizabeth resurfaced in her head, reopening old wounds. Henry had blamed Anne for giving him a daughter, even though their girl had never been a failure. When she'd been pregnant with Elizabeth, the astrologers Anne and Henry had consulted had assured them that the baby would be a boy, but they had all erred.

Nevertheless, one old woman had claimed: "Your child is divinely gifted. Blessed by the Lord, and is destined to bring Golden Age to England." Based on her daughter's extraordinary intellect and precociousness, Anne was inclined to believe that prophecy. Elizabeth would attain such a distinguished rank in the earthly realm that her greatness would ring out through all the impermanence of time. That astrologer must be right!

Another recollection stirred in her consciousness. When they had been out of anyone's earshot, that woman had apprised her of something that Anne had dismissed as baloney back then. Now the odd oration echoed through her head like the utterance of a messiah: "Two kings! One is your pain and ruin, the other is your joy and life". Nonsense, so she dismissed it again.

Scrubbing the tears away, the doomed queen rose to her feet with a titanic effort. She trudged to the bed, ribbons of her sorrow intertwining with those of her prayer for the dead men.

"Sleep in peace," Anne pronounced quietly as she reclined onto the pillows. "You are all innocent victims of a libertine and a monster. You shall welcome me in heaven tomorrow."

Chapter Text

Chapter 1: The Herculean Hands of Fate

May 18, 1536, the Tower of London, London, England

“Madame,” called King Henry of England sternly, as he entered the queen’s chambers.

The incisive steel in that familiar voice sent a tremor through Anne Boleyn.  She rose to her feet and stared at the man who was still her husband, for, their marriage had not been annulled, at least not yet.  She had heard that the validity of their union was being investigated, so she would not be surprised if one day, Archbishop Cranmer came to her with the sad tidbits. 

“Please, leave us,” Anne instructed her ladies, who all scurried out of the room.

The King and Queen of England remained alone in the same apartments where, three years earlier, they had spent the night before Anne’s coronation.  On the day of her arrest, she had anticipated to be thrown in the dungeons, only to be relieved upon learning that she would be lodged here.  The room was Spartan in its furnishings, but tidy and spacious.  A dark walnut chest of drawers sat in a corner and matching chairs in the center; a large oak bed, swathed in black satin sheets, was positioned to the right of the east-facing window, which looked down to Tower Green.

Splendidly habited in a doublet of crimson velvet, the placard and sleeves of which were wrought with gold, the English monarch looked every inch a majestic royal.  Over his doublet, he wore a mantle of red brocade, trimmed with ermine and decorated with the collar of the Order of the Garter.  His red silk hose matched the ensemble, as did his girdle, ornamented with diamonds and rubies.  His cap of scarlet damask was adorned with diamonds and a small red plume.

Although a mere three weeks had passed since their last meeting, Henry had transmuted into someone else.  His broad countenance had a handsome and burly look in the thoroughly English way, his thick, red hair like a lion’s mane which Anne had once compared jokingly to the flames of a conflagration.  A savage fierceness was etched into his every sinew, every breath, and every pore of his skin.  His stature and deportment were kingly in the extreme, though tinctured in the hues of brutality, lurking in his aquamarine eyes, somewhat small but penetrating.

“Your Majesty,” the queen greeted.

The monarch ignored that she did not curtsey to him in accordance with the protocol.  His gait heavy, he lumbered across the room to the small window, from where she had witnessed the executions of other men unjustly condemned yesterday.  As he halted several feet away from her, he glared at her fiercely, as if the darkness had broken from the confines of Hades.

Has the ferociousness I see now in him always been there?  Or was I so in love with him that I was completely blind?  Such were Anne’s thoughts as she eyed her homicidal husband.  He was no longer her knight – no longer her dearest Hal who had fought against the whole world and torn the country apart to wed her.  The irredeemable evil of the deeds he had perpetrated to get rid of her had destroyed Anne and her beloved brother.  Presently, Henry was Anne’s mortal foe.

Meanwhile, Henry viewed his unwanted spouse from top to toe.  Anne had lost weight, but she was not broken: her inner strength shone in her eyes like a beacon in the night.  Shadowed by a sense of impending doom, her unconventionally beautiful features immeasurably truer and deeper than the fleeting life which she had lived up to that time.  With its long, open, pendent sleeves, her plain gown of gray-colored damask set off the queen’s ghostly pale countenance.

A bellicose Anne commented, “Ah, crimson!  It suits you best!  In this attire, Your Majesty looks like a fiery dragon that lures prey into its lair.  No wonder that I think so, for you have stained your hands in the blood of many innocents, one of them being my own brother.”

“Your tongue is too poisonous,” Henry hissed like a snake.

With glacial arrogance, she articulated, “Sorry if I displeased you, dearest sire.  All gods who receive homage are cruel and dispense suffering without reason, because, otherwise, they wouldn’t be worshipped.  You became almost God after England’s break with the Vicar of Rome.”  Her voice rose an octave.  “You think that you can do whatever you want.  That is why you are hell bent on killing me in order to marry your slut.” 

“Unfortunately, you will live,” spat the monarch.

At first, she was astounded and then horrified.  “No!  I’ve prepared for death!”

Grudgingly, he enlightened, “Yesterday, there were riots against your sentence.” 

Sheer bewilderment fluttered across her visage.  “An uprising?” 

His fists clenched tightly.  “Yes.  My own subjects dared act against me!”  He furrowed at the unpalatable memory that his subjects doubted the charges against the woman whom he hated.   Monotonously, he voiced the short tale about the events which shocked him to the core. 

She stressed, “They understand that if a queen cannot have a fair trial, then no one can.”

A spontaneous rush of euphoria swept across the queen’s obliterated world.  She realized why the witnesses of the recent executions had not cheered the deaths of her brother and other men unjustly condemned.  After I had displaced Catherine as Henry’s queen, the entirety of England seemed to have hated me like the worst pestilence.  Now they have developed sympathy for me rather than continuing to harbor grudges against me.  Currents of joy inundated Anne’s soul. 

The monarch’s words snapped his wife out of her reverie.  “I had to hastily convene Privy Council.  Master Cromwell insisted that I spare you on certain terms.  After careful consideration of the matter, I decided to let you live against my better judgment.” 

Perverted mirth rose from the bottom of her soul, and she quaked with wild laughter that scalded her throat.  “Cromwell recommended that you do so, didn’t he?  Really?  The very man whom you employed to manufacture these ludicrous and abominable charges?” 

The ruler’s features flushed with fury, his angry gaze glittering under the reddish, bristling brows.  “Shut your mouth, you filthy strumpet!  You must be prostrate with gratitude that I allow you to live out the rest of your days instead of sending you to hell where you belong.” 

Anne seated herself on the bed, and snapped defiantly, “I have never betrayed you.” 

“Your fathomless black eyes of a demoness will not bewitch me again.”  His voice fell to a dark rumble.  “Cromwell told me that you had slept with more than one hundred men.” 

“How can a queen have so many lovers without anyone noticing it?” 

Her laugh scraped over his nerves like a hot blade.  “I would not laugh, if I were you.” 

King Henry stepped to the bed, and, instantly, his ferociousness was magnified tenfold by his proximity to her.  Uncontainable ire etched into their expressions, they glared at one another like a pair of devils.  Such deep and portentous silence ensued that the whisper of the guards’ footsteps outside the queen’s chambers was thunderous by contrast.

His voice forcibly composed, he uttered, “Agree that the marriage never was, give up all rights.  You can take Elizabeth, you will be cared for.  Set me free.  Obey me, you adulteress!” 

Finally, she realized that she would fail to persuade him of her innocence.  “Our daughter shall not be a bastard.  You promised marriage and the crown.  Now you try to dance out of your promise.  I shall not have it!”  Her voice rose to a crescendo.  “If you want to be free of me, Elizabeth will remain legitimate.  She will be your heir until that Seymour wench produces a boy.”

Her acrid grin was like a dagger into the gut.  “I cannot be sure that she is mine.”

His spouse trembled with a horrible indignation that propelled her to climb to her feet and close the gap between them.  “How dare you disparage your own child, Henry?  She was conceived after our return from Calais, where you took my virginity and saw the white sheets stained with blood.  God and you are my witnesses that I was a true maid when you bedded me for the first time!  In England, we were always together, and we spent many nights together.  Furthermore, Elizabeth is a Tudor through and through, although she has my eyes and spirit.” 

“Indeed, her hair is like my mother’s and mine.” 

Artfully, the queen applied another tactic that appeared to be working well.  “You do not believe me that I’ve always been faithful to you.  Let it be so.  But you cannot lie to yourself that Elizabeth is not yours.  To deny her paternity means to doubt your own virility.”

A long, tense silence stretched between them, lengthening almost into a lifetime.

The reminiscences about his first time with Anne flashed through his head.  When Henry had returned to his rooms after the banquet in honor of the French king, he had found there a naked Anne.  After disrobing himself and joining her in the bed, he had kissed and caressed her with a lingering gentleness, worshiping the feel of her soft lips that parted for him.  Her words spoken back then echoed through Henry’s consciousness like a whisper of nothing, for Anne had failed in her main promise: “Now, my love, let me conceive, and we will have a son.” 

Images of their coupling flickered in the monarch’s mind.  They had kissed wildly, almost violently, bruising each other’s lips and gasping for air.  He had taken Anne with all his passion and love, primeval and vehement, colored with his expectation for a precious son out of her magnificent body.  She had not become pregnant on their first night, but soon after their return from Calais, her womb had been blessed with the fruit of their amorous endeavors.  To the monarch’s dismay, Anne had later deceived him and birthed him a daughter, but he remembered the resistance upon entering her sanctum of feminity.  I did see the blood on the sheets, he recalled.

Her claim about her virginity was a true one.  “Yes.” 

“Henry,” she addressed him gently, rewarding his hostility with artificial softness.  “You might hate me, but our Elizabeth… She is too small to suffer from the stigma of bastardy.  Have our union annulled while keeping her legitimate: Archbishop Cranmer may declare that we entered into our marriage in good faith.  I shall say nothing against it and disappear from your life forever.” 

“Very well, Anne,” he acquiesced after a tense pause.  “I’ll spare your worthless life, but you must depart from my kingdom.  I do not care where you will go.”  His features twisted into a truculent scowl.  “Elizabeth cannot be under your deleterious influence.  I shall not allow you to poison her innocent mind against me.  I do not want you to plot behind my back either.” 

“To be separated from my dear girl?”  Swallowing her sob, she croaked with resignation, “Well, if she remains a princess of the blood, then you have my consent.” 

He nodded.  “Cranmer will bring you all the papers soon.” 

As their gazes locked, the monarch screwed up his face in disgust, as if her mere presence carried the stench of a gutter.  He then pivoted like a savage whirlwind and stomped to the exit.

Her steady voice halted him as Anne affirmed, “Before you go, perhaps you should hear one thing.  I lied to you, Henry.”  As he swiveled to face her, she taunted in a sing-song intonation, “I said that I loved you, but I lied.  I was untrue.  Untrue with many.”

Was she confessing to her crimes after all of her desperate, staunch denials?  The words erupted from his mouth before he caught them.  “That is a lie!” 

Her falsehood aimed at hurting her tormentor.  “Indeed, you took my virginity.  However, later, I was with all of them.”  Her voice rose to a mechanical growl, a vocal nail drawn down the chalkboard of her life.  “With half of your court, guard, grooms, with stable hands, look for your life at every man that ever knew me, and wonder if I did not find him a better man than you!” 

Dashing to her like a hyena running to an antelope, the ruler slapped her hard across the face and shoved her to the floor.  “You whore!”  It was the first time he had handled her roughly.  

She staggered back and fell, but swiftly rose.  She glared at him like the Goddess Athena who was furnished with a suit of armor and weapons.  “Such rough handling of your own wife!  Well, I should not be astounded.  Your version of love – I doubt you know what real love is – has always been the bashful selfishness of a spoiled brat who considers women his toys.” 

“Traitor!”  His loathing was so intense that a sheen of sweat burst out upon his brow.

Her belligerent eyes brightened with a prophetic light.  “Nevertheless, Elizabeth is yours, and you will see her grow.  Get a son off that pale, hypocritical harlot, and hope that her weak brats will live!  But my girl shall reign after you!  Yes, Elizabeth, the daughter of Anne the Whore and Henry the Tyrant obsessed with sons!  She will be a greater ruler than any king of yours!” 

“No!”  The monarch shrank away from her, as if she had just cursed him.

Climbing to her feet, his spouse promulgated, “Queen Elizabeth!  The most illustrious monarch who has ever ruled England!  My daughter shall usher the country into a Golden Age!”

A profoundly shocked Henry blinked, for once his voice forsaking him.  At this instant, his visceral, primitive animal abhorrence for Anne surpassed that of the Trojans for the Greeks who had besieged the city of Troy throughout years.  Mingled with this feeling was his regret that he could no longer send her to the block for saying the things which couldn’t be true, for his angelic Jane would definitely produce his golden prince.  Now I crave to spill the whore’s blood as much as never before, not even when Charles apprised me of her misconduct, he fumed silently. 

“Leave England, you witch!”  enjoined the ruler.  “You will never see Elizabeth again!” 

In the most sarcastic tones, she answered, “As Your merciful Majesty commands.” 

His wife sank into a deep, gorgeous curtsey – the far-famed Boleyn curtsey.  She moved with inimitable and mocking grace, and yet with an air of sinister resolve. 

“Go to hell, Anne Boleyn!”  Her husband then stormed out of the room.

§§§

As the door slammed behind him, Anne fell onto the floor beside the bed in a miserable heap, a tempest of sobs assailing her.  “Oh God!  Why is he so cruel to me?” 

Henry Tudor, I hate you more than I’ve ever loved you!  The queen yearned to plunge the lance of vengeance into the monarch’s black heart, to compel him to suffer as much as those sentenced to crucifixion do.  In his attempt to inflict inhuman suffering upon her, he had deprived her of everything she loved so dearly: of her brother and daughter, as well as of a chance to ever see the girl again.  Anne’s soul withered like grass in the fall, her heart and soul hollowed out.

“What should I do now?”  asked Anne herself, forcing herself to stand up.  It was not time for weakness.  “Where will I go if he wants me out of England?” 

Cascades of memories penetrated Anne’s tormented consciousness, the panorama of all her romance with King Henry, his infidelities and broken promises, her every weakness and every failure, and, finally, the grand finale in the Tower.  Then the events of the last few minutes repeated themselves, impersonally and spectacularly, in her brain, and Anne could again hear her mind-blowing tirade about Elizabeth’s glorious future, praying that they would be prophetic. 

The topic of Anne’s impending exile was clawing at the fabric of her mind that stretched, thinned, frayed at the edges.  And, suddenly, from beyond the mists of time, pictures of the distant past deluged her mental universe with tremulous hope.  In her early adolescence, Anne had lived at the most glittering court in Christendom, where she had obtained a stellar education and acquired refined manners, which had assisted her in the quest for Henry’s attention and the English crown.  Furthermore, years ago, Mary Boleyn had lived in France as well, and their father, Thomas Boleyn, had served the English ambassador there.  Warmth, which was now flooding the queen’s breast, came from the remembrance of the golden life Anne still missed with every fiber of her being, a life of happiness and almost freedom, without the shackles of Henry’s warped love. 

“France,” she whispered, her eyes blazing with the vivid inner fire blazing in her soul.  “I became the person who I am at the French court.  Perhaps I will find my place there again.” 

In the span of a few moments, the queen’s ladies returned to the chamber.  They all wore ambiguous expressions, wondering what the monarch had talked about with the prisoner.

“I’ll satisfy your curiosity,” Anne conceded as she settled on the bed.  “The king has spared me.  Our marriage will be annulled soon, and he will remarry.  I’ll have to leave England.” 

“God be praised, Your Majesty!”  they chorused, relief written all over their faces.  Even though most of them disliked Anne for various reasons, they did not wish her dead.

The queen saw that the question about her ejection from the country was hovering over their lips.  She wasn’t inclined to discussing it, especially not with them, as they reported all of her actions to the Constable of the Tower, who informed Cromwell about everything.

“You are all dismissed.”  Anne shut her eyes, as if to meditate in silence.

The sound of their receding footsteps was like the sweetest music to her ears.  She yearned to be alone, for none of her ladies loved her with silent sympathy that needed no words.  Stillness contained universal truth about human beings in all times and all ages, and, at this moment, Anne enjoyed it more than anything else.  Her battle would continue in France, and maybe it would last for many years to come, so she needed respite from the unrelenting stress of life. 


  June 10, 1536, Château de Fontainebleau, Fontainebleau, France

“The former false Queen of England is coming!” 

“Her union with King Henry has never been valid!”

“Yet, after the annulment, the man still calls it a marriage in good faith!” 

“After losing all her titles and wealth, she has been expelled from England!”   

The approach of the legendary Anne Boleyn to the François I gallery was watched by a horde of amazed nobles, grooms, enquires, and serving men, who had all assembled in the corridor.  Unfazed by their stares tinged with awe, the former Queen of England glided along the floor, as if a song resounded in her head, her body swaying to the tune only she could hear.

“By Heaven!  What brings the Lady Anne Boleyn here?” 

“Has she come to France to bewitch His Majesty, King François?” 

“The whore just craves to have another king in her bed!” 

“The Boleyn girls are whores infamous above all!” 

“King François will ride the Lady Anne very often!” 

“Her gown is rich despite her current predicament!” 

“She will just humble herself to our liege lord, for she has nowhere to go.” 

“Most likely, Lady Anne wants to become Queen of France!” 

The audience issued versatile comments on the lady’s raiment, their murmurings hovering in the air like whisperings of the ill-natured spirit.  They would be forever adding gossip about her to the existing mud of rumors.  Nonetheless, despite the contrary attitude of the spectators to her, all those who commanded a complete view of the scene were in spellbound fascination.

Notwithstanding her relative impenetrability, one of their comments hurt Anne.  My sister Mary…  I should have found her in England before my departure.  Once King François ripped her reputation into tatters beyond repair.   Most likely, he would not act so towards Anne.  Many years had elapsed, and he must have matured since then.  After all, the French ruler had been most gallant and kind to her in Calais, even though later, he had not acknowledged her as Queen of England.

Inwardly, the unfortunate woman was shuddering.  Anne’s scarred soul was kneeling with its upraised hands on the imaginary altar, praying as fervidly as possible to Jesus Christ, who was her last hope.  Her relatives had died or deserted her before or during her downfall, as if she had been infected with leprosy.  Nobody heard her internal wails, her emotions were tangled – fright, despair, and hope alternating like the squares of a chessboard.  If King François doesn’t permit me to stay here, I do not know what I will do.  I do not even have enough money to travel.   

A young courtier opined, “Madame Boleyn is a desirable woman with style and elegance, although she no longer has the social status she possessed while whoring herself to King Henry.”  

Fascinated, several men stared at her, and Anne smirked to herself.  In spite of her internal misery and her lack of money, her outfit was truly stunning thanks to her generous mother, Lady Elizabeth Boleyn nee Howard, who had sent her favorite child some of Anne’s old clothes from Hever Castle.  At court, nobles competed to outshine one another, and it was important to wear the finest things.  At the same time, Anne felt as if she were the most remarkable and pathetic female figure that stood out at the magnificent French court: remarkable, because of her exotic appearance, her strong, smart character, and her idiosyncratic life story; pathetic, because all her energies and intelligence had been directed in a false channel, while her world had crumbled to pieces despite her extraordinary personality and her many talents.  

Being stationed on the summit of the lofty stairs, two cavaliers called Anne a whore and hurled other insults at her.  She spared no one any glance, moving gracefully, like a long-legged seabird feeding on the shoreline.  Her pulse beating like that of a trapped bird, Anne passed through a gallery, hung with white and blue cloth of gold, and emblazoned with the Valois coat-of-arms.

The herald announced, “The Lady Anne Boleyn.” 

Anne walked in the royal inner sanctum, for King François always kept the key from this gallery with him.  It had been built to link the royal chambers with the Chapel de la Trinité. 

In the blink of an eye, a slender feminine figure appeared at the end of the gallery.  The woman was enveloped in a seductive gown of scarlet cloth, cut indecently low and trimmed with a profusion of diamonds and rubies.  Her stomacher of gold, set with precious stones, gleamed like the flame of lust in all of its carnal glory, a golden girdle tied around her waist.  Her features of uncanny perfection and the delicacy of her complexion would have dazzled anyone, but there was no noble beauty of truthfulness, kindness, and fidelity in them.  

The fire from the woman’s emerald eyes blazed ferociously into the air and exploded with thunderous force as she hissed, “What does that Boleyn strumpet want from my king?”

§§§

Upon entering the gallery, Anne Boleyn fell deadly silent, as if she had stepped out of the world and into an unknown realm.  She watched the light stream through the stained-glass window at the opposite wall, the memorial of the French grandeur she had always admired.

A familiar French baritone, confident and melodious, flowed like liquid gold, intuitively finding the right notes.  “Madame, you have become more beautiful than Helen of Troy.” 

Swiveling, Anne stared at the French monarch, who stood near the fireplace, adorned with his personal emblem of a salamander.  Sinking elegantly into the deepest curtsey she could perform, she demurely cast her eyes down.  Her heart swooped into the pit of her stomach. 

She uttered in flawless French, “Your Majesty, I thank you for meeting with me.” 

“Rise.”  François approached her.

Grappling with nervousness, she hesitated, her legs wobbling.  He gently raised her from the curtsey, and at his touch, she felt so light that she feared she would blow away. 

As their gazes intersected, two depthless pools of liquid gleamed in the opaque shade of Anne’s sorrows.  In the past, when François had encountered Mademoiselle Boleyn in Queen Claude’s apartments, his amber eyes, affable and clever, had often observed the young Anne with inextinguishable interest.  Throughout years, Anne had not forgotten his attention to her.  

Recollections of her companion's recent losses arose in her mind.  “Your Majesty, accept my most sincere condolences on the passing of Dauphin François and Queen Eleanor."

Grief shadowed his face for a split second before the sovereign of France bridled his emotions.  “Thank you, my lady.  My eldest son’s death happened two months earlier.  It was a very hard blow to France and our family.  He was only eighteen… when God called him home.”  He heaved a funereal sigh – deep, tormented, heartfelt.  “He never recovered from the years he spent in the Spanish prison.”  Another sigh wafted through the room. "The official mourning period is not over yet, but I shortened it according to my son's dying desire. In his benevolence, my dearest François did not want us to mourn for him for long."

“Now your son is in a better place.”  Anne was not surprised in the slightest that the king had not mentioned Eleanor of Austria’s death.  All knew that he despised the late woman because he had been forced to wed her so as to secure the release of his two sons from the Spanish captivity.

King François had not changed since their meeting in Calais in October 1532.  His oval face arrestingly masculine, his stature imperial like that of a Roman Caesar, he was the paragon of chivalrous, yet somewhat saturnine, handsomeness.  His countenance benevolent, sardonic, smart, and jovial all at once, its only imperfection was the long Valois nose.  His strong forehead pointed to the indomitability and stubbornness of his spirit, his thin, sensual lips to his amorous disposition.  François' amber eyes were twin maelstroms of supreme intelligence and noble vivacity, and they also exuded his amicable warmth, his exquisite humor, and his refined grace.

Towering over others like a mythological Titan, the French ruler was the epitome of sheer magnificence.  Ornamented with diamonds and sapphires, his doublet of purple velvet was slashed with black silk, wrought with gold.  His thick, straight, chestnut hair fell over his ears from beneath the blue velvet toque, encircled by a black plume.  Over these habiliments, he was clothed in a mantle of cloth of gold lined with sable.  His hose of black silk highlighted his long, muscular legs; his girdle, as well as the handle and sheath of his poniard, were studded with gems.

After a moment’s pause, Anne continued, “Perhaps I'm in a better place as well, although I'm not in heaven, unlike the late dauphin.”  

The monarch soothed, “Trials are our greatest mentors, and they make us stronger.”  

Obviously, he had deciphered the expression in her eyes. Embarrassed that he had noticed her vulnerability, she schooled her face into blankness.  “Brave people never scorn an opportunity, if it comes dressed in trouble’s apparel. But I fear that it is no longer my case.”  

He asked forthrightly, “Why did Henry do it?” 

At the mention of her former spouse, her universe broke into numberless shards.  “I was unable to give him a son.  A leaf has no power to resist when the wind blows.” 

François tipped his head.  “The Tudor temper is worse than a hurricane.” 

Anne sniggered bitterly.  “Also, it is an axe severing the heads of innocents.”  

He gestured invitingly at her.  “Let’s take a seat.” 

They seated themselves into matching throne-like armchairs which were adorned with carved shields, on which were engraved the fleur-de-lis of France on an azure field and the Valois escutcheons.  A circular, low rosewood table stood between their armchairs.

With an art-worshiping gaze, Anne examined the gallery which everyone admired.  Few were permitted access into the place that was considered almost the king’s sacred sanctum.

This abode exuded a breezy, amorous aura of serenity, created by the skilled hand of Rosso Fiorentino, one of the many Italian painters who were patronized by King François.  The walls were decorated with stunning sculptures of ancient gods and goddesses, as well as figures of nymphs in languorous poses.  Between them were placed fabulous frescoes, framed in stucco and depicting the Gods of Mount Olympus, some of whom resembled the Valois ruler’s features.  Anne counted twelve frescoes in total, each enhancing the grandeur of the gallery’s highly ornate design. 

“Few come here,” François broke the silence.  “It is my favorite place in the palace.” 

“But you agreed to meet with me here.”  

His expression evolved into compassionate seriousness.  “As soon as I received your note.  I did not want to make you wait for long.  Here we can speak away from the eyes of court.”

“Thank you, sire.”  She dithered as to how to voice the reason for her visit.

The French king smiled ever so slightly.  “I suspect why you are here.” 

An anxious Anne blanched to the whiteness of marble.  “Your Majesty, I do not intend to impose upon your hospitality any longer than necessary.  All I ask is to let me stay in France.” 

Leaning back in his seat, he latched his gaze on to hers.  “One friend in a storm is worth more than a thousand friends in sunshine.  You can stay at my court, Madame.” 

Buds of hope stirred in her breast.  “Can it be true, sire?” 

François mock-complained, “You are such a ravishing, but pitiless creature!  Why are you being so unfair to me, mon ami?  You do not trust the word of the Knight-King, do you?” 

A deluge of ethereal lightness inundated Anne, as if the weight of her troubles had been lifted off her shoulders.  Several years had elapsed since she had last led such a charming and witty discourse with a gentleman.  After their Elizabeth’s birth, nearly all of her interactions with Henry had been laced with ire, disappointment, censure, and hatred.  The shrill sound of trumpets braying the insults Henry had heaped upon her regularly was deafening in her ears. 

Her lips curled into a grin.  “I’d rather have your word than all the treasure of the world.” 

His smile was scintillating.  “Then, Madame, I’m your knight in shining armor.” 

“Indeed, sire.”  The hypnotizing inner light brightened her eyes a shade.

François sauntered over to the walnut cabinet beside the opposite wall.  He poured out two measures of a fine burgundy wine, returned to his armchair, and passed one to Anne.

Aristocratically drinking wine, the monarch perused Anne as a connoisseur of feminine beauty.  Slender and exquisitely proportioned, with her bottomless eyes like two grottos of black water and her long, raven tresses cascading down her back, she typified the goddess Artemis, who governed hunt, animals, and wilderness.  Her exotic features emanated an aura of cryptic, pristine nature, her dark eyebrows attractively penciled and sharpening her unusual looks.

His spies had reported to François that Henry had stripped his former wife of all her titles and confiscated most – if not all – of her estates and wealth, giving her only a small pension from the English treasury, which was barely enough to sustain herself in exile.  

Nevertheless, today Anne was accoutered as sumptuously as a queen or one of the richest woman in a realm.  Her dress was of azure brocade ornamented with emeralds, her stomacher of black taffeta shimmering with gems.  Studded with diamonds, a girdle encircled her waist.  Over her gown, she wore a surcoat of violet brocade wrought with gold.  An enchanting headdress of goldsmith’s work, as well as a massive sapphire necklace and matching earrings, perfectly fitted the ensemble of a sea temptress.  Anne’s jewelry was so expensive that the sale of one of her earrings would have allowed her to live in luxury for quite a long time.     

Henry is an utter idiot.  How can a man reject such an alluring and intelligent lady?  Such were François’ musings about this woman’s situation.  His ambassador, Antoine de Castelnau, had written him that Anne’s second miscarriage had sowed strife between her and Henry.  But never had he imagined that his English archrival would go to such lengths in his quest for freedom.  The other man’s desire for a male heir was understandable, but that could not justify murder.

The ruler settled back into his chair, a goblet clasped in his hand.  “Henry still considers himself an enlightened monarch.”  With a faint echo of his satiric humor, he continued, “Yet, he has not learned one simple thing.  A man should treat his lady love like a flower to let her blossom and be happy.  Affection, benevolence, respect, and tenderness altogether are the sun for her.” 

Anne recalled François’ famous quote she had heard on a banquet she had once attended as Queen Claude’s maid-of-honor, more a playmate to her young mistress because of her tender age.  Why didn’t Henry view women as flowers and treat them with care, dignity, and respect?  Her former spouse had respected Anne throughout their courtship, but her intelligence, willfulness, and headstrongness had ceased being a boon to him after their wedding.

Mannerly, she sipped wine.  “Turn your face to the sun, and the shadows fall behind you.” 

His response was direct.  “Perhaps only if a woman turns to Henry.” 

“By the way, your comment about royals was prophetic, sire.” 

He arched a brow.  “What do you mean?” 

Anne repeated the advice he had given her in Calais.  “The station you are to occupy is not an easy one...  It is much easier to have nothing than to have everything.  If I had not been born to be king, I certainly would not have wished that fate upon myself or anyone else.”  A sigh fled her, so deep that it approached to a groan.  “I should have listened to you back then.” 

“That is all true and works in life.  I also implied the perils of being Henry’s queen.”

The lady’s contemplation was that of someone who had lost their purpose and wandered along the serpentine paths of life.  “That Trojan hero, the son of the Goddess Aphrodite.”  She took a swig of wine, her favorite Virgil’s work on her mind.  “Yes, Aeneas!  In Virgil’s Aeneid, he is one of the few Trojans who were not killed or enslaved after the subjugation of Troy by the Greeks.  Afterwards, he struggled so much to fathom his destiny for so long.  I’m like Aeneas!” 

The monarch drained the contents of his goblet.  “Eventually, Aeneas unraveled the riddle and set out to fulfill it.  He became the first true hero of ancient Rome and an ancestor of Romulus and Remus.  You might have a similar great fate to that of Virgil's Aeneas.” 

She had relaxed a notch.  His benign exterior and his unparalleled intelligence seemed formed to captivate those whom he addressed.  “Every event is fated and determined to occur.” 

In the manner of a theologian, he averred, “God reveals His will for us through His word.  As we read the Bible, He makes a certain verse stand out more than the rest.  The Almighty may also guide us through others or speak to us through a persistent inner voice.” 

As if she could see the vault of heavens, Anne veered her gaze to the plafond painted by the best Italian masters.  “What is my divine purpose?  Why did such awful woes befall me?” 

“Madame, you are alive and out of harm’s way.  Your daughter, Elizabeth, is still Henry’s heir.”  He paused to let his words sink in.  Truth be told, he did not think that Anne’s union with his English counterpart was valid, but he wouldn’t say that aloud.  He then continued, “That is all that matters now.  The Lord will guide you to opportunities which fit your circumstance.” 

She drained her goblet and set it on the table.  “You are right, sire.” 

With an air of brilliance and pride about him, the ruler articulated, “I’ve ushered France into a new era of glorious enlightenment.”  He stilled for a split second.  “Yet, I feel that there is something else I have to do in my life.  I’ll stay encouraged until that purpose is fulfilled.”

§§§

All of a sudden, the door burst open.  Breathing as though he had run a long marathon, Anne de Montmorency, Grand Master and Marshal of France, stormed inside like a blizzard.

“Your Majesty!”  Montmorency then apologized, “I’m sorry for disturbing you!”  

The monarch furrowed his brows.  “How dare you intrude upon me in my sanctum in this terrible fashion, Monty?  You are my close friend, but even you are not allowed such rudeness.”  

The marshal dropped a low bow.  “I apologize!”  He then swept a bow to Anne, looking at her with puzzled discomfort, for he had not anticipated seeing her with his sovereign.

Anne remembered the unexpected guest easily as she had seen him in Calais with the King of France.  He was the famous Anne de Montmorency, one of the most powerful and wealthiest French nobles and the monarch’s boyhood friend.  Though not attractive, he had quite a remarkable countenance, which indicated strength and courage.  His rich attire of brown doublet, wrought with gold, and hose of the same material stressed his arrogant and martial deportment.

As her eyes locked with Montmorency’s, the man suppressed a grimace.

As the guest looked at his sovereign, Anne was awash in relief.  He dislikes my presence here.  He is an important person, for his valor and military skill made him Marshal of France, so he might be dangerous to me.  Yet, Montmorency’s opinion did not matter to her, for now she had the king’s protection.  She would have to live quietly without interfering anywhere.  Hopefully, she would be able to experience a calm enjoyment of the general bounties of Providence, which had saved her against all odds for some reason, in company with a good conscience.   

“So?”  Slight irritation colored the ruler’s tone.

His subject’s breathing was still labored after sprinting through the hallways.  “War!  We have just received news!  The emperor attacked Marseilles last week!” 

A shaken François shot to his feet.  “How could that happen?” 

Montmorency’s narration was absolutely shocking.  “Carlos V, Holy Roman Emperor, has accused Your Majesty of Queen Eleanor’s murder.  He says that you planned to dispose of his sister for years, but found the courage to perpetrate the evil deed only now.  He has scurrilously maligned you as a royal libertine who annihilated his loyal wife to marry his maîtresse-en-titre.”  

“Oh good heavens,” gasped an agitated Anne, her idle hands in her lap.

His visage paling to an immaculate white, the monarch stuttered with outrage, “That is all a pack of blatant lies!  It is the most errant absurd I’ve ever heard!  Eleanor died of consumption, and everyone knows it!  And I’m not marrying my mistress!  No one will believe this farrago!” 

“He merely needed a reason to attack us,” pointed out his subject.

“Convene Privy Council meeting today,” urged the king.

The marshal bowed.  “I’ll see to it.”  He then spun on his heels and exited.

His gaze sliding to his guest, François pronounced mildly, “Tough days, la belle Anne.”  

Anne transformed into the brave Arete from the Homeric poems.  “Fight for your country, people, and throne.  No one can stop your destiny.  Isn’t that what Your Majesty told me?” 

He jested, “To save France, I’ll kill the Goddess Eris, Madame of strife and discord.”

As he smiled at her cordially, Anne experienced a feather-brush of appeasement over her physical essence.  “Have patience and let things happen in God’s timing.” 

Her eyes alight with curiosity as she peered at François, she recalled the uncanny words of that astrologer.  “Two kings!  One is your pain and ruin, the other is your joy and life”. 

Another ruler in my life!  King François is willing to help and protect me, thanks be to God.  Questions blazed through her head like a sacred fire of something wondrous.  Was that some stupid blether?  If not, what could that mean?  Which rulers had been mentioned?  The tragic end of her romance with Henry suggested that the English monarch was Anne’s pain and ruin, but she did not dare admit that her meeting with François could result in something good for her.  Her thoughts churning like a raging ocean, Anne floundered in a welter of eddying confusion. 

With a bellicose air about him, in the voice of an accomplished general, the sovereign of France proclaimed, “God is on my side, and that is all I need.  Our best days are ahead.” 

“I shall pray for you, sire,” Anne promised, and he nodded his thanks. 

François voiced his sincere promise before easing himself into his armchair.  “Madame, do not worry.  Regardless of the war with Spain, you will have my protection.” 

“Thank you.”  Anne smiled at him, and he smiled back. 

Did my arrival in France doom the country and her king to destruction?  A blend of dread and compunction assaulted her, but she crushed it, for it was not her fault that the Spaniards had declared war on France.  Mired in military filth due to the emperor’s chicanery, the Herculean hands of fate were pulling François de Valois and Anne Boleyn together, like two halves of an invisible universe.  Perhaps there was some divine sense behind such unusual twistings of her path.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: The Defeat of the French

July 11, 1536, the town of Arles, Provence, France

“Today is a cursed day,” muttered the King of France under his breath. 

The air was oppressive with the pungent odor of battle.  Once inhabited by the Romans, the Provencal town of Arles was steeped in history.  Today, a grim event of the utmost importance colored its history with the crimson hues of bloodshed.  The well-preserved remains of a Roman arena and the surrounding valley were littered with corpses and marked with devastation.   

On a hill far from the town’s walls, King François sat on a black stallion, caparisoned in blue silk, its harness embroidered with gold.  In front of him, the battlefield was horrifyingly red, stained with the blood of his many soldiers.  A warm breeze brought the scent of decay and death to his nostrils, and he sniffed his nose in a blend of disgust, guilt, and bereavement.  

Cardinal François de Tournon, who was effectively France’s foreign minister, pulled the reins.  As he reached his liege lord, he said hastily, “I’m sorry for intruding upon Your Majesty.  The battle is over, but we must still keep you out of harm’s way.” 

Veering his gaze to his advisor, the monarch broke into a fit of nervous laughter.  “Your Eminence, what does my life cost if most of my men were slaughtered today?” 

Tournon pointed out, “It happened only because we were severely outnumbered.”

Slowing his horse into a slow walk, Anne de Montmorency, Marshal of France, addressed his liege lord.  “We did not learn about the emperor’s deceit.  I cannot live with myself after today, and I humbly implore Your Majesty to show me some clemency.”   

“It is not your fault, Monty,” soothed the king. 

As the marshal stopped near his sovereign, his head dropped in dismay.  “It was our duty to ferret out that Ferdinand von Habsburg would join Emperor Carlos.  If only we had–“

François interrupted, “All of our spies knew nothing, but I blame myself.” 

Although the King of France had gathered more than ten thousand men in Arles, nothing had been known about the swiftly approaching, huge forces of the emperor’s brother.  By the time the first reports had been received, Ferdinand’s troops had already joined Carlos’ armies in the vicinity of the town.  It seemed that the outcome of this battle had been highly influenced by the God Ares, who had caused the violence to be singularly bloodthirsty. 

At the start of the confrontation in Provence, the Imperial cavalry had been making only little raids here and there, but doing the French significant amount of harm, nonetheless.  Still, the French forces had not been by any means impeded and moved towards the town of Arles, where King François had planned to crush his enemy.  This place was of strategic importance: a great many roads, some nine or ten, intersected there, so the French army could easily alter their tactics and diverge from this point, should a further march be necessary. 

According to the plan of his Military Council, King François had given the orders for the concentration of his columns to the north from Arles.  The French troops had pushed forward with an elastic step towards the presumable field of victory.  Anne de Montmorency had cooperated with other military generals, and today at dawn, the assemblage of the royal forces had promptly engaged the enemy.  The vanguard artillery had advanced to open fire on the front of the Spanish adversaries, and, having bivouacked the preceding night on a ridge nearby, Claude d’Annebault had rushed to their support.  Immediately, a ferocious battle had unfolded.    

The divisions commanded by Philippe de Chabot, Admiral de Brion, had been the first of the infantry to become involved.  After having reconnoitred the position, François had charged into the battle with the rest of the infantry, as if he were invincible.  The king’s battalions scattered themselves over the opposite sides of the defile surrounding the town from the north. 

King François had stopped in the midst of the fighting men.  His armor shining in the beams of sunlight, he had shouted loudly, “I’m like a salamander!  I shall survive all fires!”   

Having heard the scream of his French archrival, an incensed Emperor Carlos had struck the pommel of his saddle.  His cry in Spanish had boomed across the whole area like a menacing thunder prophesizing death.  “I want that Valois douchebag to weep with tears of blood!”   

The Spanish had attempted to stop the advance of the French by a double fire of musketry.  The defile, narrow and steep, and the savage attack of Montmorency’s cavalry had been able to lock the Spanish in the area.  Forming the line of conflict to the north of Arles, at a distance of about a mile away, the battle had lasted for four hours with varying success.  Then an odd lull had occurred, during which both sides had supervised their formed lines. 

All of sudden, new divisions had commenced arriving from the south, advancing towards the King of France’s batteries.  Soon the position of the French forces, already battered by their merciless opponents, had turned perilous in the extreme.  The Imperial hordes, bearing the standard of Ferdinand von Habsburg, had launched a bellicose assault on the French.  All those who had opposed the attackers had soon started falling back, and the slaughter had been terrible.   

Encircled in the defile, the ruler of France’s forces had been outflanked upon either hand.  Thousands of muskets had filled the air with a dense, acrid smog that, on a windless summer day, shrouded the battlefield like a pall of ruin.  The pitiable cries of the dying and the wounded had aroused the spirit of vengeance in the surrounded French soldiers, who had made their last stand like demons.  The resistance of the French had been exceedingly brave, but with a huge loss due to the simple fact that the numbers of the Imperial troops had exceeded them twice.   

King François had been able to leave the defile only thanks to the noble efforts of Anne de Montmorency, Cardinal François de Tournon, Phillippe de Chabot, and Claude d’Annebault.  So thick and overwhelming had the storm of Carlos and Ferdinand’s assault been that Chabot had been seriously wounded during their hasty escape.  All the others had perished in the sanguinary fog of fire, blood, and swordfight in the defile – injured, captured, or cut to pieces.

Montmorency’s protest snapped the king out of his reverie, colored with the dark hues of his failure.  “We have lost today, but we will recover our losses.  Your Majesty led the battle as a competent chief general, and there were no errors in your judgment.” 

“Unlike the Battle of Pavia,” the monarch muttered. 

The marshal shook his head. "You are criticizing yourself when you should not. The odds were against us both today and at Pavia. We had a chance to win that battle in Italy, but today we could not."

The king groaned as if from pain, his vitality drained, his strength sapped.  “Perhaps.  But that does not make things easier.  France has been orphaned today, though not crippled.” 

The cardinal’s voice ceased their discourse.  “Your Majesty, we must escape now.  Right now!  Otherwise, we risk being discovered by the emperor’s men.” 

“What?”  the King of France growled in exasperation.  “How can a knight run away from the battlefield when his fallen comrades have not been buried?” 

“We must,” insisted Tournon.  “If you are captured again, France and everything will be lost.  If the emperor has you in custody for the second time, he will mete out a slow, lingering death to you, given that he aspersed you as the murderer of his sister, Eleanor.” 

“Your Majesty, let’s leave,” Montmorency concurred.   

Letting go of the reins, François balled his hand into a fist.  “We have started off badly, but circumstances were such that we could not win today.  I admit freely that I was not the most exemplary military man in youth, but today I’ve done all I could.  At present, we have to retreat, but I shall not allow the Spanish barbarian to take my country and throne from me.” 

 “Your Majesty!”  cried Claude d’Annebault as he mounted the hill and paused beside the king.  “The emperor has enjoined to find you at any cost.  He dared announce that his sister’s soul is calling to him to avenge her death on your orders.” 

François de Valois had a mellow temper, and rage was a foreign feeling to him.  Yet, at this moment, a gust of berserk fury coiled and clawed up through his body.  “How can that blasted Habsburg scoundrel proclaim such a crop of brazen lies while remembering his sister?  He knows that I would never have physically harmed any royal!  I am not him!” 

Anne de Montmorency gritted out, “I myself would have killed that Spanish scoundrel!  The more he would have suffered, the better!” 

“He is scum,” spat Cardinal de Tournon.  “May God punish him!” 

“We must flee,” urged Annebault, trying to catch his breath.  “Right now!”     

Nodding, the King of France asked, “Has Philippe been taken to safety?” 

“Yes, my liege.” Annebault had organized the transportation of the injured Admiral of France from the battlefield.  “We will escort you to Mazères.” 

The monarch and his entourage spurred on their stallions.  Encircled by the heavily armed men from the Scots guard, the small royal cortege galloped across the valley and into the woods.  They did not rest until the town of Arles had been left behind, each of them feeling as if the setting sun were falling from its anchor in the sky to burn them with shame for their defeat. 


 July 18, 1536, Château de Roquetaillade, Mazères, Bordeaux, France

Several solemn-looking people trudged through the dimly lit corridors which threaded through the fabric of the royal residence.  Their gait was too heavy for courtiers, as if a ghostly presence of mortality was weighing them down.  There was a dismal air about the palace that had originally been built by Charlemagne, the first King of the Franks, on his way to the Pyrenees. 

“How is the king, my brother?”  queried Marguerite de Valois. 

Anne de Montmorency sighed grievously.  “Your Majesty’s arrival is a pure blessing!  Our sovereign has been so crestfallen that it is hard to imagine any kind of good future for France.” 

“His Majesty has shut himself away,” responded Cardinal François de Tournon.  “He lacks the mental energy to sort things out.  At the same time, we must act as soon as possible.” 

Montmorency muttered, “At least we were able to evacuate him from the battlefield.”

“I’ll try to revitalize my brother’s spirits,” Marguerite promised. 

Tournon opined, “Only you can do this, Madame.”

As they slowed briefly, the Navarrese queen glanced at frescoes portraying scenes from ‘La Chanson de Roland’, telling how Sir Roland, the great Charlemagne’s intrepid and loyal nephew, was tricked by the traitor Ganelon into encountering a Muslim army at Roncevaux.  

Marguerite commented, “This chanson has long become the national epic of France.  Sir Roland is truly an iconic figure in the medieval era and its minstrel culture.  On the way back to France from the Pyrenees, the Franks were attacked by the Saracens and fought with outstanding valor, but they were outnumbered and were eventually killed.  Roland died a martyr’s death.” 

“No, Your Majesty,” the cardinal burst out.  “Our king will triumph over evil.” 

Montmorency vowed, “We shall keep our liege lord safe at any cost.” 

Marguerite crossed herself.  “Of course.  It is just a difficult time for us all.”  Her best instincts communicated that her silent words of prayer were a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

§§§

His head buried in his hands, King François sat at the desk heaped with books, ledgers, parchments, and papers.  The whirl of cankerous emotions in his chest was so very powerful that it sucked him down into the depths of grief; his mind would not function normally. 

Though depressed, the monarch was not without knowledge of his future.  His troops had been trounced by his Imperial foe, while he himself had narrowly escaped capture.  He, the King of France, had been too weak and allowed his adversaries to kill thousands of his soldiers, and, in doing so, he had failed his country, his countrymen, and his kin.  Outmatched only by his fatigue, François’ self-disdain was so deep that it was imprinted upon his consciousness. 

Images of the battle of Pavia of 1526 flashed in his mind, ravaging him like a beast.  In the course of the day, thousands of his men had lain dead or bleeding upon the ground, while he himself had surrendered himself to the emperor.  François was aware that the Battle of Pavia had been lost partly due to his own hubris and his foolhardy, haste decisions, as if Atë, the Greek goddess of mischief, delusion, and ruin, had made him, the heroic Knight-King, commit a folly that had resulted in the deaths of many soldiers and almost led to his own downfall. 

Tears of shame stung his eyes, but the French ruler didn’t move to brush them away.  And now the Battle of Arles…  What have I done to anger the Lord so much?  Such were the musings of the monarch who was sinking deeper and deeper into despair.  He had not only lost the battle, but also been called injurious names – ‘the murderer of the sweet Queen Eleanor’‘a queen-killing libertine’, and ‘the most incompetent Valois king’, as the Spanish disparaged him.   

Finally, François looked at the ceiling with pleading eyes, as if addressing the Almighty enthroned in heaven.  “God, what should I do?  Every creature is sanctified by prayer.  In your divine benevolence, I beseech you to give me strength and show me the right path.” 

Someone knocked on the door, making the ruler half jump out of his skin.  All he wanted was solitude and rest, as if only loneliness could purify him from the self-loathing tendencies. 

At another knock, the king barked, “Who is it?” 

The door opened, and Cardinal de Tournon informed, “Your Majesty’s sister is here.” 

“Let her in.”  This was the only good tidbit in the past week.   

A moment later, Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, entered and called, “Brother!” 

Dressed in a brown riding habit, trimmed with ermine and smeared with dust, she still looked every inch a princess of the blood.  She shut the door and commenced her walk, her pace measured, her posture straight and regal.  Arranged in ringlets on the temples and in a bun on the nape of her head, her glossy, long, chestnut hair shimmered with diamonds, woven in the sheen of her chevelure.  Her clever amber eyes and her long nose attested to her Valois ancestry.     

“Margot!”  The monarch jolted to his feet.  His booming voice echoed off the high ceiling, cascaded down the walls, and returned to its source.  “Margot!” 

Marguerite rushed into his arms.  “François!  You are free and alive!” 

Spontaneously, the King of France embraced his beloved sister, pressing himself to her tight, as if he were a baby rooted to his mother’s breast by need.  For some time, they froze motionless in this position like two statues of entwined lovers in an ancient temple. 

The Valois siblings were more devoted to one another than any other brother and sister.  During Marguerite’s frequent sojourns at the French court, she assisted her brother in working on state affairs and held the government in her competent hands in case of his absences.  On many state documents, she was referred to as ‘King François’ very dear and well-beloved only sister’. 

As he disentangled himself from their embrace, he told her, “I’m glad to see you, sister.  You are the only person in the world who can comfort me now.”

She made the sign of a cross in the air.  “God protected you in that battle, brother.” 

“Let’s take a seat; then we will talk.” 

François and Marguerite settled into two matching gilded armchairs, decorated with carved lion’s heads on the back.  A walnut table, carved with a salamander symbol, was positioned between them.  Rich tapestries, depicting the Battle of Formigny, cascaded down the walls. 

She viewed her brother from top to toe with concern.  Evidently, he had lost much weight, his features tired and pale, like a death mask, with the brown eyebrows arching above the long Valois nose.  His apparel was sumptuous, but somber, consisting of a doublet of black brocade, wrought with threads of Venetian gold and silver, hose of the same fabric and ornamentation, and toque of black velvet.  The flamboyant François de Valois was a spectre of his former self.

“You are not taking a good care of yourself, François.” 

“I do not care about myself,” he snapped irritably without looking at her. 

“What will you do now?”  Other words stuck in her throat like the twigs of a bird’s nest.  Obviously, the endless hell of torment was concealed behind his absent-mind countenance. 

His troubled gaze swung back to his sister.  “I have no idea.”   

Her voice as firm as granite, she announced, “On the way from Navarre to you, I have been thinking hard of our dreadful situation.  I think I know a way out for us.”   

His hands fidgeting with the collar of his doublet, the monarch of France asked curiously, “Which plan has your pretty and intelligent head come up with?” 

She was worried about his reaction.  “I am not sure you will like it.”

He grinned.  “Keeping such company as the Knight-King and not sharing with him your ideas?  Perhaps you are itching to find someone more worthy of our intellect than me.”

One of the things she loved in her brother was his ability to laugh off troubles.   “I don’t think I could, even if I had wanted to.  You are the most intelligent man I’ve ever met.” 

His grin widened.  “Perhaps, sister.  Now tell me, finally, how I can win.” 

Her hands lazily caressed a ring on her finger.  “Sometimes, you have to gamble in a way that is colorful, dramatic, and theatrical all at once.  The world is like a game.” 

The ruler inclined his head.  “The mission of a monarch is to make the best work as the administrator and defender of their kingdom.  They take an educated gamble when choosing a political course the country will follow or an alliance to establish with foreigners.” 

“Then marry Anne Boleyn and make her the symbol of the anti-Habsburg alliance which would consist of the Protestant and religiously tolerant countries.” 

Her statement lanced through him like a saber strike.  A flustered silence ensued. 

With a vigorous shake of his head, he jeered, “You have developed a warped sense of humor that has mingled nicely with your perverted attitude to France’s salvation.” 

“Thank you, François.  Your own wit seems to have been impaired by your afflictions.”  

“How could such an outrageous idea cross your mind?”   

With a funereal air of fatality about her, Marguerite articulated, “The end of France!  The end of the Valois dynasty!  The end of King François I’s reign!  Do you want this to happen?” 

“Of course, I don’t!”  returned the king, scowling at her. 

The Queen of Navarre stood up and started pacing the room.  “Then, you must accept the horrid reality, François.  To survive in the battle with the Habsburgs and expel them from France, you must establish alliances with the German States and other Protestant countries.”  She paused in the center and, pivoting to him, inquired, “Do you understand this?” 

He looked like a cornered rabbit, a king caught in a trap.  “I tend to agree with you.” 

She strengthened her point of view.  “How will you establish these alliances if you are on the sinking ship?  Will the German Lutheran princes ally with the defeated King of France?” 

The French monarch bolted to his feet and plodded to a window.  The sky turned a blood red as the last vestiges of the sun slipped behind the hills.  Instinctively, he associated the color crimson with the recent vanquishment of his troops by the Imperial hordes.  Is the sinking sun a harbinger of the death of France as an independent kingdom and the demise of the Valois dynasty?  What does fate have in store for my country and me?  His mind raced with questions. 

Marguerite’s sharp, steel-edged voice punctured his silence.  “Nobody collaborates with the losing party unless it can offer something valuable in return.”  

Swiveling to face her, an agitated François harangued, “When under attack, no kingdom is obligated to collect permissions from allies to strike back.  But if this country is losing, her rulers have to implore their allies for assistance.  As reputation affects how likely your partners are to trust you and work with you, a ruler must think about what you kind of deals they will propose at the negotiation table.”  He threw his arms up in frustration.  “What can I offer them?” 

His sister approached him and took his hand in hers.  “My dearest brother!  Your battle is far from being over!  You must offer the adversaries of your sworn enemy a Protestant symbol of unity against the Habsburgs.”  Her tone was suasive and velvet smooth. 

His mask slipped, revealing his inner turmoil – fear of losing his country combating with the uncertainty as to the best course of action.  “To use Anne Boleyn’s role in the English reform to my advantage?  That would be a good idea if she were not a foreign convicted queen.” 

“A former queen,” she amended. 

“A convicted one,” he emphasized as he freed his hand from her grasp. 

A long silence followed as they pondered the situation once more. 

Annoyed, Marguerite returned to her chair.  “The whole of Christendom knows that Anne is innocent.  The people of England know this, which is why they rebelled against Henry.” 

“Indeed so.  Only the riots saved her from Henry’s madness.” 

The king’s sister smiled.  “Brother, you have been falsely accused of murdering Eleanor of Austria.  Anne has been falsely charged with betraying Henry with several lovers.”  She let out a laugh.  “This makes you a great couple, for you have both been aspersed, despite being innocent.” 

The monarch slanted a glance towards the window.  The shadows of the evening were now falling fast upon the city of Mazères, and the firmament was like a curtain of dark silk. 

Marguerite made another attempt at persuasion.  “England is not your ally, brother.  Henry is waiting for the result of the war against France before choosing the side.  He yearns to see your armies annihilated.  But if you happen to win, he will congratulate you and offer you an alliance.  Therefore, it would be better to ignore Henry’s opinion on the matter.” 

François crossed to the chair which he had previously occupied.  “To marry Anne Boleyn would mean that there will never be normal relations between England and France.”   

She refreshed his mind.  “Once you called Henry Tudor a turncoat because of his betrayal of your treaty.  He perpetrated a plot against you during the Italian war of 1521-1526.  At Cardinal Wolsey’s suggestion, he stealthily paid a lot of gold to Emperor Carlos when it became clear that Spain would win.  By doing so, Henry indirectly funded your captivity at Pavia.”  

“Henry’s courtesy to me was false.”  The king’s voice was muffled, as if he had clamped a hand over his mouth.  A flood of abhorrence towards his English archrival inundated him, just as it did every time he recalled those events.  “I shall never forgive Henry for that.”   

She crossed her hands over the chest.  “Brother, you are still holding out unrealistic hopes for reconciliation with Henry.  But do you need a mercurial ally like him?” 

“No,” he agreed at last. 

“Now you must protect yourself with reliable allies.” 

King François didn’t answer straight away.  He climbed to his feet and strode to the table, where a bejeweled decanter stood.  Filling a chalice, he gulped wine like water, as if it could make the tormenting memories flee like a hamadryad before a dull faun.  After finishing off the goblet, he then trudged to the desk and sagged into an armchair.   

“My captivity in Spain,” uttered the sovereign of France tightly, controlling himself with a mammoth effort.  His gaze latched on to his sister’s eyes as he continued, “You of all people know what and how I suffered at the emperor’s hands.”  The hatred for the Habsburg family rolling through him in waves, his voice fell to a raspy whisper.  “You came to Madrid to negotiate my release, so you must remember what happened to me back then.” 

“You almost died.”  Her voice thinned and broke on the last word. 

All of those remembrances were monumental events in King François’s life.  “After I was transported from Italy to Madrid, the Spanish treated me with a callousness unfitting my kingly position.  I was locked in that old, dilapidated castle for many days.  As a result, high fever struck me in the early days of my incarceration, threatening to speedily burn me to death.” 

Marguerite recollected, “Initially, Emperor Carlos did not want to meet with you.”   

More memories of those ignominious days slipped through the tall mental barriers that the king had placed on those events.  “Finally, Carlos deigned to grant me an audience.  He came to me out of fear that a foreign ruler would pass away while being in his custody.  He was also afraid that my death would lessen his victory over the French.  Barely concealing his malicious joy at the sight of my grave illness, the emperor pledged to release me soon.” 

“But it was all a lie,” hissed his sister. 

The amber glare of King François locked with her identical pools of turbulent fury.  At this moment, the two siblings abhorred the Holy Roman Emperor more than ever. 

François quoted his words from the old letter he had written his mother from Spain.  “Only honor was not lost back then.”  His bitter laugh was like a blast of trumpets, jarring and shrill, perhaps an omen of more awful things to come.  “A week ago, I was almost taken captive in my own kingdom.  My enemies are on French soil, and even my honor was besmirched.” 

Now Marguerite was as depressed as he was.  “Don’t dwell on those horrible things.  We must keep up optimism and hope instead of trampling them down with our own feet.” 

He flicked his melancholic gaze to her.  “That is true, Margot.  But there is no pain greater than the present humiliation of France and her king at the hands of the emperor.”   

Her confidence being restored, the Queen of Navarre asserted, “Now we must gather all our strength and courage to prevent France from being subjugated by the damned Spaniards.”  

Assailed by an impetuous deluge of inner strength, François was suddenly invigorated.  “I must save my country,” he stated, his eyes blazing with determination. 

“Excellent.  But if you do not want to wed Anne, then I’m afraid France is doomed.  Those who supported us are currently deserting us like rats running away from the shipwrecked vessel.” 

He emitted a sigh so deep that it seemed to have come from the bottom of his universe.  “But how can we be sure that she will consent to this outlandish arrangement?” 

“I will talk to Anne,” promised the king’s sister. 

“She will not agree.”  Compelling himself to display a calmness he did not feel, he leaned back in his armchair.  “I remember the love I saw in her eyes for Henry when we met in Calais in 1532.  She was married to him for three years – well, I do not consider their union valid, to be honest, but she does not need to know about it.  Her romance almost led her to the scaffold.” 

“Anne’s personal story is tragic, brother.” 

“Will she be eager to tie herself to another king?  I think not.” 

Marguerite’s confidence was astounding.  “Come now, François!  She will not reject this offer without considering it.  Of course, Henry’s betrayals traumatized her like nothing she had ever experienced before.  But she is a smart and practical lady, who understands the demands of politics and is the perfect source for sage counsel.  Her intelligence could have been such a boon to Henry if he had appreciated it, and they could have ruled England together.”  She stilled for a moment to let it sink in.  “There are compelling reasons why she will acquiesce to become your wife, even though she would not have done it under different circumstances.” 

“Name them.”  His voice indicated his skepticism. 

She rose to her feet and strode to a table set with utensils such as plates, goblets, and napkins.  Having poured out wine, she walked to her brother and handed the goblet to him. 

“Drink it.  You will feel better, then.”  

Nodding his thanks, François took a long, fortifying sip.  “So, Margot?” 

The Queen of Navarre settled back into her chair.  “The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart and mind.  Anne failed in England, but I can hardly imagine a strong, brave, and indomitable woman such as Anne losing herself in the gloom of grief forever.  If she has the opportunity to get back what she lost and to take revenge, she shall seize it.” 

“By marrying me?”  He swallowed painfully, conscious of the truth of her words. 

“Yes.  That would be the best way for her to extract vengeance upon Henry.” 

The French ruler drained the contents of his goblet and set it on the table.  “Do you really want Anne and me to live in a sham of a marriage, based on her desire to avenge her woes and on my need to salvage France?  Would that not be cruel to Anne after what Henry did to her?” 

Laughing at him, the Navarrese queen reminded, “François, you once told me that you can fall in love only with the most extraordinary and beautiful woman, who would bewitch you more than Helen of Troy captivated Paris.  You said that love for such a woman would be the beauty of your entire life, your sunshine that makes you both blossom, the most brilliant joy in your world, the togetherness of your hearts, and the triumph of heavenly blessing over earthly filth.”  She grinned.  “Have I quoted your flowery speech correctly, brother?  I think I have.” 

He was taken aback.  “Do you mean that Anne can be this woman?” 

Marguerite’s mind floated to her second husband – Henry II d’Albert, King of Navarre.  Despite him being eleven years younger than her, the couple loved each other dearly.  Henry had accepted that his wife spent most of her time at her brother’s court, for she could not persevere in living in the mountainous land of Navarre due to the local air’s pernicious influence on her health.  He had never taken a mistress after his wedding to Marguerite.  Henry d'Albert and I are a match made in heaven, and we have been so happy together.  My brother can also find his soulmate. 

“True love is a heavenly gift,” averred the king’s sister, her countenance imbued with the sublime light of her soul.  “First best is falling in love.  Second best is being in love.  The moment you are in love you can touch the stars without reaching out to the firmament above.  The sensation of poignant serenity gives you the placidity of paradise on earth, which alternates with ecstasies of insane gaiety.  You feel like you are falling, floating, flying, spiraling down and up.”   

Her poetic oration lifted his flagging spirits.  “Your artistic tongue might elate even the mood of a dying man.  You wish I could experience it, don’t you?” 

Her eyes twinkling, Marguerite stated, “Of course, I want you to be happy, brother.  You have never loved a woman, but it is not your fault.”  She tittered as she recalled his official mistress whom she despised.  “Surely, Anne de Pisseleu is not your soulmate, don’t you think?  She does not own your heart despite your fascination with her uncanny beauty and her stellar education.” 

“I love her in my own way,” claimed François. 

“No, you do not.  You are only lusting after her.”  

A frown puckered his brow.  “I respect the Duchess d’Étampes, and so should you.” 

Ignoring his reproach, she insisted, “I know that you are capable of loving a woman with all your heart and soul.  You just needed to meet your own Helen of Troy.”  Winking at him, she assumed, “Only a unique woman such as Anne Boleyn can be your Helen.” 

He voiced his opinion of his notorious English guest.  “Anne Boleyn is not a conventional beauty.  Her fiery temper is a formidable force to reckon with, and it must also be a vehement passion burning brighter than the sun.  She is one of the smartest and most alluring woman I’ve met.  Her eerie, exotic glamour might inspire dozens of men to move heaven and earth for her.” 

If she believed something wholeheartedly, her confidence was like a shining star.  “Even if your marriage is not initially based on affection, I have no doubt that you will fall for her – your feelings will eventually create love.  Maybe, with God’s blessing, something wonderful can come out of this union – the most fervent love in your hearts.”    

“You are being too optimistic, Margot.  Only God gives true love to His Children.” 

“Literally, I see the benevolent hand of fate in Anne’s arrival in France.  She asked you for help, François.  You could have refused to house her at your court, but you didn’t.” 

François peered at her in open-mouthed amazement.  “Do you believe that I could have thrown a damsel in distress out of my realm when I was the only one who could help her?” 

“Of course, the Knight-King would never have harmed a woman!” 

The monarch grinned, for a moment real amusement dancing in the vivid amber caverns.  “Are you serious about all these amorous things?  And about my marriage to Anne?” 

His sister made a valiant effort not to laugh at him.  “I shall see to your union with Anne Boleyn.  It will not be that easy to persuade her, but I will succeed.” 

“I do not think so.  That is why I’m glad that I will not present this deal to her.” 

“Let me at least try, brother.  We need this political marriage for France.” 

François moved the topic to its closure.  “If she ventures to be my ally, I’ll wed her.”   

For a short time, Marguerite examined the room’s tapestries.  “The Battle of Formigny of 1450 was a turning moment in the Hundred Years’ War.  The destruction of England’s last army in Normandy paved the way for the conquest of the remaining English strongholds there.”  She emphasized, “It is a good omen that we can see such scenes on the walls.  We shall win!”    

“I pray we will, sister.”  His tone emphasized the appreciation of her comment. 

Their gazes locking and brightening a notch, they chorused, “For France!”

§§§

Night had fallen, and a peaceful stillness reigned supreme, sublime and consoling.  Lights glimmered in the château, and stars dotted the velvety black heavens, presenting a perfect setting for a romantic or philosophical discourse.  And after a leisurely dinner, King François and Clément Marot, his most unexpected guest, decided upon a stroll into the gardens. 

“Clément,” the ruler addressed the poet.  “Thank you for coming to Mazères.” 

His companion answered, “Your Majesty needs the support of those who care for you.” 

“Yes.”  Arrogant and conceited, François was not someone who ever appeared vulnerable.  Yet, he released such a deep sigh that it wafted like a breeze around them. 

Sensing his discomfort, Marot stated, “Whether you are a king or not, the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched.  They must be felt with the heart.”    

His sovereign let out a laugh.  “True!  Yet, no one must be a slave to their emotions.” 

An athletic man of average height, Clément Marot was almost the king’s coeval.  His noble countenance was handsome and intrepid.  On his lofty brow was stamped unquestionable intellect, and his hazel eyes had a melancholic expression in them.  His raiment was rich, but somber, consisting of a doublet, hose, and a cap of black satin, worked with threads of gold. 

King François was delighted to have Marot, who was his and his sister’s favorite poet, at his side.  Having sent the poet to her brother, an exhausted Marguerite had retired to her quarters.  For the most part, Marot resided at the court of Navarre in the past year, being patronized by Marguerite, but he had nevertheless traveled to his sovereign whom he profoundly adored. 

The two men reached an extensive Renaissance terrace that opened a panoramic view of the vast stretches of the landscaped parkland, with riverside walks and countryside beyond.  The terrace was enclosed at one end by several fountains, and at the other by an immense loggia and a belvedere in the form of a triumphal arch.  Drenched with moonlight, carved arbors, a bejeweled aviary, and colorful abundant planting in the park – these magnificent glories of southern France – shimmered silvery white, as if made out of stainless steel or tears. 

Stopping in a shaft of moonlight, Clément Marot looked around.  “A faint freshness is in the air.  The bees are humming among the flowers in flowerbeds.  Blackbirds are whistling among the trees.  The chief part of one’s happiness consists of natural beauty like this!” 

However, the ruler commented in the melancholy accents, “Indeed, beauty is the promise of happiness.  But it is what also leads you to desperation.” 

“That is a blackbird,” observed Marot.  “Your Majesty, look at it!  We can see it well in the moonlight!  See it there on the bush with red blossoms.  It is all black, except its bill, and that looks as if it had been painted in white.  Or does it tell you something else?” 

The king guessed his train of thought.  “There is always light in the darkness.”    

“Precisely,” the poet confirmed with a smile.  “You are the light of all lights!”  His voice rose to a crescendo of confidence.  “You are the hope of France in this darkest time!” 

Those royal amber eyes lit up with nascent hope.  “Nature is powerful!  One might derive their strength from it.  Then your work becomes a dance with light and the weather.  And then it takes you to a place within yourself, and you can discover new facets of your character.” 

"And where does it take you, my liege?"

Staring at the loggia in the distance, the monarch meditated, “Sometimes, you get the best light from a burning bridge.  If part of your realm was burned to ashes by your worst enemy, you can use the light from this devastating fire as your beacon in the darkness while searching for your right path.  Perhaps our defeat at Arles might function as the Lighthouse of France, just as the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria guided ships into the city’s port at night.” 

Clément Marot was relieved that the king’s frame of mind was improving.  “Even this horrible defeat might lead France to the ultimate greatness.  Have faith, my liege!” 

Moonlight illuminated the entire terrace, and their faces glowed white like ivory. 

“The lives of these birds are simple.”  François’ voice vibrated with emotion.  “They are happy to play with each other at night.  But the life of a king is far more complicated.” 

In response, the poet read aloud one of his own poems to Madame Anne de Beauregard. 

Where are you going, Anne? Let me know,

and teach me now, before your departure,

what I should do, so my eyes might hide

the raw regret of a sad heart in torment.

Yet I know how, no need to inform me.

You’ll take it with you; I give it to you.

Take it, to render you free from sorrow,

that should be far from you, in that place;

and since lacking a heart one cannot live,

leave yours with me, and so say farewell.

As he finished the verse, Marot effused, “Now, Your chivalrous Majesty!  Imagine that this poem is for another Anne whom you need to marry to save France from that Habsburg devil.  Perhaps you will place your heart in the keeping of the most unique Lady Anne Boleyn.”   

This time, the monarch’s temper spiked.  “You have overstepped the boundaries.  My sister and I love you, but you have no right to pry into our affairs.” 

The poet feigned embarrassment.  “Oh, I’m sorry, Your dearest despondent Majesty!”  He sketched a bow.  “If life throws you a few bad notes or vibrations, like the defeat at Arles, do not let them interrupt and alter your song of chivalry and your hymn for the glory of France.” 

“You are forgiven,” said his sovereign mildly.  “I know you mean well.” 

“A man’s character is his fate,” Clément proclaimed, boldly looking into the king’s eyes.  “You are the Knight-King!  Take your destiny in your hands, Your Majesty!” 

Clément Marot flourished a series of elegant bows and strode towards the loggia.   

After his departure, the Valois ruler quietly stood in a beam of moonlight.  He watched a cluster of sparrows taking bath after bath in the fountains and ruffling their feathers joyfully.  The blackbird, which the king had observed before, burst into a ripple of throaty notes, and a nightingale answered with a cry of liquid trills, whistling melodiously and yet mournfully.   The nightingale wept until the blackbird responded, and the sparrows paused in their ablutions. 

A vision blazed through the ruler’s consciousness: a glimpse of a king leaning over the marriage bed to kiss his queen.  His and France’s future stretched out in front of him like a golden carpet unrolling for him to step onto it and fulfill his destiny.  This blackbird and this nightingale have found each other tonight.  The nightingale bemoaned as if lamenting its woes, until the blackbird cried in unison.  But they will not groan unceasingly for a lifetime because now they are together.  Is it about Anne and me?  Is it a good omen?  François wondered, his spirits pulsating with a celestial, intense fervor at the thought of having Anne Boleyn as his spouse. 

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: A Political Arrangement

August 5, 1536, Chapel of the Trinity, Château de Fontainebleau, France

Reverent silence reigned in the magnificent chapel that bathed in a hazy, orange glow of numerous candles.  A former monastery chapel before becoming a palace church during the reign of King François I, it was at the heart of the grandiose history of the French royalty.

Attired in a gown of white velvet, embroidered with diamonds, her stomacher of red silk, Anne strode down the nave, brushing the floor with a footstep as light as that of a fawn. 

She reached the first row of the wooden pews and stopped.  The interior’s somberness was enhanced by fabulous frescoes depicting the life of Jesus Christ.  Each holy representation followed another according to its importance, beginning from the vault and down towards the walls and the floor.  Her gaze fixing on the statue of the Virgin Mary, she took a seat. 

“Elizabeth,” Anne uttered the syllables related to her beloved little girl.  “If only you could be with me in France…  If only I had not been banished from England…” 

She balled her hands into fists as her mind drifted to King Henry.  The worst pain comes from the betrayals of our loved ones.  He betrayed me and our dear girl in the worst possible way.  She could not wrap her head around how Henry had swallowed Cromwell’s and Suffolk’s lies about her alleged adulteries.  Her pain was perpetual: it had seeped into her bloodstream, like lethal poison, eating her living entrails and hollowing her out until only her dry skin remained. 

In France, she often woke in a frenzy, fearing that the monster of death had laid its grasp upon her.  Afraid of darkness, she always slept with at least one candle burning in her bedchamber.  She prayed that she would have the strength to overpower the ghosts of the past. 

Yet, providence sniggered at her in the most bizarre manner.  How could Anne recover from the past when she was about to commit the sheer insanity of marrying the King of France?  Was she capable of playing the role of a dignified Catholic queen?  How would she endure her life with the very man who had slept with her elder sister and defamed Mary Boleyn as a slut?

 Shutting her eyes, Anne breathed out a sigh of terror and frustration.  There was no sense in dwelling on questions she could not find answers to.  She had already promised to Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre, that she would become François’ spouse and help them work against the Habsburgs.  For some reason, the Moira Clotho had spun the thread of Anne’s fate to be the Queen of France a mere three months after she had lost the Crown of England. 

 There was no way back for Anne.  Is it my destiny to run away from one king and to be tied to another for the rest of my life?  She could not fathom why she had drifted to the coast of another royal matrimony.  A large part of her wondered whether the Moira Lachesis had dispensed the thread of her life in this way to let Anne avenge her brother’s appalling death and her own woes.  Nevertheless, she dithered, her soul being as fragile as glass, and the callous world could crack or break it, if the winds of providence had happened to take a fancy to blow Anne’s way. 

The King of France’s voice jerked Anne out of her reverie.  “I’ve just spoken to my sister.  In your apartments, I was told that you had headed to the chapel.” 

She rose to her feet from the pew and swiveled to face him.  François was appareled in a doublet of tawny velvet, its placard embroidered with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and pearls.  A baldric of balas rubies dangled from his neck, matching his hose and toque of red silk.  Suddenly, embarrassment suffused her that her own gown was not as rich as that of other ladies at court. 

With her eyes glued to his, Anne’s hesitation evaporated.  She would marry François de Valois in order to extract her vengeance upon Henry Tudor – that homicidal narcissist of a singular sort had merited her abject loathing.  Against her will, she would lie in the King of France's arms on their wedding night like a lifeless clay doll, but afterwards, her body would never know a man’s passion again.  Anne would be alone for the rest of her life, surreptitiously dreaming of her ruined happiness in the dead of night like some crepuscular creature. 

Curtseying to him, the exiled woman spoke whimsically.  “If one is afraid of loneliness, then they should never marry.  As I do not fear it, I’ve acquiesced to incessantly tolerate it.” 

Befuddlement tinctured his visage.  “What are you implying, Madame?” 

“You have my consent, sire.” 

His lips twisted into a rigid smile of disbelief.  “You will marry me, won’t you?” 

“I will,” she confirmed. 

“Why?”  He averted his scrutiny to the fresco of Christ’s Ascension. 

She did not reply straight away.  Emitting a heavy sigh, she flicked her gaze to the stained-glass window above the altar, where saints and Old Testament prophets were depicted.  Being a devout reformer, Anne held deep disdain for the corrupt Roman Catholic Church.  Her repudiation of Catholic idolatry and some rituals, as well as the doctrine of intrinsic holiness was unequivocal, but she still liked stunning frescoes and multicolored stained-glasses in churches. 

“I have my own compelling reasons.”  Her voice was quiet and melodious, like the distant sound of a lute.  “I do not expect anything marvelous from our arrangement.  You will be absolutely free to do whatever you want, including to have as many mistresses as you wish and sire as many bastards as you can.  You have my blessing to continue your notorious escapades.” 

A spasm of hurt lanced through the monarch.  “We are allies, nothing else.” 

She veered her gaze to him.  “Of course.  I’ll become your symbol of unity against the Habsburgs.  I’ll aid you to work against them, as I’m yearning to see France as an independent, prosperous country.  In return, you will assist me in proving my innocence after we vanquish the emperor.”  Her voice thinned to a whisper.  “But there will be no marital relations between us.” 

An abashed François studied her, as if she were an antique painting.  “It is good that you want to restore my war-battered realm to peace.  But what else do you mean?”   

In a voice layered with finality, Anne elaborated, “I was informed that after Your Majesty consummated your marriage with the recently departed Queen Eleanor, you never performed your conjugal duties again.  That is exactly what awaits us in the future.” 

Something flickered in his eyes.  “Do you wish us to lead separate lives, Madame?” 

“Yes, I do, sire.  I’m aware that the non-consummation of marriage is one of the possible grounds for annulment.  Therefore, we shall have our wedding night, but nothing beyond it.” 

Her categorical statement hurt the ruler more than he could admit even to himself.  “Are you certain you want to be my queen?” 

“I am,” answered Anne in a tone as hard as granite.  “Your Majesty has two healthy sons to succeed you, so I do not consider it my duty to increase your progeny.”  

His eyes glimmered with amused recognition.  “Your main motive is vengeance.” 

She resolved to be brutally honest with him.  “Your guess has hit home.  Once France is freed from the Spaniards and safe, you will assist me in my quest for justice.”     

François corrected, “In taking revenge on Henry.” 

“I do believe in God,” she swore ceremoniously.  Her eyes narrowed like a warrior demon guarding the gate of a temple.  “Sometimes, vengeance is justifiable.  Henry murdered my brother and separated me from my daughter.  His lust for another woman literally killed me: he made me a shell of myself, and there is nothing left in the world for me.”  Lifting her chin defiantly, she hissed, “The hatchet of retribution shall fill the lives of my enemies with blood and tears.” 

The ruler approached the pew and settled himself there.  Staring into space, he did not know what to say and how to react to her fervent declaration.  Anne had just massacred his hope that their union could ever be something close to a more or less normal marriage of convenience.  His heart pounced into his throat like a lion, and anger stirred in him at the thought that his English archrival had transformed this wonderful woman into a dark avenging angel. 

At last, he turned to her.  “Very well.  I accept your terms.” 

“Then, we have a political arrangement.” 

The king scrutinized his unwilling bride.  Her gown and jewels were far less sumptuous than those she had worn on the day of her appearance at Fontainebleau.  Henry had stripped Anne of everything, so the pension Anne continued receiving from England was not enough to maintain her former luxurious lifestyle.  Yet, she looks so beautiful and almost innocent in her white gown. 

His mind dashed to the wedding.  “As it will take days to create your wedding dress, you can use something stunning from Claude’s old royal wardrobe – of course, not Eleanor’s.  The seamstresses will need to adjust fit and length of garments.  I recommend that you choose a gown of white silk or velvet worked with gold.  The color white is a symbol of purity, as well as of new beginnings, of wiping the slate clean.  Let’s give everyone a message of your innocence.”  

Her fleeting smile was a rare thing these days.  “Your idea about the color is great.”  She did not like that she would have to wear Queen Claude’s dress, but there was no other option. 

“You can use the Crown jewels thenceforth.” 

“You are most kind, Your Majesty.”  Deep down, she was profoundly amazed at his unforeseen generosity.  She did not deserve it after talking to him in such an unladylike way. 

He promised, “I’ll permit you to worship your religion in private.” 

“Thank you, sire.”  This was so unexpected that her eyes widened fractionally. 

“Now let me pray.”  He waved his hand, dismissing her.

Anne curtsied to him, and, casting one glance at the altar, crossed herself.  She then strode towards the door from the chapel, feeling disconcerted and anxious.  His voice halted her. 

François’ voice soared into the vastness of space.  “The Lord disciplines us in earthly life.  He also renders justice for the righteous and judgement for the wicked.  Do not rebel against Him, for it carries consequences for us.  Regardless of what you want, it shall be as God wills it.” 

Confusion as to the meaning of his speech flooded Anne.  She was also surprised that he had spoken to her in his charmingly accented English.  She echoed, “As God wills it.”

As Anne exited, the silence was complete.  Yet, it was so loud, for it had spoken once more about the desire of his bride-to-be to be perfectly independent from the king.   

§§§

The monarch swung his gaze to the fresco of the Last Judgement.  His eyes concentrated on the Jesus Christ as the Judge, who was surrounded by an inner ring of twelve paired roundels containing angels and the Elders of the Apocalypse.  An outer ring consisted of twelve roundels, depicting the dead, appearing from their tombs, and the angels, blowing trumpets to summon them to judgement.  At this moment, François’ entire life narrowed to the Almighty’s judgment. 

Words of fervid prayer tumbled from his lips.  “Dear gracious Lord, bless my country and me in this difficult hour.  My people and I are all your creatures, and the work of your holy hands.  Everything comes to us through the Holy Spirit, and I beseech you to help me save France.” 

As he finished his prayer, he crossed himself, but did not leave the chapel. 

Thoughts of his wedding to Anne scattered about his consciousness, as he pondered his personal situation.  He silently laughed at his sister’s words about the possibility of his affectionate relationship with Anne.  He did not love Anne Boleyn, but even this woman, consumed by hatred, intrigued, puzzled, and fascinated him, like no other did.  Dealing with Anne is more difficult than with the Persian fleet during the invasion of Athens in Aeschylus’ brilliant tragedyThe Persians’.  

Truth be told, Anne Boleyn interested the king far more than he expected and admitted to himself.  While he had fought against the invaders in Provence, the image of Anne’s graceful entry into his favorite gallery upon her arrival at Fontainebleau had resurfaced in his head from time to time.  He had no clue as to how that vision had come to be fastened to his brain like a handcuff. 

François sighed at the thought of his maîtresse-en-titre, whom he had sent away to avoid any collision with her regarding his nuptials.  Being beautiful like Venus, the Roman Goddess of love, beauty, and desire, Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly, Duchess d’Étampes, was his chief paramour since his return from the Spanish captivity in 1527.  He had spoiled her beyond measure and given her so much power that she had become too demanding, too overweening, and too clingy.    

His womanizing tendencies were such that he was not faithful to whoever he romanced with.  At present, the monarch also had other constant mistress – Claude de Rohan-Gié, dame de Thoury, who had caught his eye a year earlier.  A damsel who had just stepped into adulthood, Claude had not yet been tainted by ambition, although she was curious about all aspects of life, government, politics, history, and, most of all, the arts.  In contrast to Anne de Pisseleu, Claude was docile and even-tempered, yet gay and mischievous like a summer insect.

The former Queen of England and his two main paramours were all intelligent and well-educated.  Nonetheless, François reckoned that any female creature paled in comparison to his future wife, who was the most unique woman he had ever met.  Claude was not a type of person to interfere with politics, but the two Annes were amazons, whose initiatives could create a duel between them for the influence upon the ruler.  But Anne Boleyn was not interested in him as a man, so there would be no competition for his heart and for a place in his bed. 

The king’s thoughts meandered back to the war.   “God help me!  Your will shall prevail.” 

Rising to his feet, King François made the sign of a cross and quitted the church. 

§§§

Meanwhile, Anne Boleyn trudged through the hallways splendidly decorated and full of paintings and sculptures.  These were the works of the first school of Fontainebleau which had been established by Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Primaticcio.  Some of these things, however, had been brought from Italy before Fiorentino and Primaticcio joined the Valois court. 

“I’m in an artistic paradise,” Anne said to herself as she admired her surroundings. 

The fabulous frescoes on the walls exhibited an elaborate system of mythological symbols and allegories.  All of the elegant objects of art showed strong influence of the techniques of the Italian Mannerism of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Parmigianino.  The eccentric decorative motifs such as grotesques, putti, and strapwork were omnipresent in the château.  The rich use of stucco moldings and picture frames added to the atmosphere of extravagant grandeur.   

Anne passed through the corridor adorned with marble nymphs.  Her gaze lingered on the frescoes of the Roman Venus and her son, Cupid, the god of desire and erotic love.  Usually, she was in awe from such masterpieces, but today, the eroticism of statues and iconography made her blush, perhaps after the discourse with the king and her refusal to perform her wifely duties. 

“How was your meeting with my brother?”  This compelled Lady Boleyn to pause. 

“Your Majesty.”  Anne lowered herself into a curtsey.  “All went well, just as you want.”

The king’s sister requested, “We do not need any formalities.”  She came to her future sister-in-law and raised the other woman from the curtsey.  “Address me by my name.”

“I would prefer to remain formal, Madame.” 

“Why?!”  Marguerite’s voice was layered with hurt and astonishment.  “We have known one another for so long!  In several days, we will become both allies and sisters, Anne.” 

Her countenance perfectly blank, Anne viewed Marguerite from head to toe.  The Queen of Navarre was accoutered in a fashionable gown of olive green brocade, her stomacher covered with gems.  Over her gown, she wore a surcoat of silver satin embroidered with gold, and having loose, hanging sleeves.  Her cap of emerald velvet was festooned with jaunty white feathers. 

Although they had not seen each other for many years, the Queen of Navarre was still in her prime.  Marguerite had aged exceedingly well, even though her heavy schedule of diligent work in her brother’s and her husband’s governments had frequently exhausted her.  Her face looked all soft and smooth, for she had almost no wrinkles, and its alabaster color was so natural that it could have served as a painter’s model.  Marguerite was slender, and her figure beautifully proportioned, perhaps because she had not been almost constantly pregnant, like many other wives. 

Marguerite and François both have somewhat a saturnine complexion, Anne observed.  From beneath her cap, the tendrils of Marguerite’s long, glossy, chestnut hair was streaming down her back in a stylish display of ringlets.  Two brown pools of fire and vivacity – those Valois amber eyes which were the distinctive hallmark of the House of Valois-Orléans-Angoulême – held an unparalleled wisdom borne of experience and of a profound understanding of mankind and the world.  The royal brother and sister resembled one another unmistakably in their features. 

A tide of sentimentality swept over Anne as her mind journeyed to the days of her happy youth.  Marguerite de Valois, who was also known as Marguerite d’Angoulême and Marguerite de Navarre, had invited the young Mademoiselle Boleyn to her literary circle, encouraging her to participate in discussions about theology, literature, philosophy, music, and the arts.  Although for the most part, the teenage Anne had been tucked away in Claude of France’s apartments due to the queen’s almost annual pregnancies, Marguerite had taken a strong liking to the amicable and intellectually gifted Boleyn girl and frequently summoned Anne to her presence. 

In Anne’s early adolescence, Marguerite had been the main ornament of King François’ court, while their mother, Louise de Savoy, had held the reins of power.  Over time, Marguerite had become as prominent, formidable, and artful a politician as Louise, and the three of them had constituted the celebrated Holy Trinity, as they called themselves and as poets referred to them.  Strong and brave like a female incarnate of a knight, Marguerite was also immensely intelligent and superbly educated, which made her one of the most remarkable women of the era. 

“La Marguerite des Marguerites,” Anne referred to the ruler’s sister as her royal brother styled her fondly.  “You have always been graceful of person, attractive of feature and abundantly so of personality, dainty in manner, as well as sprightly and active in intellect.  Despite all of your numerous achievements, you are quite modest, and, thus, praised; you are also pious and amiable in disposition.  You are truly a paragon of virtue in the depraved French court.” 

Sighing, Marguerite stepped to her.  “Anne, it is not easy for you, and your past is hanging over you like the blackest night.  But I swear that my brother is a good man.” 

Resolutely, Anne backed away.  “Your Majesty, I’ll be honored to be your sister-in-law and to help you save France.  However, the friendship of royals is as fickle as their love, fluctuating constantly.  Your affection for me might perish if I somehow displease your beloved brother.  So, I prefer isolation to the prospect of perhaps being let down again.” 

A silent apology in her eyes, Anne quoted Clément Marot’s eulogy in Marguerite’s honor. 

Entre autres dons de grâces immortelles,

Madame écrit si haut et doucement,

Que je m’étonne, en voyant choses telles,

Qu’on n’en reçoit plus d’ebanissement.

Puis quand je l’ouis parler si sagement,

Et que je vois sa plume travailler,

Je tourne bride, et m’ébanis comment

On est si sot de s’en émerveiller.

After curtsying to the Navarrese queen, Anne darted down the hallway to her quarters.  Her abrupt departure cast a pall of dejection over Marguerite, and over what could have been a joyful reunion of the two women who had liked each other genuinely throughout many years. 


 

August 10, 1536, Château de Fontainebleau, Fontainebleau, France

Surrounded by his entourage, King François strolled through the corridor, occasionally stopping to chat with someone.  But the corridors were almost deserted, as if everything had died and been forgotten.  There was no gossip in the corners, no laughter and chatter in hallways, as well as no drama, scandal, and intrigue, all of them interwoven like a bramble thicket. 

Due to the swift advancement of the Imperial forces towards Paris, the French court had been evacuated to Château de Villers-Cotterêts, located in the town of Villers-Cotterêts in Picardie.  Dauphin Henri and his wife, Catherine de’ Medici, as well as the other royal children – Princess Marguerite and Princess Charles, Duke d’Orléans – had been taken there for their safety.  

Anne de Montmorency enlightened, “Your Majesty, the King of Scotland refused to send his troops to us.  But I’ve already sent our envoys to many Protestant countries.” 

“Excellent, Monty,” the monarch commended as they entered the chamber with dramatic wall hangings of battles and tourneys.  “We will have an audience with them after the ceremony.  As for the Scots, if they want to dishonor our old Auld alliance, then so be it.” 

“The Scots are traitors to France,” grumbled Montmorency. 

As they quitted the room into a hallway, the ruler continued bitterly, “I did not expect that James Stuart would betray not only our friendship, but also his own wife – my Madeleine.” 

King François remembered his favorite daughter – Princess Madeleine of France, who was the Queen of Scotland.  A year earlier, James V of the Scots had contracted to marry Mary de Bourbon and journeyed to France to meet her.  During his reception at Fontainebleau, James had noticed the youthful Madeleine, whose exquisite beauty was like the ethereal loveliness of a female saint on the stained-glass windows in grand basilicas.  Utterly smitten with the Valois princess, James had forgotten about his Bourbon bride-to-be and begun courting Madeleine.   

That Stuart beggar-king implored me to let him marry my Madeleine, François recalled, his hands clenching in anger.  Has he ever really loved my girl? Or did he simply need her huge dowry for his impoverished realm?  Madeleine’s fragile health worried François, so he had initially rejected the match.  But his daughter had fallen in love with James so passionately that she had beseeched him with tears to approve of her choice of a husband. Emboldened by her affection for him, James had entreated the king to allow them to be happy together, vowing to love her forever. 

Finally, the King of France had surrendered to his daughter’s and James’ solicitations.  The wedding had occurred in Paris in October 1535, and, after months of lavish celebrations, they had left for Scotland.  Since then, François and Madeleine maintained regular correspondence, and the gradual decline of his daughter’s health was frightening.  His fears that the harsh Scottish climate would considerably weaken Madeleine had turned out warranted, and François prayed that the speed with which they reached the lethal heights of disaster would not be too quick. 

Cardinal de Tournon began his report, interrupting the ruler’s musings.  “Your Majesty, I’ve made all the arrangements for the wedding.  Madame Boleyn and you will have a Catholic ceremony binding you to each other through the standard rite of holy matrimony.” 

The ruler answered, “I trust you wholeheartedly, Your Eminence.  However, we also need to procure a papal dispensation for our marriage.” 

“Why, my liege?”  interjected Claude de Lorraine, Duke de Guise. 

The cardinal berated, “Monsieur de Guise, you should not ask the king such questions.” 

“It is fine,” the monarch said imperturbably.  “At the heart of great leadership are people with their curious minds and spirits.  Most of my courtiers heard about my erstwhile affair with Mary Boleyn, who is now Lady Stafford.”  Inwardly, he was irritated by the mention of his affair with Mary, for Anne must remember about it as well. 

François cast a glance at Claude de Lorraine.  His subject was a talented general, who had distinguished himself at the Battle of Marignano in 1515, and who had become governor of Champagne and Burgundy after defeating at Neufchâteau the Imperial troops in 1523.  For his outstanding service to the Crown, Claude had been elevated to Duke of Guise in 1528, although, up to that time, only princes of the blood had held the title of duke and peer of France.   

Duke Claude de Guise was a man of athletic build, with an aura of drama and refined elegance about him.  Clad in a doublet and hose of the finest green and black brocade, embellished with gems, he swaggered with a larger-than-life confidence and a unique sense of the Guise pride, yet there was an aggressive air about him.  His pompous countenance, framed by a flat cap of brown velvet, was set off by his black mustache and his sharp, hazel eyes. 

Guise apologized, “I’m sorry, Your Majesty.” 

“It is fine,” reiterated François.  “Your Eminence?” 

Circumstances beyond Tournon’s control worried him.  “I’ll think of what I can do.”  He sighed.  “The Pope has not upbraided the emperor for his recent actions towards Your Majesty.  He will not be happy when Your Majesty allies with Protestant duchies and countries.” 

The French monarch stopped abruptly, and his councilors followed suit, the tension in the air mounting.  Decorated by paintings by the Florentine master Giovanni Battista di Jacopo, the vast hallway was empty, so they could speak without being eavesdropped upon. 

A furrow formed on the king’s forehead.  His mind drifted to the Pope’s letters which his spies had intercepted a month earlier.  François was still shocked that Sir William Brereton, who had been accused of being Anne’s paramour and executed, had been an assassin sent by Pope Pole III.  I’m a Catholic.  However, I agree with the reformers that the Vatican is too steeped in politics.  A Pope is capable of committing any evil deed.  He would tell Anne about it, but not now. 

Exasperation lurked in the amber eyes.  “Coerce His Holiness into submission, for I need this document.  I know something about him that he would not want to be divulged to the public.” 

Tournon nodded at the sovereign of France, whose countenance softened.  Montmorency and Guise looked at their liege lord with interest, but they did not dare ask him anything. 

“Let’s go,” instructed the king as he stalked towards the council room. 

Montmorency spoke up.  “Any meeting of Military Council is a serious thing!  We are all looking for a chance to kill those Spanish dogs and win a great victory for France.” 

“I crave to kill them all,” grouched Guise. 

There was a low rumble of affirmation from the king and his advisors. 

François stated, “If you believe in yourself and have dedication and strength, you will be a winner, even if you lose in the short run.  The price of victory is high, but so are the rewards.” 

The ruler tried to elevate their spirits, and a roar of laughter rose up from everyone.  

§§§

The purple shadows of dusk mantled the palace.  The evening was warm and balmy, so the windows in the council room were ajar.  A light breeze drifted inside, carrying with it the faint sounds of bird chirping and the intoxicating fragrance of blossoms from the gardens. 

The king emitted a heavy sigh.  “Which territories have the invaders captured?” 

Anne de Montmorency began his doleful report.  “Provence, Dauphine, and Languedoc, as well as the Duchies of Auvergne, Bourbon, and Berry are occupied by the enemy.” 

King François, Queen Marguerite of Navarre, and royal advisers sat at a table piled with maps, parchments, and scrolls, as well as inkwells and quills.  To everyone’s astonishment, and perhaps someone’s dismay, Lady Anne Boleyn was also present at the monarch’s request.  Philippe de Chabot, Admiral de Brion, was not there because he was still convalescing from his wounds.      

 “Any other awful tidbits?”  asked the monarch in a controlled voice.  In the flickering candlelight, his pallid face had a light of its own, as did the amber eyes – fatalistic light. 

“Nothing, my liege,” answered Montmorency tonelessly.   

François emitted a grievous sigh.  “It could have been worse.” 

Tapping his fingers onto the armrests, the monarch eyed the map laid out on the table, his scrutiny focusing on the south of France, which was circled in bold.  An icy breeze of mortal dread blew through his inner realm at the thought of the monstrous danger his country now faced. 

Currently, France's political landscape was bleak.  In November 1535, the third Valois-Habsburg war had begun with the death of Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan.  In the absence of Sforza’s legitimate heirs, Emperor Carlos had enjoined his representative to take charge of the Duchy of Milan, and there had been no protests among the local populace.  Being a descendant of Valentina Visconti, King François firmly believed that Asti and the Duchy of Milan were rightfully his.  On this account, in March 1536, the French army under the command of Philippe de Chabot had entered Turin and captured Piedmont, but it had failed to take Milan. 

At least, King François was lucky that the Imperial martial enthusiasm had slackened in Italy, so his country did not need to fight on multiple fronts.  In France, the invasion continued, and, since the catastrophe at Arles, the Imperial forces had moved further north, where they had encircled the area around the town of Montpensier.  The local French divisions had unexpectedly launched such a fierce attack that, for some time, they had managed to block the previously rapid advancement of the Habsburg forces through the duchy.  But Montpensier had fallen after a short siege, so Emperor Carlos together with his brother, Ferdinand, had pushed forward. 

When the Habsburg troops had approached Moulins, the town garrisons had declined to surrender, although a number of small skirmishes had occurred.  Embarking upon their campaign with élan, Carlos and Ferdinand had turned towards the city of Tours in the center-west of France, having reached the place approximately two weeks ago.  To counter them, Guillaume du Bellay, seigneur de Langey and the governor of Piedmont, had arrived from the Duchy of Savoy together with the French army of eight thousand men.  Bellay’s divisions had tried to intercept and squash the enemy, but, unfortunately, they had rapidly been sighted by the opponents. 

The hostile parties had confronted one another near Tours. A large part of the Imperial formation of about ten thousand men had assembled in lines on the marshes, and the scorching barrage of their artillery fire had annihilated most of the French infantry and cavalry.  Guillaume du Bellay's divisions had resisted until the last man had been killed, including Bellay himself. The victory at Tours was a clear and ruthless message that the Habsburgs were not lenient towards those who opposed them. At present, the King of France's troops were in disarray, while the Spanish marched towards their final and much-wanted destination – the grand city of Paris.

The fiasco of the French in Provence and the subjugation of the southern territories had resulted in the urgent necessity for France to make new anti-Imperial alliances.  Therefore, most of the royal councilors, even Catholics, had concluded that they needed the king’s marriage to Anne.  It was no secret that, even despite her condemnation and exile, Protestant nations saw Anne Boleyn as the symbol of England’s break from Rome and lauded her for her role in the ongoing religious reform.  It was better to have her as the Queen of France rather than be crippled by the Spanish and perhaps lose at least half of the country to the Habsburgs.  Due to the ruler’s order to evacuate the court to Picardie, the reaction of the French royal family was not yet known. 

Cardinal de Tournon informed, “Your Majesty, our spies reported that the Imperial forces had reached the County of Sancerre several days earlier.  Emperor Carlos intends to march to either Blois or Amboise, boasting that he will spend a wonderful time at your palaces.”     

The king’s features were pallid, but not a muscle trembled.  “It takes a real man to make such a sincere confession.  It cloaks one of the seven deadly sins – the envy Carlos feels because his empire’s cultural achievements shall never surpass those of Italy and France.” 

Anne listened carefully, catching every word and analyzing it.  After wandering around, her eyes rested on François.  It was truly impressive how he masked his turbulent emotions with nonchalant sangfroid.  Since their meeting in the chapel, the king was very friendly and courteous to her, his demeanor cheerful, as if filled with devilish confidence befitting a conqueror. 

Their gazes intersected, and François grinned wanly at Anne.  Despite his blank façade, he was overwrought, the impervious darkness of anguish pulsating through him.  His head was spinning from the uncertainty as to the end of France’s woes.  Moreover, the monarch was still profoundly shocked by the defeat at Arles, guilt eating at him like a festering sore. 

Marguerite drummed her fingers against the table.  “The more ill-gotten gains people have, the more they brag.  But that Spanish barbarian will not destroy our glorious culture.” 

The Marshal of France opined, “Although the French southern and eastern armies were crushed, we still have the northern army near the border with Flanders.  Our armies stationed in Piedmont and Savoy must be recalled back to France.  To stop our foe’s voyage further north, they should join all our remaining forces in the County of Sancerre, where our enemies have hovered for some time.  We need to compel the adversary to withdraw south.” 

François arched a brow.  “When what, Monty?” 

In the voice of a legendary general, Montmorency continued, “I would rather not have a cutthroat encounter with the powerful, disciplined, and well-appointed Imperial troops.”  He trailed off for a split second.  “We might give the adversary a battle that would bleed them of their best officers and men.  By doing so, we will ensure the retreat of the Spanish back to Bourbon, Auvergne, and then Provence.  If the rest of our army from Savoy and Piedmont intercepts the enemies, we will engage with them in Provence, and we will have a chance to win.” 

A frown puckered the royal brow.  “You have a brilliant military mind, Monty.  However, I do not want the foe to retire from France while we pursue them.  I prefer to crush them once and for all.  If we play our cards well, we will entrap that Spanish intriguer.” 

With a sigh, Marguerite glanced at Montmorency.  “More Habsburg armies might arrive during their retreat.  They might also recruit more mercenaries and launch a new campaign.” 

Deep down, the ruler was extremely frustrated.  “As a crafty commander, Carlos might goad us into a fresh offensive while having a trump card up his sleeve.  Moreover, even if we win, the French might lose more men while following the enemy in close pursuit.” 

The king’s sister heaved a mournful sigh.  “Haven’t we already lost enough?” 

The initial response to her question was a lugubrious silence.  There was a nagging ache in everyone’s chest just beneath the surface.  The stillness deepened to the point where it seemed that the assemblage’s mind was perpetually on the imaginings of impending doom.  The walls, hung with tapestries depicting tragedies by Aeschylus, added to the despairing gloom. 

“More than enough,” the king muttered at last.  “At both Arles and Tours…” 

Claude de Lorraine, Duke de Guise, entered the conversation.  “I suggest that we do not engage the bulk of the Imperial forces all at once.  Instead, we should divide them while they are in the lands of Sancerre, Bourbon, or Auvergne by bringing a large portion of our own armies to bear on their small units in sequence.  This tactic exposes some of our units to many small risks and skirmishes, but it ensures the eventual destruction of the entire Spanish force.” 

There was blackness in Tournon’s gaze.  “How will we defend our divisions which have no effective communications with the central command and cannot request assistance?” 

A spleenful Guise swore under his breath.  “Your Eminence is France’s foreign minister, not a general.  I fought with His Majesty at Marignano and recovered from twenty-two wounds.” 

“Enough, Monsieur de Guise.”  The king did not want his advisors to be at each other’s throats.  “Your offer is worth considering, but I agree with His Eminence’s assessment of risks.” 

Annebault chimed in, “Defeating foe in detail can be an effective strategy.  Nevertheless, the Imperial armies are fully equipped and unshaken in discipline.  They also have powerful chiefs.  At the same time, our troops lost the morale due to our losses.”   With an air of melancholy about him, he concluded, “We must restore our confidence before rebuilding momentum.” 

The monarch fidgeted with a parchment.  “You are right, Claude.”  A short silence ensued, as he tapped the quill against the table.  “A defensive role brings about a distinct lowering of the morale of the soldiers, who imagine that the adversary must be far more competent in the martial art.  If they become possessed by this idea, the battle is as good as lost.” 

Marguerite pointed out, “We are fighting not on enemy soil but on our own land.  And we were not even able to maintain a successful defense for a protracted period.” 

Forgetting that she had not been permitted to speak, Anne interposed, “It is true that the defensive party becomes ignorant of the dispositions and plans of the opponent.  Thus, the sooner the defensive strategy evolves into an offensive one, the higher the morale of the French will be.  The persistence of the losing party will eventually have a natural effect – victory.”  

“Pray continue, Lady Anne,” François encouraged. 

The advisors stared at their liege lord open-mouthed.  Marguerite smiled knowingly. 

In a bemused tone, Anne quizzed, “Do I really have Your Majesty’s permission?” 

The ruler’s lips stretched into a grin.  “The more often women sit at the negotiation table and share their ideas in the voice of female intelligence and wisdom, the more feats men will accomplish.  Gender doesn’t define astuteness in politics – intelligence and perspective do.”  

Anne’s scintillating smile revealed her awe.  “Is it your experience, sire?” 

His heart humming with gladness, François thought that it was her first luminous smile since her arrival at his court.  “Of course.  Impeccably educated and intelligent women have always played an important role in my realm.  When my beloved mother, Louise de Savoy – God bless her soul – was alive, Marguerite, our mother, and I together held the government in our hands.” 

Marguerite jested, “François is determined to abide by my advice until Doomsday.” 

The ruler bubbled into an effusive laughter.  “A lady can remain a feminine creature with a touch of sophistication, while also being smart and tough.”  Leaning forward across the table, as if closer to the Lady Boleyn, he gazed into her eyes.  “I’ve always admired women for intelligence, education, and personality.  Beauty is never enough.” 

Anne found François’ approach to the mental abilities of the female gender a stark and pleasing contrast to Henry’s.  I was degraded to a shadow of my former self during my marriage to Henry Tudor, she silently lamented.  His domineering tendencies made me so miserable.    

Truth be told, despite his excellent education, King Henry had never possessed an artistic spirit of refined and delicate disposition.  Her former husband had valued the intellectual fabrics of her personality only during their long courtship.  After their wedding, Henry had said that her counsel and opinion had not been the hallmark of a good, docile wife, so he had channeled their relationship into a more traditional torrent.  Henry had enjoined Anne to submit herself to his rule and guidance in all things, great and small, accepting his judgments on all matters. 

King François had ushered France into an era of unparalleled enlightenment.  Their union would be purely political, yet he could be willing to benefit from Anne’s intelligence.  Educated in humanism, the arts, philosophy, literature, and history, he was a true Renaissance man, who was attracted to feminine beauty and equally admired the sophistication of a woman’s personality.  I do not care about François as a man.  Yet, he does have a unique eye for life.  He is a great patron of the arts, who has attained a genuine alliance between the arts and the court life. 

The king prodded, “Do not be so shy, Madame Boleyn.  Share with us your thoughts.” 

Anne was proud that the ruler had requested that.  “I believe that France cannot win the war against the Habsburgs without defying the established rules of warfare.  Taking into account our current dire predicament, it is vitally important to convert the unfavorable circumstances into the means of success.  Perhaps the time has come for turning a new leaf in the history of war.” 

Marguerite’s eyes flashed with curiosity.  “Please, elaborate, Anne.” 

Anne’s countenance was like that of a painter at work upon a portrait that would become a masterpiece.  “With such numbers and location of troops, no advantages can be obtained against the vast and disciplined armies of the Holy Roman Empire.  However, if the established rules of etiquette and strategy are abandoned, the rapidity and unexpectedness of motion can utterly surprise the superior numbers of the Spaniards, and in this case, we will defeat them.” 

“This is too general, Madame.”  Irritation colored Guise’s voice. 

Anne stared at the tapestry, portraying scenes from the Persians by Aeschylus.  She had always been interested in the Persians’ second invasion of Greece.  “In 480 BC, the huge Persian armies assembled and crushed the allied Greek states at Thermopylae.  Then the Persians torched the evacuated city of Athens and conquered most of Greece.  However, while seeking to destroy the combined Greek fleet, the Persians endured a serious defeat at Salamis.  After a short rest, the Greeks counterattacked and won the Battle of Plataea, ending the invasion.” 

Claude de Guise sent her an annoyed look.  “Too much mythology.” 

“It matters a lot,” objected Anne, leaning back in her seat with evident enjoyment.  “The Greek troops were totally vanquished by the Persians, losing their country.  Yet, they were able to keep their morale up and continue fighting.”  She lapsed into silence and raked her eyes over the spectators.  “France is now in the same position as the allied Greek states were back then.” 

Impressed by the breadth of her knowledge in history, François noted, “We cannot have a naval battle with the Spaniards, who are now almost in the center of France.” 

Anne possessed a masterful grasp of politics.  “A sea battle can be part of your strategy.  The Ottoman Empire is France’s ally, so you can send an envoy to Suleiman the Magnificent and ask him to attack some Spanish ports and Genoa.  Spain exchanges the riches from the New World for gold in Genoa, and the city’s siege will result in the lack of funds in the emperor’s treasury.  Your enemy will be unable to pay his troops.” 

“Bravo!”  cried Claude d’Annebault.  “That would bleed the Spanish finances!” 

Anne smiled at Annebault, who responded in kind.  His expression good-humored and radiating energy, his body was thin for a martial man.  His mischievous green eyes indicated that he had a quick-witted, warm personality.  Claude’s doublet and hose of russet serge corresponded with his mellow temper which was also reflected in his easy manner of leading conversation.  Anne would try to befriend Annebault, who was evidently amicable towards her. 

Tournon surveyed their future queen with interest.  “That is a brilliant idea.  The Ottomans might attack the Italian ports ruled by the Habsburgs, including Genoa, as well as Spanish ones.” 

The Queen of Navarre surveyed Anne raptly.  “Such detrimental external problems would distract the emperor from his obsession to subjugate France.” 

The King of France watched his fiancée, as if she were the rarest painting in the world.  His mother and sister were the strongest, most educated, and most accomplished women he had ever known, both of them capable of thinking as a man of action.  Claude of France, a daughter of King Louis XII and his first wife, had been a strong woman, who had stood firm for her opinions, but her mind had never been as masculine as his mother’s and sister’s.  Anne Boleyn is another strong woman who is capable of ruling as a queen regnant, François surmised.  

“Ah, I like this option,” murmured Montmorency with an odd note in his voice. 

There was a strained smile on Guise’s visage.  “That would be a productive tactic.” 

The Baron de Montmorency and the Duke de Guise were both devout Catholics.  Thus, they both disliked Anne due to her religious beliefs and her role in England’s break from Rome.  The Marshal of France had accepted the inevitability of his liege lord’s marriage to Anne, while the duke would never acknowledge the heretical woman he hated as the Queen of France.  But despite their differences, they reluctantly admired Anne’s intelligence and her quick thinking. 

Anne flipped her eyes between Montmorency and Guise.  A torrent of tension flowed between them, and perhaps she could use it to her advantage.  Probably, they are rivals for the king’s affections, she conjectured.  Montmorency was a powerful man, but so was Guise, who belonged to the House of Lorraine and descended from the Capetian House of Anjou. 

The Duke de Guise frowned at the woman whom he labeled ‘The heretical Boleyn whore’ in his mind.  These words were on the tip of his tongue, but he did not pronounce anything.  Immediately, Anne experienced a strong distaste for the man, finding Montmorency a far friendlier person.  The tip of the duke’s nose curved over his mustache, and his eyes pierced her with apparent animosity.  With an air of sinister, yet rarefied, daintiness about him, Guise did not look like a martial man, unlike Anne de Montmorency with his severe countenance.  Perhaps Guise posed more of a threat to Anne than Montmorency, although they both were against new religious ideas. 

François addressed Anne, “Something else on your mind?” 

With an acerbic smile, Anne promulgated, “The devious emperor might be defeated only with cunning methods.  The trap for him must have a ghastly perfection.”  She glanced into the monarch’s eyes as she pronounced, “My union with Your Majesty shall allow France to establish new important alliances.  As the Spaniards are currently in Sancerre, they can be encircled by the armies of France and her allies in this county or somewhere nearby.  Every movement by the allied forces should be made with celerity, and every blow should be leveled where it is least expected.” 

The ruler identified his archenemy’s main weakness.  “Carlos’ overconfidence shall help us outwit him.  He cannot imagine that we will ally with the German Protestant States and other Protestant nations.  He will not know that we will secure the assistance of the Turks.  Our allied army will be an army of attack, not of defense; of operation, not of position.” 

Montmorency emphasized, “We will have to create a complex plan.” 

Everyone nodded at the Marshal of France.  It was their first meeting regarding France’s future military actions; many debates would run hot and heavy in months to come. 

Marguerite stressed, “As well as Anne’s marriage to my brother.” 

“It will happen in a few days.”  The king’s charming grin brightened the room. 

Annebault looked between François and Anne.  He was growing fond of Anne, and her religious background was not his concern.  “Will the emperor learn about your wedding?” 

The sovereign of France inclined his head.  “Of course.  Everyone will.”    

Jean de Guise inquired, “Does Your Majesty really need to proceed with the wedding?” 

“Yes, I do.  Is that clear?”  The ruler’s tone was like that of a mother berating her child. 

“I’m sorry.”  Guise bobbed his head like a bird pecking at grain. 

The monarch maneuvered to the topic at hand.  “Lady Anne and I are the injured parties in this pyramid of schemes.  Woe to the sinners and victory to the afflicted!  We shall win!”  

Montmorency broached another issue.  “Does Your Majesty plan to ally with England?”

The monarch shook his head.  “Definitely not.  Henry proved himself to be a bad ally.”

“He betrayed us once,” reminded Marguerite. 

The king’s response left everyone flabbergasted.  “I’ll deal with Henry later.” 

Two dark pools met the amber caverns.  Anne and François deciphered the same message: the English king would hate them upon learning about their matrimony, which amused them.   

François pledged, “Anne, I’ll invite you to the next council.” 

With unaccustomed shyness, his bride blurted out, “Really, sire?” 

The king issued a joke.  “I want to see the bellicose Goddess Minerva at my side.” 

Marguerite burst out laughing, Annebault and Tournon joining in her laugh.  Guise and Montmorency kept their expressions guarded.  The perceived divergence of their reactions to the king’s marriage was rather perilous.  Dark clouds, as if premonitory, scudded across the vaulted ceiling, but a bit of blue firmament came in sight as Anne and François smiled at each other.   

Chapter Text

Chapter 4:  Sublime Immortality

August 15, 1536, Château de Fontainebleau, Fontainebleau, France

The earth-shattering wedding of King François I of France and Lady Anne Boleyn was a private ceremony.  Currently, the court resided in the safety of Villers-Cotterêts in Picardie on the monarch’s orders, so a small number of nobles gathered in the Chapel of the Trinity. 

The ruler, his bride, and the congregation occupied their places in the sanctuary near the altar.  Candles blazed like belligerent flares on a battlefield.  As Mass commenced, the atmosphere evolved into a deep somberness, as if conveying the fatal aura surrounding the country.    

Robed in his rich, crimson vestment, Cardinal François de Tournon led the ceremony, his monotonous voice droning on in Latin.  After the introductory rites, he invited the assemblage to pray for France.  At the conclusion of the prayer, the Liturgy of the Word followed.  

The responsorial psalm succeeded the first reading, fostering everyone’s meditation on the word of the Almighty.  The cardinal read aloud the Book of Psalms from the Bible. 

Your ways, oh Lord, make known to me,

Teach me your paths,

Guide me in your truth and teach me,

For you are God my savior.

To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.

Wretched as Anne had long felt herself to be, her former state was nothing compared to what she endured at the present moment.  Amazement, helplessness, fright, grief, panic, and even ire – all struggled in her breast, contending for supremacy.  As her husband-to-be took her hand and laced their fingers, she cast a timid glance around, as if to ascertain the reality of her fate. 

Bending his head to her, François whispered, “Are you all right?” 

“I’m fine,” lied Anne, not looking at him.   

He caressed her palm with his thumb.  “You can still stop it.” 

Her gaze darted to his face.  “No.” 

In spite of not being a Catholic, Anne eagerly listened to the soul-stirring psalms.  She scrutinized the frescoes on the walls, her gaze lingering on the scene of the Annunciation.

Good and upright is the Lord,

Thus, he shows sinners the way.

He guides the humble to justice,

And teaches the humble his way.

To you, o Lord, I lift my soul.

The stream of mind-wrenching and unanswerable questions preyed upon Anne.  Was the Lord teaching her His paths by making her a queen once more?  Would He bring Henry who had perpetrated many evil deeds against her to justice?  Should she accept her second marriage?  And what was her destiny?  The words from the psalms injected confusion into her.   

At the end of the reading, Tournon crossed himself.  “The Word of the Lord!” 

The audience responded, “Thanks be to God.” 

Anne whispered to herself, “Oh, Jesus, to you I commend my life.” 

At the conclusion of the next part, the cardinal declared, “The Gospel of the Lord!” 

Those in attendance exclaimed, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ!” 

Then the Liturgy of the Eucharist, a central rite of Christian worship, was served.  To all Catholics and Protestants, it was a memorial action, in which God’s children recalled what Jesus Christ was, said, and did.  Anne was entirely concentrated on the ceremony, as if the whole ritual had unburdened her of the heavy load of her countless sorrows and errors. 

In a quiet voice that vibrated in his chest, François uttered, “Participation in the Eucharist deepens the communion of believers not only with Christ but also with one another.” 

Anne’s hand trembled in his.  “Perhaps.” 

After the communion rite, the gifts of bread and wine were brought up, along with other gifts.  A reformer at heart, Anne would gladly have exchanged wine for grape juice or water, but she could not.  Finally, an offertory prayer was recited, and the concluding rites ended the Mass. 

At Cardinal de Tournon’s sign, everyone stood up, including the monarch and his fiancée.  It was high time for the celebration of matrimony, and a deep silence reigned in the chapel.

§§§

Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, and Anne de Montmorency stepped closer to the bride and bridegroom.  They acted as witnesses, but their attitude to the affair could not be more opposite. 

“Do not be so sad,” whispered Marguerite to the Marshal of France. 

Montmorency shrugged.  “How can I feel, Your Majesty?”

She lowered her voice considerably.  “You know that it is needed at this stage.”

“I do,” he breathed.  “Otherwise, I would never have supported it.” 

“Calm down.  There shall never be any church reform in France.” 

He bobbed his head.  “This puts my mind at ease, though only slightly.” 

All knew that the Queen of Navarre had presented the idea of this marriage to François and even procured Anne’s consent.  No one was surprised to see Marguerite’s smiling countenance today.  Like many others, Montmorency had his reservations about the union and looked sullen. 

§§§

Dearly beloved, you have come together into the house of the Church so that in the presence of God and the community your intention to enter into marriage may be strengthened by the Lord with a sacred seal.  So, in the presence of the Church, I ask you to state your intentions.

The cardinal’s declaration knifed Anne to the heart.  Tournon then questioned them about their freedom of choice, fidelity to each other, as well as the acceptance and upbringing of children. 

Have you come here to enter into marriage freely and wholeheartedly?  Are you prepared to love and honor each other for as long as you both shall live?  Are you prepared to accept children lovingly from God and to bring them up according to the law of Christ? 

To each of these questions, François and Anne answered, “I am” or “I have.” 

The French ruler and his bride knelt on a bridal canopy of golden and blue silk.  Joining their right hands, they declared their consent before the Almighty and the Church. 

His heart palpitating with unfamiliar reverent emotion, the monarch gazed into Anne’s eyes.  “I, François, take you, Anne, to be my wife.  I promise to be faithful to you, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love you and to honor you all the days of my life.” 

Anne strangled the urge to laugh.  Empty promises which will be easily broken.  Marital vows are not binding for men, especially not for kings.  During their long courtship, Henry had lavished her with innumerable vows of eternal fidelity and everlasting love, but they had all turned out to be falsehood.  Words of love were illusive, like the reflection of the moon in the water. 

Compelling herself to look and sound composed, Anne articulated, “I, Anne, take you, François, to be my husband.  I promise to be faithful to you, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love you and to honor you all the days of my life.” 

She throttled the impulse to grimace and snicker at the absurdity of her situation.  She did not even intend to spend more than one night with the monarch.  Being indifferent to his carnal relations with his mistresses, Anne wanted François to continue his old lifestyle of an inveterate philanderer, for which he was famous.  My vows are as hilarious and meaningless as his. 

Unbeknownst to her, the King of France experienced an unconventional feeling of wonder and regret.  He was convinced that he and Anne could get on well, but she had made her position as to their life together clear.  The thought that their union would be as faux as his matrimony with Eleanor gnawed at him, as if part of him would be missing if he were deprived of the sophistication and intelligence of Anne’s personality.  At least, there are other women to warm my bed, he mused

Cardinal de Tournon pronounced, “I hereby declare you husband and wife.” 

As her new husband slid the Valois diamond and sapphire golden ring onto her finger, a jolt of fear and embarrassment raced up her hand and spread through her limbs.  Anne blinked, like a newborn making sense of the surroundings, and a flurry of spots flooded her vision. 

May the Lord in his kindness strengthen the consent you have declared before the Church and bring to fulfillment his blessings within you!  What God has joined, let no one put asunder. 

Anne veered her gaze to François, who flashed her a scintillating smile.  Astonished by the lightness she discerned in his gaze, she wondered whether he viewed their wedding as a mere adventure.  She had no clue that her spouse was as tense inside as a violin string. 

In a high voice, Marguerite declared, “God bless King François and Queen Anne!” 

Cardinal de Tournon affirmed, “Long Live King François and Queen Anne!”  He did not know Anne Boleyn well, but he felt inexplicable sympathy to her, despite her true religion. 

“Long Live King François and Queen Anne!”  echoed the spectators. 

At this, the certainty of her new marriage smote Anne with a sense of dismay too acute to be suppressed.  She darted a look of anguish at the French monarch – she could not call him her husband even in her mind.  He squeezed her hand, as if he knew she needed the contact to realize she was not alone in the world, and, unexpectedly, this gesture instilled strength into her soul. 

§§§

The most sullen countenances in the assemblage were those of the de Lorraine brothers.  Claude de Lorraine, Duke de Guise, scowled at the sight of the king and queen who rose to their feet from the bridal canopy.  His second brother – Jean, Cardinal of Lorraine – looked gloomier than ever.  Louis, Count de Vaudémont and the youngest among them, stomped his feet in anger. 

Claude de Lorraine murmured to his siblings, “Long live France and King François.” 

“But not that Boleyn witch,” Louis and Jean chorused in a whisper. 

Claude pledged, “She will not be the Queen of France for long.” 

Jean clenched his fists.  “We will take care of her demise.” 

“When?”  asked Louis with impatience. 

“As soon as we defeat the Spanish,” answered the Duke de Guise. 

§§§

The rite of blessing and giving of arras took place after the giving of rings.  Then a canticle of praise for the Almighty was sung by the choir, and the wedding ceremony was over. 

The royal couple pivoted to start the procession towards the exit; others followed suit. 

With a regal air about them, King François and Queen Anne strolled down the long nave.  Moving liturgically, she looked like a pious pilgrim bedewing with tears Christ’s way from Pilate’s tribunal to Calvary’s heights.  He also looked a bit somber, for he did not exude happiness.  

The monarch sensed his wife’s discomfort.  “Anne, I am not going to eat you like some monster from Homer’s Iliad.”  It was the first time he addressed her by her name. 

His spouse could not banish all her fears of the future.  “I’m fully aware of Your Majesty’s chivalry.  After all, you were the only one who extended a helping hand to me in need.” 

There was a peculiar expression in his eyes.  “They call me the Knight-King, after all.” 

A wan smile curved her lips.  “For your chivalry and personal participation in battles.” 

“Indeed, my queen.”  François eyed his wife as a connoisseur of female beauty.  “It would be my terrible omission not to tell you that you look absolutely ravishing today.” 

Her smile faded.  “We both look grand, sire.” 

As they quitted the church, a restrained cheer rose in the air.  Those courtiers who were still present at court had a conflicted attitude towards the royal wedding, their enthusiasm tempered by the concern over the future of the French religious policy and doctrine. 

Nevertheless, everyone admired the grandeur of the French royal couple.  Both François and Anne were accoutered in the color white – dazzling, like snow shining in the winter sun.  Their splendid habiliments communicated the omnipotence of their union, implying that they two would triumph over the Habsburgs, as well as the purity of their reputations besmirched by foes. 

His expression haughty, King François flashed smiles as they passed through the hallway.  His doublet, of white brocade velvet wrought with gold, glittered with diamonds, and over it, he wore a white velvet mantle, trimmed with sable.  His white velvet toque was plumed with a feather of the same color, and embroidered with rubies.  His hose of white silk and his girdle, ornamented with rubies and sapphires, stressed his slender waist and legs.  The resplendent ensemble of the king’s magnificence dazzled everyone, like walking out of a dark cave into the bright sunlight. 

Staring at his new spouse, the ruler was cognizant of his quickened pulse, and, even more than that, of the stab of pain in the region of his heart.  In a breathtaking gown of white brocade embroidered with gold and diamonds, her stomacher of silver silk, Anne embodied a Vestal maid, in spite of her notorious biography.  François instantly recognized this dress: years ago, it had been created for Queen Claude of France to display France’s elegant style and riches during the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, although his dead wife had never worn it for some reason.   Studded with pearls, Anne’s girdle encircled her narrow waist.  A subdued air about her emphasized her innocent confidence, with which she glided along the floor, her hand clasped in his. 

“This gown suits you to perfection,” François complimented her. 

Anne nodded.  “Queen Claude, God bless her soul, had an exquisite taste.” 

He grinned at her, but her visage remained stony.  Anne is so beautiful that I desperately want her, regardless of her unwillingness to be with me.  But I must curb my desires and stay away from her.  She struggled as angrily in the net of her new life as a wasp got caught in honey.  Maybe she would get accustomed to him later, letting him help Anne open her wings to their full span.  

§§§

François and Anne stopped in a vast hall, adorned with frescoes and sculptures of nymphs and ancient heroes.  Forthwith, foreign ambassadors flocked to them like fireflies, each of them interested in talking with the couple, whose wedding was the last thing they had anticipated. 

With an impressive air of royal hauteur, King François swept his eyes over the group and announced, “Hear you all!  Tell your masters that France will defeat Spain and expel our enemies from our land!”  He raised his wife’s hand in the air.  “We shall ally with all the adversaries of the Habsburgs, who are a threat to peace and prosperity of non-Spanish nations.” 

“Your Majesty is right,” the ambassador from the Duchy of Cleves said. 

The envoy from Switzerland cried, “We must destroy the emperor’s troops together!” 

The Swedish ambassador interjected, “My king will eagerly ally with France.” 

“The emperor has crossed a line, this time,” opined the Norwegian ambassador. 

The Venetian diplomat concurred, “Once Emperor Carlos allowed his troops to sack the city of Rome which was plundered by his mercenaries, who killed hundreds of civilians and priests.  Now he wishes to subjugate France, and he must be stopped by those who do not want war.” 

One of his hands still holding Anne’s, François waved the other for silence.  “Carlos von Habsburg will pay for his defiance of the Lord and His commandments.  Together, we are strong!” 

Sir Nicholas Wotton, the English ambassador to France, asked, “Your Majesty married the woman who was accused of adultery, high treason, and incest.  How can you explain it?” 

Squeezing his spouse’s hand, the French ruler contradicted, “My dear wife, Queen Anne of France, is as guilty of the crimes she has been falsely accused of as I’m guilty of Eleanor of Austria’s death.”  He stilled for a moment and surveyed the foreigners.  “Every sane and honest person in Christendom knows that my second spouse died of consumption.  However, Emperor Carlos hates me so much that he has transgressed God’s law by attacking my country with the false intention to avenge his sister’s death which occurred of natural causes.” 

Locking his gaze with Anne, François continued, “In the same way, my queen is innocent of all the charges her enemies leveled against her.”  He paused to let it sink in the heads of others.  “We are both totally innocent, despite what our foes want the world to believe.” 

“But King Henry–”  Wotton was interrupted. 

The monarch’s menacing growl sent shivers down the man’s spine.  “Henry Tudor has done many wicked things in his life.  Even if he were led astray by his advisers, he is ultimately responsible for his errors, because he rules England.  One day, I’ll demand justice for Anne after Henry deprived her of the English crown, as well as of her good name and her daughter.” 

As the king nodded at her, Queen Anne told Wotton in French, “King Henry of England, my former husband, was deceived by Thomas Cromwell.  Fancying himself in love with Jane Seymour, Henry believed his chief minister and executed several men unjustly condemned, one of them being my own brother.”  Her voice took on a higher octave.  “God is holy, His punishments are just.  I hope that when Henry learns the truth, the Almighty will be able to forgive him.” 

François moved the discourse to the closure.  “Sir Wotton, pass on our greetings to Henry.  It takes many good deeds to build an excellent reputation, and only one bad action to lose it.”   

Swiveling like two snakes being charmed, the monarch and his queen strolled away. 

Their departure produced a portentous silence.  The message was clear: until the Spanish were all ejected from France, François and Anne would disregard her unfair condemnation, plotting vengeance like vipers – slow and calculative to attack, yet venomous in the extreme. 

§§§

As the day was closing in, a remarkable stillness ensued in the palace that seemed deserted and missed the presence of the usually thronged, extravagant French court.  By the time the purple of twilight had mingled with the dark, Queen Anne of France was ready for her wedding night.   

“You are all dismissed,” declared Anne with authority.  “I will not need you.” 

The ladies, whom Marguerite of Navarre had sent to her tonight, bobbed a curtsey.  Most of them were uncomfortable with the idea of having Anne Boleyn as their new queen, although some were sympathetic to her plight in England.  Obeying, they scurried out. 

Tonight, Anne remained in the quarters which had been designated for her after her arrival.  King François had said that after the Spanish madness settled down, she would be lodged at new sumptuous chambers, which neither Queen Claude nor Queen Eleanor had occupied before.   

The interior was soothing to her doleful mood.  A huge, canopied bed, draped with lace bedcovers as delicate as mist, dominated the whole area.  The bedside tables were decorated with marble sculptures, all of the matching chairs upholstered in white and golden turquois.  Heavily gilded and ornamented with embellishments of epical topics from Homer’s Iliad, the oak furniture was scattered about the room tastefully.  The walls were covered with fabulous frescoes, depicting ancient goddesses and gods, as well as several paintings by Jean Clouet.   

It all seems so unreal, Anne told herself.  Her life seemed to her something akin to a play which, despite being an admirable piece of stagecraft, dealt exclusively with fictional plots.  Just as Greece evolved and perfected the idealized life of Homeric poems through the ages, Anne had created the dream of being Henry Tudor’s happy consort.  Yet, all of her erstwhile dreams had been pathetic illusions, and, instead, life had led her to her former husband’s archrival. 

The knock on the door moved Anne out of her musings.  “Come in, please.” 

The door flung open, and King François entered with a measured, slow gait.  He shut the door behind him and crossed the room.  His rich night robe of black silk, wrought with gold and embroidered with the Valois escutcheon, accentuated his athletic slenderness.   

“Have you been awaiting me, Madame?”  he teased with a wicked grin. 

The monarch’s gaze traversed his new wife.  In a gown of red brocade, worked with silver and ornamented with patterns akin to those from ancient times, Anne seemed to fit in completely with the interior around her, as though she was an embodiment of mythological beauty. 

Anne riposted, “At times, high and mighty men are doomed to disappointment.” 

More taunts spilled out of him.  “Maybe I should have ordered the standard consummation of our marriage.”  He gestured towards the bed.  “It would have been so romantic to be together here, separated from my curious courtiers and ambassadors only by bedcurtains.”   

Her temper flared.  “Apparently, Your Majesty has always changed mistresses as often as Zeus betrayed his marital vows to Hera.  The only difference between you and Zeus is that he was the King of the Mount Olympus, while you are only the King of France.” 

He laughed boisterously.  “Woman is the only creature whose wit can devour man alive.” 

“Are you done with joking?”  She did not hide her displeasure. 

“You do not like our banter, do you?” 

Anne hugged herself, as if she were chilled by his mere presence.  “It is our duty to make our union valid.  Our time is way too valuable to be wasted on trifles.” 

A derisive comment came from him.  “Your pragmatic Majesty, I have no intention of spending the entire night chatting with you.  My life keeps diminishing if I waste hours, feeding my favorite distractions, although you are obviously not one of them.” 

“Let’s start, then.”  She took a tentative step to him. 

“This reminds me of a card contest.”  There was a gleam of laughter in his eyes. 

His playful mood did not transmit to her.  “Only once, sire.  Do not forget this.” 

The monarch mocked, “Then, by all means, I must please the fierce creature of yours.  It would sadden me to know that I failed to make this only time in our marriage a little enjoyable for the siren with dark, hypnotic eyes which hook men to the soul.” 

François walked to an ornately carved table in the corner.  He snuffled out all the candles in the Venetian candelabra, and then did the same to all the candles in the chamber.         

“Will darkness make it more bearable?”  This time, his tone was considerate. 

“Yes, it will.”  Her voice vibrated with quiet embarrassment.   

The king approached his wife as quietly as a panther.  His queen wrapped her arms tighter around herself, as if she needed protection from what he would do to her soon.  In the moonlight leaking in through the window, their silhouettes projected a sculpted image of dejection. 

In a philosophical tone, he articulated, “Perhaps it would have been far better for us to sit side by side on a veranda or a lawn, enjoying conversation, book, or parley.” 

With a nonchalant air that did not fool him, she said indifferently, “I do not think so, Your Majesty.  I want the consummation to happen so that we move on with our own lives, then.” 

 The ruler deadpanned, “My wife’s desire is a command for me.” 

Anne breathed out with a sigh.  A wave of nervous frustration washed over her, and she shuddered, as if harried by a wind.  Before their wedding, she had attempted to convince herself that her second marriage had been predestined, and that she had no choice but to obey the Lord’s will.  She had labored to quench her fears, but now, they came crashing down upon her. 

A perceptive man by nature, François fathomed her thoughts.  “La belle Anne,” he called in the softest accents.  “Are you feeling now like a bird trapped under a cat’s claws?” 

“Something along these lines,” she confessed, surprised by his astuteness.   

He stepped to her but halted.  “Are you afraid of me?” 

Her head dropped like she was saying a short prayer.  “Not of you, sire.” 

Experienced in matters of the heart, François rapidly understood everything.  Anne had never been with another man, except for Henry, and it was a great sorrow for her that she would not be able to keep herself untainted by others.  Like many women, she had once dreamed of sharing every trouble, vexation, and perplexity with Henry.  But after the English king’s betrayal, her inner realm grew hoary with disillusionment, while outwardly she was immured in ice. 

For a moment, their gazes intersected.  At this moment, his wife – it sounded oddly natural to him – looked rather forlorn.  The bright moonlight lent an indescribable witchery to her lovely countenance that seemed swarthier now, and to her eyes which darkened in sadness. 

Driven by the impulse to put her at ease, the monarch closed the gap between them.  His arms snaked around her waist, and pressed her to him, aligning her body to his. 

“Anne.”  He cupped her face with a mixture of emotions neither of them could pinpoint.  “Now you are feeling like a maid.  The reason is that you do not want to and fear to be with a man whom you do not love.  You also think that being with someone whom you consider a libertine is not the right thing to do for a decent woman.  I’d wager my arm that it is true.”    

She blanched.  “Your Majesty, I mean no offence.” 

“Shhh,” he soothed, his gaze intense, as if he were on alert.  “It is not necessary for us to ever be together.  Everyone shall think that our marriage was consummated.”  

Her resolve solidified.  “No!  I will not give you a reason to dissolve our union.”   

His eyes were smoldering amber fires beneath the brown brows.  “Then, Madame, let me make this night a gorgeous memory for both of us.” 

Picking her up, François carried Anne to the bed.  Together they sank into the welcoming softness of the feather-filled mattress.  Softly, almost airily, his lips found hers, his teeth gently catching her bottom lip, and a searing warmth streaked through her.  He kissed her with an innate tenderness that surprised both of them, each brush of his lips against hers like petals of a lilac. 

As his hand gripped the collar of her night ensemble, her heart thumped in the chest like a bass drum.  He did not hurry to undress her as he worked on the fastenings of her robe.  His hot blood clamored in his veins, his tongue leisurely exploring her mouth.  His body was nearly trembling from the force of passion she had unleashed in him, but he kept his control in check. 

Soon, Anne’s garments were disposed of and fell in a rumpled heap at the foot of the bed, where François had tossed them.  At the sight of his nude spouse, her long, glossy, raven hair falling in a wild array about her alabaster shoulders, his breathing became erratic, like his lungs could not fill up with air fast enough.  Two brown pools shone with a dark light of mystery, bewitching like a mermaid’s mellifluous songs, and drowning him into their depths. 

Her gaze fiery, not vulnerable as one might expect, Anne looked every inch the Goddess Minerva in all her naked glory.  In a silvery beam of moonlight, her body was magnificent, like that of Venus, her breasts small and pert, her waist slender and graceful, her hips well curved.  Her lean belly betrayed no sign of having expanded itself due to her previous pregnancies.

The king was conscious of an aching tenderness he had never experienced for any other woman before.  “You are more beautiful than all of the goddesses from the Mount Olympus.” 

A faint smile flicked across her visage.  “Your Majesty is exaggerating.” 

“No, I do not.”   He kissed her ardently, probing the honey of her mouth. 

Adroitly, the ruler discarded his clothes, and, fully naked, engulfed her into his arms, like a shroud of gentleness.  Most tentatively, he fondled her breast, reveling in the feeling of the satiny texture of the smooth skin.  Much to Anne’s amazement, this simple contact provoked a lascivious response within her, as the ache in her belly spread outwards, her nipples growing tight. 

As if entranced, the queen stared at the king with undisguised curiosity.  She took in the high cheekbones and the bold jut of his long Valois nose.  His handsome countenance was lordly and arrogant even in the sanctuary of her bedroom, but it was those almond-shaped, thickly lashed eyes, eyes of such an affable amber that she felt a melting sensation just for a moment. 

The rays of the moon shone more softly into the chamber, as if subdued for her sake.  Yet, the visibility was fine, and she could see his body well.  François de Valois was more athletic and taller than her former husband, whose figure had become somewhat burly over years.  His magnificent physique, with those straight, slim shoulders and the sleekness of his strong torso, must be fascinating in the eyes of his lovers.  I should not examine him, she berated herself. 

An impish glint entered his eyes.  “Satisfied?” 

Anne smothered a gasp of fury.  “Speak in this manner to your paramours.” 

“Oh, really?”  he drawled sarcastically.  “As you wish.” 

To François, she was the finest wine from a Bordeaux vineyard and sweet ambrosia all in one.  At first, Anne endeavored to navigate through the waves of his amatory caresses, lingering like some plangent tune.  His talented mouth rained kisses down her throat, shoulders, and bosom, down farther and farther, until she stopped him, her cheeks stained with pink.  François laughed at her, but it was the moment when he decided against any experiments with her. 

“I will be careful,” he promised, gazing intently into her eyes. 

His hands tightening around her hips, the monarch penetrated his spouse with exceeding caution, as if she were a virgin.  Buffeted by the elemental emotions which tore through him, he kissed her with urgency, yet holding onto the tiny thread of his self-control.  As he froze inside of her, the kiss went on and on, an exploration and a journey into the most enigmatic romantic waters he had ever submerged into.  I’ve never been so aflame with desire for any other woman, not even for the other Anne, the king mused as his tongue tasted the inner recesses of her mouth.   

Anne’s entire body was now in the grip of sensual havoc, lustful and long-forgotten, as if eternity had passed since she had last performed the rites of the Greek Goddess Aphrodite with Henry.  Unexpectedly, François had awakened in Anne a primordial need for sensuality and fecundity in all senses.  It was a mind-blowing revelation to her that the French king’s ministrations had aroused a tangle of conflicted emotions within her.  This womanizer is too experienced in the art of physical love, she thought as her blood hummed with the unwanted thrill of anticipation. 

“Fear me not.”  François lay still inside her. 

“I don’t.”  Her eyes, which had been smoky with desire moments ago, now overflowed with fatality.  “Those who once felt the breath of death upon their skin do not fear anything.”   

He cocked an eyebrow.  “You fear men.  However, not all of us are immoral thugs.” 

“You are wrong,” insisted Anne rebelliously. 

This elicited a chuckle from him.  “What a bad liar you are, Anne Boleyn.” 

The monarch moved inside his wife with a dizzying parade of methodical thrusts, pulling himself almost all the way out and then pushing back as far as her silken sheath allowed him to do.  Suddenly, Anne heard the amorous hymn of all nymphs in her ears, and she found herself utterly incapable of fighting against the rapacious demands of her feminity.  She enfolded her legs around his waist, locking them at the ankles and encouraging him in farther.  Raising her hips to meet his thrusts, Anne was sailing towards the chief center of Aphrodite’s worship – Paphos. 

The king gazed into two dazed pools of amatory foam.  “Your eyes are shrouded with a Cyprian haze.  Have I taken you to Aphrodite’s island of Cyprus, la belle Anne?” 

His wife stammered, “We are in France, not on some island.” 

“I can see the truth through you.”  His kisses grew hotter and more intimate.  “Let’s sail to Aphrodite’s birthplace less rapidly.”  He then slowed the pace of his thrusts. 

His lips like soft rain upon hers, François maintained a musical rhythm of their encounter, as if they were performing a pavane.  The airy movements of his hips created tantalizing magic between them – one which neither of them had ever felt before, and which launched them into intoxicating ascent towards the acme of gratification.  All of a sudden, a tide of lingering pleasure crashed over them, swallowing both of them inch by inch, until an avalanche of celestial delight rocked over them in limitless succession, the song of procreation thrumming through them.   

Attuned to his new wife in a way he could not quite comprehend, the ruler pulled her into his arms.  Brushing his mouth across hers, he murmured, “How are you feeling, Anne?” 

Her eyes flashed like steel.  “I would prefer to be alone now.” 

François wound his arm around her waist.  “Acts which produce useful results seem to be ordered by an admirable logic.  But even rational scientists such as my dearly departed Leonardo da Vinci sometimes allow themselves to plunge into a sensual laziness of mind and body.”   

 She wriggled out of his grasp, which he loosened because she evidently wanted to be free.  Avoiding eye contact, she rolled to her side of the bed and snuggled into the covers. 

“Your immediate instinct is to escape, but you cannot because I’m a king.  Do you really believe that you will forget what has just happened between us?” 

“Yes!  As it means nothing to me, I’ll easily efface it from my mind.”  Wrapping herself in a sheet, Anne shot off the bed as though she had been fired from a cannon. 

“Very well, Madame.”  The moon had been concealed behind a cloud, so he scrambled into his robe in the dark.  “It is not my pastime to pursue women who do not want to be with me.” 

Anne stood in the corner, with her back to him.  “Sire, you extol chivalry and call women flowers.  We have an agreement, so you must abide by it.” 

Concealing his hurt, François jeered, "I shall, Madame. You are a rare, exotic flower that might wither without tenderness.  It would be interesting if you found yourself with child after this night."  It was instinctual on his part to say that.

§§§

The King of France closed the door of his new consort’s bedchamber.  Leaning against the wall, he stood in the dimply lit corridor, his irritation festering into a hardened attitude to her. 

“You have chosen loneliness, Anne,” he told himself, sighing in mingled annoyance and sadness.  “So, I’ll live as if I were a free man.”

The contentment of all human beings, men and women, depended largely on the erotic concepts.  If they were not joined in matrimony, the amorous rites between a man and his lady were the special urge in their souls.  Usually marriage is entirely for procreation, just as my dynastic union with Claude wasBut I’ve wed Anne only to save France.  So, I can have as many lovers as I wish, in particular because my wife denies me the marriage bed, François meditated. 

Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly was the king’s chief paramour, while Claude de Rohan-Gié often warmed his bed.  Occasionally, François also indulged in random affairs with pretty female courtiers, at times with expensive courtesans and simple whores.  Despite being a staunch Catholic, François would never agree with the men of ecclesiastical rank that physical love was a terrible sin unless it was practiced for procreation.  On the contrary, it affected the very root of human life, being a natural and instinctive function for any man, especially a monarch. 

As if persuading himself, François muttered, “The other Anne and Claude will both be excellent replacements for my unruly spouse.” 

“Your Majesty!”  one of the royal grooms cried as he appeared in the corridor. 

“Bring me the best wine from my cellars,” his sovereign enjoined.  “I’ll be in my gallery.”  He stomped away into the adjacent hallway, the grandeur around the king only irritating him. 

§§§

After François had vacated the room, Queen Anne lit many candles.  She was flustered and frustrated, as well as intimidated by the odd emotions her husband had roused in her. 

As she froze near the bed, she scrutinized her naked form, as if seeing herself for the first time.  Bewildered, she felt herself alive, as though the air was thick with transcendental vivacity.  Her intercourse with him was not simple: François had transformed an act of duty into an artistic dance of passion, forcing her rigid body to undergo the shattering metamorphosis in his arms. 

She had known a man’s passion in the past.  Henry had frequently taken her with slavish devotion in the days when he had still loved her, and, as the awful rift between them had been deepening, their couplings had still been charged with primeval need.  Nonetheless, she had been unprepared that she could experience such a colossal, exquisite pleasure with another man.   

Anne still felt François’ seed inside of her and wet on her thighs, which disconcerted her slightly.  Instinctively, her hand flew to her abdomen, like a pregnant woman touching her belly lovingly.  Panic reared in her bosom, and questions circled her mind.  What if I conceived tonight?  What if I give birth to François’ child?  Would it be a boy or a girl?  No, that is not possible! 

The feeling that something would go not as she had planned crystallized in her universe.  All hope for the future without a man’s presence in her life commenced crumbling.  Suddenly shy of her own nudity, she spun around and hastily donned her fashionable nightgown. 

“I will not get pregnant,” Anne endeavored to convince herself.  She sat at her dressing table and eyed her flushed face in a looking glass.  “One night means nothing.” 

She trembled at the remembrance of her night with Henry when they had danced La Volta and lost themselves in a bacchic festival of insanity afterwards.  In the past, one night had been enough for her to conceive a son, who had died in her womb due to Henry’s adulterous kiss with that Seymour slut.  Usually, Anne got pregnant quickly, but had problems to carry a child to term. 

It would be interesting if you found yourself with child after this night.  

The French ruler’s voice echoed through her head like prophecy of something wonderful to come.  Anne, nevertheless, banished the thought from her head, although she knew that such a possibility existed, because she was still young and fertile.  Love, promises, demands to give sons, infidelities, miscarriages…  These words make me want to slap someone, she lamented. 

She commanded herself, “I shall not think of such trifles.  My marital life is over.”   

§§§

Unable to sleep, the French monarch went to the François I gallery, his favorite place in the whole château.  Sitting in an armchair, he held a goblet of wine in his hand, sipping it slowly and savoring the taste, his thoughts churning like a tempestuous sea. 

His mind meandered to his two previous wedding nights.  François and Claude of France had been very young when entering into matrimony.  Fresh, innocent, and fragile like a delicate lily, Claude had submitted herself to him, and he had initiated her into the pleasures of physical love in the most gratifying way.  François had disliked Eleanor of Austria so much that he had run away from her immediately after their first intercourse, which had been neither pleasurable nor painful for her, as he had been almost like a stranger with her; they had never been intimate again.  

I want the consummation to happen so that we move on with our own lives, then.  

Anne’s words were a significant blow to the monarch’s pride and vanity.  These his two qualities could be measured by nothing but each other, because they were both unbounded in a royal way.  No woman had ever dared speak to him in such a high-handed manner.  In fact, he had never been rejected before.  Years ago, only Françoise de Foix, Countess de Châteaubriant, had resisted his advances for a short while, but he had seduced her with relative ease. 

His wedding night with Anne was different.  She had tasted sins of the flesh with Henry of England, so François had not taught her the art of physical love.  Passionate and tempting like a nymph, she nonetheless remained loyal to the idea of an undying love which was unblemished by earthly filth, especially betrayal, ambition, and egotism.  Admiring her for that, François had made love to her, as if he were worshiping the body of a goddess, taking care of her pleasure before his own.  There had been nothing during their encounter he had not wanted to do to please Anne, even though there had been hundreds of things she had feared. 

Marguerite is right that I crave to love a great woman, to hold her close to my heart, one I could touch and do amazing things for.  He would worship such a lady with a love proceeding from the heart and flowing outwardly in the most beatific ways.  In adolescence, dreams of pure, eternal, legendary love – one which defies blood, distance, and destiny – had assaulted him, but, over the course of time, he begun believing that such thoughts had sprung from his lonely heart. 

“Anne Boleyn is my wife,” uttered François in disbelief.  Having finished off his goblet, he set it on a nearby table.  “It is incredible that I begin liking my unusual marriage.” 

“Talking to yourself, brother?” 

The monarch flicked his gaze to the door, where Marguerite stood.  Like him, she was in her night attire – an elegant robe of blue velvet, lined with white taffeta and embroidered on the right shoulder with the Valois escutcheon and on the left one with the Albert coat-of-arms. 

“Margot,” he greeted with a smile.  “You are the only one who I need now.”  

She closed the door and walked to him.  “How was your wedding night?” 

“You can guess how it all ended.  After all, I’m here now.” 

“Naturally.”  She settled in an armchair beside him.  “How does it feel to be rejected for the first time in your life?  You broke the hearts of countless women.” 

After a short silence, the king stated, “I do not love Anne, so my heart does not hurt.” 

Marguerite laughed.  “Your pride has been injured.  Hear sensational tidings!  Not every lady wishes to be with the magnificent François de Valois.” 

A scowl marred his forehead.  “Stop making a laughingstock out of me, sister.” 

“That is not my intention, my dearest brother.  But I have to confess that I find the whole affair amusing from the female standpoint.  A great many women weep when kings and all other men do not return their amorous sentiments or break relationships with them.  Women – romantic creatures – are frequently enslaved to the illusion of a man’s love, while you men use and discard us, occasionally in a cruel manner.  I cannot help but see life’s unfairness to ladies.” 

“You reckon I needed a lesson,” the ruler guessed. 

“Yes, François.  It will be a challenge for you to conquer Anne’s affection.” 

The monarch stared at her as if she were a lunatic.  “Excuse me, but last time I checked I had no obsessive feelings for Anne such as Henry once had.  I find my wife alluring, and I want her as a woman.  Yet, I will not waste my time on her when I can invest it in something else.” 

She leaned back in her seat.  “I doubt Henry has ever loved the real Anne.” 

“Perhaps not.”  His voice was layered with slight vexation.  For some reason, he did not like the thought that his English rival could still harbor feelings for his new spouse

Marguerite scrutinized her brother, whose face seemed paler than usual even in the flickering candlelight. "I have no doubt that you will welcome Anne de Pisseleu in your bed." She smiled. "But your mind will always revert to Anne Boleyn – your wife. She is the greatest enigma for you, layers upon layers which you long to discover."

The king glanced at the fresco of the Goddess Aphrodite’s birth.  “I’m not a cat toying with a mouse, and neither is Anne.  We will go on separate paths from here on.”

The Queen of Navarre forecasted, “One day, all of your and her claims will vanish into the air as sand sifts through a person’s fingers.  Like Aphrodite’s birth, true love emerges from a sea, where adoration, understanding, appreciation, and respect commingle with common values.  You and Anne have a lot in common, actually more than she and Henry have ever had.” 

A smile twitched in the corner of his mouth.  “You are a bad prophet, then.” 

“We shall see.”  His sister had a good presentiment about her brother’s marriage. 

“Margot, I’ve seen the future.  It is very much like the present, only longer.” 

The ruler’s sister laughed.  “The best qualification of a prophet is to have a good memory.  And I have a good one: tonight, you and Anne were together, and perhaps she conceived.  From what we know about her life with Henry, she must be quite fertile.  After Elizabeth Tudor’s birth, her relationship with him swiftly transformed into a corpse, and he could ignore her for months.  Yet, Anne was pregnant twice in the past two years, so she must have conceived quickly.” 

“Anne suffered miscarriages,” recalled François.  “Claude had one as well.” 

Marguerite perused the statue of Hera, the Greek goddess of marriage and procreation.  “Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn!  Their childbearing histories are interesting and look similar even at first glance.  Catherine had many miscarriages and stillbirths, and she only gave Henry a daughter, Mary.  Anne birthed Elizabeth and then miscarried twice.” 

The conclusion hung in the air between them before the king voiced it.  “Maybe Henry is not blameless for his lack of male progeny, although he would never admit such a thought.” 

“No man will ever deflate his own ego, especially a kingly ego; not even you, François.” 

Her brother grinned.  “But I’m not Henry, and I have sons.” 

Suddenly, a shadow of foreboding crept into her breast.  “Let’s just say that you can have male children.  No one knows the ways of providence, and we can only pray for God’s grace.” 

 “True.”  He felt the same unease gnawing at his insides. 

She switched to another topic.  “Something must be wrong with Henry, not with Catherine and Anne.  Some curse or illness prevents him from siring healthy children.  He does not have many robust offspring, despite having numberless mistresses.  His only illegitimate son – Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset – died a couple of months ago.” 

François crossed himself.  “I despise Henry, but I do commensurate with his losses.  None of his sons lived to adulthood.  My own eldest son passed away so unexpectedly.”    

His words struck the Navarrese queen like a chill of presentiment.  “Do not dwell on the sad past, brother.  Unlike Henry, you have healthy legitimate and illegitimate issue, both male and female.  Anne and you are both young and fertile, so you can have many children in the future.” 

A sting of hurt lanced through him.  “Only if she stops denying me the marriage bed.” 

“She will,” Marguerite assured.  “Eventually.  No one can resist you magical touch!” 

He grinned conceitedly, but then sighed.  “No one, save my own wife.” 

François mentally pronounced his spouse’s name.  Anne Boleyn… These words worked wonders on the ruler, as if transfiguring him into a seeker of something deeply spiritual in the realm of earthly existence.  For the first time, the monarch was conscious of a vehement possession and of a poignant tenderness, which he should not have felt for his wife.  Even though she was not fond of him, the seeds of sublime immortality had been planted into the fabrics of his life. 

His train of thought floated to the kingdom’s perilous predicament.  “At present, there are far more important things to worry about.  I shall protect France and defeat that Spanish rat.”  He clenched his fists into balls of fury.  “I just need to understand how to outwit Carlos.” 

Chapter Text

Chapter 5:  The Icy Coldness of a Hand

September 7, 1536, the Palace of Whitehall, London, England

The sun had already started its upward journey, warming the earth and the white-ashlar, brick-vaulted walls and roof of Whitehall.  The wind from the River Thames was pushing a bank of arrow-shaped clouds across the firmament, and a nip of autumn was in the air.  

King Henry directed his scrutiny at his new spouse, Queen Jane Seymour.  “Sweetheart, the Lady Mary has become a frequent guest in your quarters.” 

“That is true, Your Majesty,” answered his spouse with a jovial smile.  “Mary is sweet and affectionate.  She is everything I hoped she would be.” 

“Very well,” he muttered absently. 

The English royal couple sat at the table full of delicious victuals.  There was mallard, some vegetables, and custard on the queen’s platter.  As the ruler had a special appetite for meat, dishes of spit-roasted meat, venison, heron, whale meat, egret, and so forth were served.  A jag of fresh milk and a decanter of wine were brought for the queen and king, respectively. 

Her smile widening, Jane continued, “I’m proud of my stepdaughter!  It is no wonder that she is so marvelously beloved for her virtue and her goodness in the hearts of people.” 

The ruler’s expression was distant, as if his thoughts were elsewhere.  “I’m happy that your relationship with Mary has progressed to the point of such close friendship.” 

Morning light streamed in through the windows of the royal apartments, providing a soft glow to the creamy eggshell and beige décor.  In spite of being quite warm, the light had that mellow, melancholic quality to it that was ordinary for this time of the year. 

King Henry had established Whitehall as his chief residence in London in 1530.  Before his removal from power in 1529, Cardinal Wolsey had owned the former York Place.  Wolsey had had the house expanded and rebuilt on a magnificent scale.  Having inherited the core of the cardinal’s mansion, the Great Hall, the Chapel Royal, and the vaulted wine cellars, the Tudor ruler had embarked on an extensive rebuilding programme: the turreted Whitehall Gate had been erected in 1531-1532, new gardens and orchards had been set out.  Here Henry had celebrated his marriage to Anne Boleyn over three years ago, and his union with Jane Seymour a few months earlier.   

Until his wedding to Jane Seymour, the interior in the king’s quarters had been in red.  Henry and Anne had wanted to associate everything around them with the intense color of love, passion, and desire.  All of the gilded armchairs and chairs, made out of dark walnut, had been upholstered in crimson velvet.  A large canopied bed with the carved headboard had been draped in scarlet silk.  Coverlets, carpets, and tablecloths had all been in that color as well.  The walls had been swathed in crimson brocade and decorated with frescoes in the French style. 

Yearning to start a new life with his beloved Jane, Henry had enjoined to erase each and every trace of his exiled former sweetheart.  All the portraits, sketches, and miniatures of Anne Boleyn had been destroyed.  The symbols of Anne and Henry’s romance – the entwined letters ‘H’ and ‘A’ – had been removed from the monarch’s quarters and from everywhere else in the palace.  It had been forbidden from pronouncing the name of the Boleyn whore.   

In the refurbished ruler’s rooms, against beige-colored walls, some of which were hung with tapestries of hunting and outdoor activities, were set pieces of oak, heavily carved furniture.  There were no fabulous frescoes on the walls and no tapestries of mythological scenes, which was too French-like in Henry’s mind and, hence, could remind him of Anne.  On the scrubbed wooden floors brightly colored rugs were scattered.  The new huge canopy bed, set upon a dais at the far end of his bedchamber, was draped with yards of creamy-white taffeta. 

Henry took a goblet of wine and sipped some.  “I confess that I’m confused as to your behavior.  You have not visited the Princess Elizabeth even once since our wedding.” 

Fear lurked in Jane’s eyes.  “Your Majesty, I…  I…” 

“What, Jane?  Speak instead of stammering.”  His tone was censorious. 

“I thought that you would not approve of my attention to the girl.”  She did not refer to Elizabeth as royalty, because the child was a bastard in her opinion. 

Forking a chunk of venison into his mouth, he chewed while talking.  “I ejected her Jezebel mother of a whore from my realm.   However, Elizabeth is a princess of the blood and my heir until a son is born out of our union.”  He instructed her through slitted eyes, “You must become a motherly figure for Elizabeth.  Split your time between my two daughters.” 

She finished off her mallard.  “I’ll do as you wish, sire.”   

Henry guessed that her consent was reluctant.  “She is just a little girl, even though she has the Boleyn harlot’s blood in her veins.”  His eyes shone with pride as he added, “She is my daughter!  One look at her is enough to see that she is a Tudor through and through.”    

Jane’s countenance revealed confusion.  Does he really miss Elizabeth?  He did not show any inclination to see her after the whore’s arrest.  He even ordered to keep her away from him after the harlot’s release from the Tower.  Her husband’s behavior puzzled her, and she wished to learn its cause, and even more to predict the changes in his treatment of the girl.   

After Anne Boleyn’s departure from England, King Henry had sent Elizabeth away from court to her residence, Hatfield House.  The Catholic faction, which consisted of Catherine of Aragon’s supporters, were all happy that Anne had been set aside and exiled.  Yet, to their utmost chagrin, the girl remained a princess in spite of her mother’s disgrace.  The monarch continued generously financing her household, but the child was not in favor.  

Finally, Lady Mary Tudor had been coerced into submission to the royal will.  Under the threat of imprisonment, she had signed the Oath of Supremacy and acknowledged her mother’s union with the king as incestuous and illegitimate.  Although the ruler’s eldest daughter had been reunited with his father, Henry had not lavished her with affection and kept her at arm’s length, remaining wary around her, as if expecting that she could repudiate her own oath.   

It irked Jane that the daughter of the Boleyn strumpet was still treated with respect.  As she had always been devoted to Catherine, the true Queen of England before her wedding to Henry, she viewed Mary as the rightful Princess of Wales until she birthed the king’s son.  Thus, her spouse’s requests to replace Elizabeth’s mother had discomfited Jane, to say the least. 

Reading her mind, Henry coaxed, “As soon as you see Elizabeth, you will adore her.  She is a charming and precocious girl.  Even those who dislike Anne tend to love her.” 

There was a docile smile on his queen’s visage.  “I’ll do whatever you order, sire.” 

A baffled rage flickered in the small aquamarine eyes.  “You do not even want to see the princess, do you?  Do you loathe my little girl because you hate her mother?” 

At this, Jane stiffened, his question coming too close to the mark.  “I swear I do not have any negative attitude towards the Princess Elizabeth.  A child is innocent of its mother’s sins.  I just have no idea how to behave around her, for she will ask many questions about her mother.  I’m also afraid of doing something that might displease Your Majesty.” 

The ruler popped a piece of egret into his mouth before saying levelly, “Elizabeth is not her mother’s creature.  Our task is to ensure that she becomes an intelligent, brilliant, and virtuous princess, who shall make the House of Tudor proud and elevate it on the international arena.” 

“Of course.  You have a father’s pride in your voice.” 

Taking her hand in his, the monarch spoke persuasively.  “Jane, sweetheart, you have the immaculate heart of the Virgin Mary.  You helped me reconcile with my stubborn eldest daughter, and, by doing so, proved that you are as benevolent as only saints can be.  We must raise Elizabeth together, which is why you need to try and become a mother to her.”   

The queen drank some milk.  “I’ll try to befriend her, then.” 

A dawning realization that today was a special day painted his expression.  “I should have fetched Elizabeth to court last week.  It is her birthday, and she is alone.” 

She chuckled.  “You can still go to your daughter, sire.” 

“That is exactly what I’ll do after our meal!”  His gaze flittered to the window, where the sun almost reached its midday zenith.  “I’ll ride to Hatfield and meet with my girl.” 

“We might invite the princess to court, if you wish it.”  She was not fond of this idea, but she would do anything to please Henry, who had already made his position clear. 

At the snap of the king’s fingers, a roasted peacock, dressed in its own iridescent blue feathers, was ceremoniously brought by the servants.  Dishes of lobster and marzipan, flavored with cinnamon and pepper, were served for Jane, who also ordered pineapple.  

The rest of the meal was spent in grave silence.  Jane attempted some small talk, but Henry merely grunted something in response.  The sun’s rays, streaming in behind him, shadowed his features, but for one fleeting second, she thought that she had seen a flash of delight in his eyes as she asked him about Elizabeth’s language talents which she had heard about a lot.  

While eating the peacock rapaciously, the king boasted, “Elizabeth is so clever!  Lady Bryan, her governess, says that my girl has excelled in learning some French and Italian, which she has been teaching her according to her mother’s instructions.”  He paused, grimacing at the mention of Anne.  “Lady Bryan recommends that we hire a talented tutor for Elizabeth.”  

Jane flinched inwardly, but forced a smile.  Questions besieged her consciousness.  Did the monarch’s fondness of Elizabeth mean that part of him still loved Anne Boleyn?  She had sworn that she would not fail where her predecessors had done.  She must be destined to give him a healthy son, the living image of his father, who would displace the whore’s daughter in the line of succession to the English throne.  Unfortunately, Jane was not pregnant yet. 

A leaden silence ensued, lengthening nearly into a lifetime.  When the servants began clearing the table, the ruler still said nothing to his wife, his countenance impenetrable. 

“Your Majesty,” the queen addressed him.  “Why would you not speak to me?”

“Because I’m disappointed,” snapped the King of England. 

Jane’s visage paled.  “Why?”

There was a short pause as Henry surveyed his wife.  Her countenance demure, quiet and modest grace emanating from her, Jane Seymour was lovely in the traditional English way, with soft gray eyes and silken, long, blond tresses.  In a gown of creamy brocade worked with threads of silver, with the high neckline, she embodied purity, compassion, obedience, and dedication to serve her sovereign, just as her motto proclaimed – ‘Bound to obey and serve’

The queen’s stomacher of silver silk glittered with white pearls, as did her massive pearl and sapphire necklace on the bosom.  Jane preferred light colors and favored pearls, which fitted all of her dressing ensembles perfectly.  She is as pure as a Vestal priestess, although I made her a woman on our wedding night.  She is not a sprightly brunette, with orient orbs, black as midnight.  Mentally, the king castigated himself for again comparing Jane to the vile slut.     

In an icy voice, Henry uttered, “You are not yet with child.” 

Her face fell, as if the whole earth had crashed upon her.  “Your Majesty, I pray for a healthy son every day twice.  Nothing can make me happier than the news of my pregnancy.” 

“If you do not conceive soon, we will need to consult Doctor Butts.” 

Jane laced her hands in her lap like a chaste maid.  “I can do this today.” 

The ruler shook his head.  “It is not necessary, Jane.  After all, we have been married only for three months.  But I expect that you will fall pregnant by Christmas tide.”  

She nodded timidly.  “I’ll pray harder and more for a child.” 

His bad temper vanishing, Henry grinned at her and raised his chalice in a toast.  “To our son!  To the glorious Tudor prince who will rule England after me as King Edward VI!”  As he drank heartily, he supplemented, “I love you, Jane, actually more than Catherine and Anne.  But if you birth me a male heir, my love for your will be endless and everlasting.” 

Her smile communicated some unease.  “God will bless us with a son, Your Majesty.”

§§§

After he had left Queen Jane, King Henry set off to Hatfield in the company of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.  Sitting astride his white stallion, caparisoned in purple damask down to the ground, with the harness embroidered with gold and a pale of yellow velvet, the king trotted through the streets of London, followed by his boyhood friend and a squad of guards. 

“More quickly, Charles,” enjoined the English monarch as he spurred on his horse. 

“Yes, sire.”  The Duke of Suffolk urged his mount to pick up its pace. 

As streets and people flickered before him, Henry reflected on his third marriage.  He was happy to have Jane as a wife, who was all sweetness and blessed in a way that the Boleyn temptress had never been.  He had convinced himself that his third wife was the love of his life, while his feelings for Anne Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon had paled in comparison to those for Jane. 

In the months which had elapsed since Anne’s departure into exile, his mind had gone through some remarkable phases.  At first, the excitement of his passion for Jane had obscured everything else, while his hatred for Anne had been growing with every passing day.  To his surprise, his life with Jane had moved into the immense inertia of habit and routine too quickly to his liking.  Everything in his marriage was smooth and unbearably soft: their relationship was like a waveless calm, the slumber of the dead, without any fire burning and scorching him. 

Henry craved adventure and the wildness of amorous sensations with Jane.  He wished to spend nights with his wife, discovering body parts and places unseen, receiving a colossal pleasure that was beyond description.  But Jane was so submissive and too meek in bed that their encounters were as insipid as the herb waters his physician gave him in his attempts to cure his ulcerated leg.  For some time, Henry had labored to experiment sensually with Jane, and once he had engaged her in an intense and a bit rough lovemaking, but she had been too frightened, as if he were Satan preaching a sermon on holiness, despite having submitted her pale form to his wickedness.   

The mind of the lustful Tudor monarch had been disturbed by visions of a lascivious Jane until he realized that they were a mere figment of his imagination.  In the past few weeks, the need for fire had started reasserting itself in his unsatisfied body, and so Henry had taken a new mistress – Lady Anne Bassett who served in his wife’s household.  His passion for the Lady Bassett was vehement and wild; every time he took her, he felt like a soldier who had been deprived of a woman’s tenderness for too long, while she gloried in their shared heat.  Yet, Henry needed the fire of Anne Boleyn, which was still a fever in his blood. 

That Boleyn whore is not here – she left my kingdom on my own orders.  At this moment, the streets thronged with people, the buildings and markets around him – everything seemed alien to Henry, as if his world had upended, and he walked across the canvass of his life like a stranger to his own existence.  A torrent of longing for Anne rushed into the vacuum of his inner realm, and he could not stifle it, for the hunger for her had long crept into the flesh of his being. 

Henry veered his gaze to his companion.  “I crave to see Elizabeth!”  At this moment, being close to his baby girl was tantamount to having a piece of Anne. 

Turning away, the monarch did not see Charles frown slightly.  The duke held no grudge against the girl, whom his lies about Anne’s adultery had robbed of her mother.  He did not want Elizabeth to be in too much favor with her parent.  He would always remain loyal to the memory of the great Queen Catherine, who had been treated horribly due to the whore’s viciousness.  It is unfair that Mary is a bastard, while Elizabeth is still a princess, Charles thought. 

The king’s voice interrupted his subject’s musings.  “Elizabeth must be having many good dreams about her papa every night.  Today she will be delighted to see me.” 

“I’m sure she will.”  Suffolk plastered a smile on his otherwise sullen countenance. 

Tightening the reins, the ruler eyed their surroundings.  They were already in the suburbs of the capital and were now moving further north towards Hertfordshire. 

His features contorting, Henry gritted out, “I need my girl to be totally free from Anne’s evil spell.”  Softening, he affirmed in a calmer voice, “Children are so innocent that they look up to and imitate those closest to them.  That is why Jane must spend more time with my daughter in order to educate her upon pure and undefiled moral principles.” 

His loathing for Anne gladdened Suffolk.  “Queen Jane will be a far better mother to your daughter than the harlot.  She will teach the princess to be truly virtuous and honorable.” 

Nodding, the English monarch kicked his horse into a gallop; others followed suit.  In the matter of minutes, the city was left behind.  They rode across the stubble fields, stretching across rolling hills and the valley, broken up by ravines tinged with verdant trees and shrubs.  The thunder of hooves was a growing cascade of sound, as the royal party accelerated their speed and soon entered the Hatfield Royal Hunting Forest that dated to the time of the Norman kings. 

In a village in the vicinity of Hatfield, King Henry commanded to pause as a well-garbed couple came into sight.  Some landowner and his young wife oversaw the harvesting and threshing of the grain as their tenants worked.  As soon as they noticed the royal party, they recognized the Tudor standard and hastened to meet their sovereign.  As the ruler hopped down from his stallion, the lord dropped into a servile bow, while his spouse made an awkward curtsey.  

“Your Majesty!”  The man had seen his liege lord only once in London years ago.  Being the master of a small manor, he did not have enough funds to live at court.  “We are overjoyed to see you!  We will gladly give you a tour of our cozy estate.  We are Lord and Lady–“ 

Henry interrupted, “Your name does not matter at all.”  His scrutiny flicked to his wife.  “Your spouse will have an exciting dance with me, but you will not be present.” 

After a moment’s pause, the lord connected the dots.  Rumors about the King of England’s hunting parties in the countryside together with the Duke of Suffolk and his other favorites were infamous even in the provincial noble circles.  Charles Brandon’s knowing smirk proved the monarch’s intentions, and the man resolved to use the matter to his advantage. 

Dismounting, Suffolk quizzed, “Where can they go to be alone?”  It was not the first time when he arranged his liege lord’s extramarital affairs during their hunting trips. 

The lord pointed towards a house in the fields.  “There!  It is our small hunting manor.” 

“Excellent.”  There was a muffled shout of laughter from Brandon. 

Henry’s eyes roamed with increasing hunger over the unknown lady’s plump figure clad in a plain gown of brown velvet ornamented with pearls.  Her strawberry blonde curls framed her attractive face tinctured with a hint of befuddlement, which amused him a lot.  The English women all rightfully belonged to their sovereign, and all of his random lovers usually remained satisfied.  As his gaze rested on her finely formed mouth, Henry hardened with desire. 

“Go,” the man commanded his wife.  “Do not make His Majesty wait.” 

The woman looked abashed.  “But...”  Her voice faltered. 

Her husband barked, “Yield yourself to the king.” 

Henry stepped to her.  “You will not regret it, my dear.” 

In a few minutes, the ruler was already undressing himself inside the cottage.  As he closed the gap between them, the woman backed away in uncertainty.  He beckoned her to him and suddenly swept her up in his arms, then carried her to a bed hung with old blue damask. 

“You are a lovely little piece,” he murmured lustfully.  “You will like my passion.” 

Some of her hesitation evaporated.  “Will you… give me pleasure, sire?” 

The aquamarine gaze glittered enticingly.  “Your husband is unlikely to be an experienced lover.”  He kissed her on the mouth.  “But it is a delightful game, so let’s play it now.” 

She peeled off her dress, then tossed it on the floor.  Henry enveloped her into his arms, and his lips marauded down the side of her neck.  The woman was thrilled that the mighty King of England, tall and strong, wanted her; the skin of his slightly burly body was warm to her touch, his voice was so husky and deep.  When his hands strayed to her breasts and down her abdomen, taking exciting liberties, a string of groans erupted from her.  During the next two hours, the lovers copulated in the lewdest manner, and the monarch did not need to worry about position or mindless patter as she opened to him willingly and matched him each time he thrust into her.  


September 7, 1536, Hatfield House, Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England 

By the time the royal procession had finally arrived at Hatfield, the sun’s disk commenced its decline towards the horizon.  As soon as the cavalcade stopped in the vast, green park shadowed by the falling twilight, the Tudor ruler swung off the saddle and headed to the entrance.  After dismounting, the Duke of Suffolk led the reins of his liege lord’s horse to a stable boy.

The front door opened, and Elizabeth Tudor appeared outside, surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting.  At the sight of the king, the women all lowered themselves into curtseys.   

As her initial amazement faded, Princess Elizabeth darted to him, like a dove pursued by a hawk, and launched herself headlong into his embrace.  Laughing blithesomely, King Henry scooped her into his arms and twirled her around like a dancer, then held her close. 

Lady Margaret Bryan, Elizabeth’s governess, and the others watched the ruler’s reunion with the child with festive expressions.  Even Anne’s enemy, Charles Brandon, could not suppress a smile, for the scene was too heartwarming to remain indifferent to it. 

As they parted, Elizabeth effused, “Papa!  You have come to my birthday!” 

The monarch let out a cheerful smile.  “Of course, I’m here, my Elizabeth.  How could I forget about this special day?  I have a wonderful gift for you!” 

“What is it?”  Curiosity flashed in the dark eyes of Anne Boleyn’s daughter. 

All of a sudden, Henry found himself distressed in mind, body, and spirit.  Time, which usually alleviated ordinary sorrows, served only to augment the severity of his grief over Anne’s alleged betrayals.  He had become an inhabitant of the perpetual realm where the ghost of Anne haunted him like a specter.  Today, he had thought of the adulteress all the time against his will, and the familiar sense of wonder gripped him as he peered into his daughter’s eyes. 

Two brown pools of magical depth!  A pair of dark eyes identical to Anne’s, Henry half-complained, half-grumbled in his mind.  They are hooking me to my daughter’s soul, just as Anne’s witchery once enslaved me to her.  In Elizabeth’s eyes, he deciphered a faint trace of accusation, as if she were silently reproaching him for separating her from her mother.  At this moment, the girl’s two caverns seemed literally to kindle, which reminded him of Anne’s so much that he could scarcely conceive the animation in his daughter’s countenance.  

“Papa?”  called Elizabeth, infectious enthusiasm written all over her features.   

Lady Bryan took a step towards them and entered the conversation.  “Your Highness, you should abide by the royal protocol and greet your father as a king.” 

The girl’s expression changed into sadness.  “But I have not seen him for so long!” 

Like all the members of Elizabeth’s household, the governess and others were eager to do anything in their power to emphasize the child’s royal status.  Most of them were aware that Anne’s condemnation was unfair, so they pitied the former Queen of England who had been ousted of her home country and would probably never see her only child again.  They also worked hard to demolish the gossip that the girl’s legitimacy was doubtful. 

The monarch hurried to put the old woman at ease.  “It is fine, Lady Bryan.  The affairs of state kept me occupied at court, but I’ve come to see my dear girl as soon as I could.” 

Lady Bryan opined, “The princess is a credit to Your Majesty.” 

A smiling Henry shifted his eyes to the girl.  “Definitely!  She is too young to live at court, for a child of her tender age would fare better in the quiet, healthy countryside.  When she grows into the most beautiful and intelligent princess in Christendom, she will be a true ornament of the Tudor court, until she becomes a queen consort of some foreign ruler.” 

“Your Majesty loves the girl so much!”  The governess was pleased that the king was so well disposed towards her charge.  “The princess is too precocious for her age.” 

Henry whispered, “I do love her, despite everything.”  Margaret Bryan smiled. 

“And my gift?”  interjected Elizabeth. 

Grinning to herself, Lady Margaret bobbed a curtsey and took several steps aside. 

“It is here, my Elizabeth!”  exclaimed the monarch.   

Henry procured a wrapped object from the pocket of his doublet.  As he unfolded it, a small, oval-cut diamond necklace with a ruby pendant came into view.  As he fastened it around her neck, his daughter squealed in joy, her smile brighter than a thousand candles. 

The royal lips stretched into a grin.  “Do you like it?” 

Elizabeth looked every inch a majestic little princess in a gown of green silk wrought with gold.  She could be only his daughter!  The girl’s long, thick hair – the red-gold Tudor, like the gilt-edge pages of the illuminated Bible he had gifted to Anne years ago – framed her delicate features.  There was a remarkable air of strength, purity, and enigma about this creature. 

The princess admired the glittering jewels on her bosom.  “My papa!  Thank you, papa!  I knew that you could not have forgotten me!  I love the gift and you!” 

Once more, Henry hugged his daughter tight to his chest.  She pressed herself to him as if she wanted to crawl inside him and never let him go.  In these jovial moments, Henry’s mind detoured to her mother again: he wondered what Anne was now doing in France. 

The girl disentwined herself from his embrace, her expression sulky.  “I’m happy to see you, papa!  But I want my mama with me!  Why have you not allowed her to visit me?”

A sigh erupted from her father.  “Your mother left us, my dear girl.” 

Audaciously, Elizabeth confronted him, her eyes brimming with unshed tears.  “Lady Bryan does not answer my questions about my mama, because she has an order to be silent.  But I heard my ladies gossip that you had punished my mama for something wicked she supposedly did.”  Her bottom lip trembled.  “But my mama would not do anything bad to you.” 

Henry was at a loss for words.  “You are too small to understand the truth.” 

“I am not stupid!”  The princess set her chin at a rebellious angle.  “You just wanted to take another wife.  If you love me, give me my mama back.”    

Her heart palpitating with anguish, Elizabeth swiveled gracefully.  Without curtseying to her royal parent, she fled into the gardens, throttling the urge to weep.   

“Princess Elizabeth!”  shrilled the girl’s shocked governess.  “Your Highness!’ 

Several ladies-in-waiting ran after the escaping princess, but Lady Bryan dithered. 

“I’m so sorry, sire,” Margaret Bryan muttered. 

Barely holding onto his temper, Henry instructed, “Go find my daughter.  I’ll be staying at Hatfield for some time; soon, Elizabeth and I will depart to London.” 

Charles Brandon approached him.  “What should I do, Your Majesty?” 

“Leave me be,” barked Henry. 

The monarch walked away, feeling the pain in his right leg intensify, perhaps on the back of his collision with Elizabeth.  Following the governess and the ladies, he dived into the gardens, paying no heed to the beauty of green grasses and variegated flowers, including fritillaries and primroses, as he called for his daughter.  He could think of nothing but Anne and how convinced she had sounded when she had promised him that Elizabeth would succeed him as a ruler.   

Queen Elizabeth I!  The most illustrious monarch who has ever ruled England!  She shall usher the country into a Golden Age!

Anne must have gone mad, or she had intended to enrage him.  Nonetheless, today, Henry was surprised to discover, for the first time, the peculiar combination of inner strength, bravery, and defiance in his little girl, which pushed her to counter him.  Few people in his life had dared speak to him in such a demanding and fierce manner.  In the moments of their confrontation, Elizabeth’s face had gleamed with resilience in the laced shadows of the twilight. 

Elizabeth did not cry, like other children would have done, Henry noted to himself.  His princess was splendid, courageous, and wise by instinct, despite her youth.  Anne and Elizabeth would forever hold the focus of his many thoughts, especially in the dead of night.  Regardless of Anne’s transgressions, he still viewed their child as a radiant addition to his life.  He just needed to ensure that his daughter learned to live without her mother, relying only upon him and Jane. 


 September 11, 1536, Hatfield House, Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England 

His countenance impatient like that of a sergeant who thinks he should be the general, King Henry grumbled, “What did you interrupt my meeting with Elizabeth, Charles?”   

As they entered the study, the King of England strode to a gilded armchair, decorated with red and blue designs and studded across the top of its back with precious stones.  The Duke of Suffolk nervously crossed to the king and bowed to him a bit stiffly. 

The ruler seated himself, stretching his legs forward.  The room, richly paneled in dark mahogany, pressed on him as though it had a descending ceiling and contracting walls.  Now he would have preferred to face any peril instead of remembering his daughter’s condemning eyes, as he had labored to prove to her that her mother had gone away for Elizabeth’s better future. 

Charles Brandon shuffled his feet, uncomfortable about the agenda.  “Your Majesty, I have received important news from our ambassador to France, Sir Nicholas Wotton.  Probably, you will find his letter in your regular correspondence upon our return to London.” 

Questions tumbled from the king’s mouth, like pebbles leapfrogging over one another.  “What is happening there now?  Has François been defeated by Carlos V again?  Have the Imperial forces vanquished all the French troops?  Has France become Spain’s province?”  

“Nothing of that sort.  King François is still at war against the House of Habsburg.  And he did something that can help him gain more allies and expel the Spaniards from France.” 

Tipping his head back, the ruler chortled.  “Fifteen thousand Frenchmen were slaughtered at Arles, and eight thousand at Tours.  The emperor made his way to the heart of France.  The Duchies of Auvergne, Bourbon, and Berry, as well as Provence and other southern provinces are occupied by the Imperial troops.  The emperor’s well-known promise is to spend a good time at François’ palaces in the Loire Valley, and to celebrate his final victory at Fontainebleau.” 

“If this can be achieved.”  There was a note of doubt in Suffolk’s voice.   

A venomous grin worked its way across the ruler’s face.  “François does not have allies, as they have all deserted him.  Even Scotland refused to support him, dishonoring the old Auld Alliance.  No one can help him!”  His grin widening, he jeered, “I support Emperor Carlos in his righteous quest for vengeance against that murderous French libertine.” 

“Do you really believe that King François murdered his second wife?” 

The king laughed so hard that the echoes were bouncing off each other.  “Of course, not.  François and Carlos have long been at odds for the Duchy of Milan and Piedmont; their hatred for each other is eternal.  Eleanor of Austria’s death of some illness was a premise for invasion.”  

This was what Brandon and others assumed.  “They might stop the enemy.” 

“I do not believe it is possible at this point.” 

“Your French counterpart is going to create the anti-Habsburg coalition, consisting of the Protestant countries and duchies which are part of the Holy Roman Empire.  There are also rumors that the Turkish sultan, France’s ally, will assist France in dealing with the Imperial forces.” 

Henry crossed his arms over his broad chest.  “How can he do that?  Who will ally with the loser who can be deprived of his throne in the matter of weeks?”     

Sighing, the Duke of Suffolk assembled the courage to proceed.  “King François created the Protestant symbol for this alliance.  Lady Anne Boleyn–”  He trailed off abruptly, hesitating, terror encompassing him.  “She became the Queen of France.” 

A shaken Henry shot to his feet.  “What?” 

As Brandon repeated everything once more, the King of England commenced pacing the room to and fro.  A sense of sheer unreality was the sanest reaction he could have.  His emotions were churning, alternating between shock, incredulity, amazement, and even pain, to his surprise.  His disbelief was stronger than it would have been if he had been told that François had broken from the Vicar of Rome and forced the whole of France to convert into Protestantism. 

Over two months ago, Henry had received the news from Sir Nicholas Wotton that Anne had been granted refuge in France.  He had been so furious that he had nearly destroyed his quarters in an outburst of violent rage.  In a week, when his mind had cleared, he had realized that it had been an inevitable outcome: Henry himself had evicted Anne from England, so she had had nowhere to go and, hence, retired to the country where she had grown up.     

After the revolt against Anne’s execution, Henry had reluctantly spared her life.  But he had resolved to punish her for her abominable deeds in the cruelest way: by separating her from their daughter and downgrading her to an exiled traitor.  The king had taken away all that he had bestowed upon her and the Boleyns, including her estates in Pembrokeshire.  Only a small pension from the state treasury had been granted to Anne so that she would not die of famine on the continent.  Anne’s expulsion from the English society must have been enough to make her a vagabond, hopping a horse and riding from one place to another after being shunned out. 

Contrary to the recommendations of the Seymours, the Tudor monarch had not contacted the King of France to file a note of protest.  He had been utterly engrossed in his new marriage to Jane.  Back then, Henry had thought that the whore’s arrival in France had been a blessing: she had been far away from him and Elizabeth, just as he wished, and he did not care about England’s political relations with France, wishing to establish an Imperial alliance. 

Perhaps his inaction had been a folly on his part.  There had been persistent rumors that François would take Anne as his mistress, and Henry wondered who had spread them at his court.  The mere thought that Anne could be with another man, all the more with his French archrival, caused ire of primeval potency to rush up from the depths of him, like a cauldron of boiling water.  Even though he no longer loved the Boleyn harlot, as he had deluded himself into thinking after the discovery of her crimes, Henry did not want her to ever belong to anyone else. 

Whatever the ruler’s sentiments towards her, Anne Boleyn had been supposed to be condemned to the hell of misery and loneliness, which was as infinite and black as the moonless canvas.  That whore could not be allowed to be happy!  She could not marry anyone else, especially not another king!  Normally, he was not interested in the personal lives of his discarded mistresses, but Anne’s case was exceptional.  In Henry’s perverted mind, she was his or nobody’s

Some of his initial shock subsiding, Henry snorted, “Our ambassador must be joking.  No monarch will ever marry a convicted queen of another.” 

His subject insisted, “It is the truth, Your Majesty.” 

The ruler paled to the whiteness of marble.  “No, it is impossible.”  

“Anne Boleyn is now the consort of King François.” 

These words were like a powerful physical blow to Henry’s heart, and even more to his pride and his inflated ego.  His shock was so complete that blood froze in his veins, so he stopped in the center of the room.  There was a buzzing in his ears, as if he were surrounded by a swarm of angry bees.  The king opened his mouth, but his voice failed him, as if his vocal cords had been severed in some accident.  He just stood like a statue, trying to process the information. 

“No,” tumbled from the lips of a ghostly pale Henry. 

“I’m sorry, Your Majesty.”  The duke attempted to sound apologetic. 

“No,” England’s sovereign repeated tonelessly.   

Charles Brandon braced himself against the imminent outburst of the Tudor temper.  He decided against enlightening his liege lord about Anne and François’ speech after the ceremony in the presence of many foreign ambassadors.  That announcement had been reported by everyone to their masters, becoming a diplomatic sensation in the entirety of Christendom.  In the near future, Suffolk would inform Henry about his French counterpart’s promise to demand justice for Anne. 

“When did it happen?”  The ruler’s tone was ragged with rage.   

“More than three weeks ago, sire.” 

Wobbling, King Henry stomped to the window.  Towards the horizon, the sun was sinking behind a curious crimson-tinted haze, which gave it the appearance of a dull red disk.  Reflexively, he associated the sky’s color with blood – Anne Boleyn’s blood.  A breath of wind brushed his cheeks and neck, like the stroke of a sharp sword.  I should have ordered the whore’s execution, ignoring the riots in London.  It would have been better if she had died in May.   

“The harlot has defied me again.”  His voice wavered like a viol’s string. 

Charles inquired cautiously, “What should we do now, Your Majesty?” 

The ruler was still staring at the darkening firmament.  “I do not know.” 

Brandon said nothing more on the subject of Anne’s marriage.  Inwardly, he was petrified by consternation, as now Anne Boleyn wielded a great power in Europe.  Without a shadow of a doubt, she and her new royal husband would move heaven and earth to prove her innocence after the end of the war against the emperor.  Given his role in Anne’s downfall, her vengeance could be more dangerous for him than a savage tempest that affected a densely populated area. 

Pivoting at a blinding speed, Henry sprinted to the desk.  With a violent movement, he cleared the table of everything: of parchments, of quills and state papers, of the sand-glass.  They fell to the floor, the sand-glass clattering noisily against the side of the desk. 

Looking like the enraged Minotaur, Henry roared, “Anne Boleyn is a vile adulteress who journeyed from bed to bed while I was married to her.  I gave her everything, and she betrayed me with those men, who were executed before the uprising in London.”  His voice rose to a shriek.  “She is a cheap prostitute not worthy of any man, all the more a king!  She must die for her crimes!” 

Charles strove to improve his liege lord’s mood.  “Maybe King François and his troops will be vanquished by the Imperial armies.  The Valois throne can become the Habsburg one soon.  Then the emperor might establish Inquisition in France and have the heretical harlot burned as a witch.  Perhaps the French monarch will not avoid death either.” 

Henry’s features twisted in abhorrence.  “That would make me the most content man on earth.  I would have brought a torch to the whore’s pyre with my own hand.” 

“It would be better to wait for the outcome of the Franco-Imperial confrontation.”  Suffolk knew when to tread carefully, just as he must act now.  Seeing that his sovereign was incensed beyond measure, he did not want England to be dragged into a costly war.

His eyes narrowing like those of a viper, Henry strode to the table, where goblets and two decanters stood.  “Anne and François must both suffer!”  He threw a goblet towards the door.  “I want that harlot dead and buried!  She must be burning in hell!”   

The Duke of Suffolk put fuel into the raging fire and, by doing so, reinforced the concept of Anne’s guilt.  “The whore betrayed Your Majesty.  You broke from Rome to wed her out of love for her, hoping that she would give England a male heir.  She not only feigned her affection for you, but also failed to give you a son.  Eventually, she utterly betrayed England by marrying the French king.  It is a huge pity that she has not received her punishment yet.” 

Propelled by the tempestuous turbulence of his berserk fury, the English ruler hurled all of the goblets from the table into the opposite wall.  The wine spilled onto the floor, a burgundy pool forming on the carpet.  He then toppled the table to the side, screaming in helpless rage as he heard the snap of timber.  It seemed that Lyssa, the ancient Greek spirit of mad fury, made him explode into a frenzied rage.  Henry threw both decanters towards the door. 

“I hate that blasted slut!”  Henry grabbed a vase and flung it across the study.  “François de Valois and Anne Boleyn will pay for what they did to me!” 

Perhaps the ruler would have destroyed the whole chamber, if the door did not open in the next moment.  His daughter, Elizabeth, appeared at the doorway, her gaze piercing him. 

The girl asked coldly, “Your Majesty, why are you so angry with my mama?” 

Henry froze near the window with a vase in his hand, his mouth agape in a bellow that did not come.  The name fell from his lips.  “Elizabeth…” 

“Your Highness…”  Charles hastened to take the vase from his liege lord. 

His shock receding, the monarch approached his daughter.  He stretched out his hand and took hers, but Elizabeth withdrew it.  Scarcely comprehending what he was doing, Henry seized it again, struck by the icy coldness of the girl’s skin.  Elizabeth tried to take it away again, but he pressed it convulsively, as if it were the last effort to prevent her from escaping him.   

“Have a nice evening, sire.”  Elizabeth curtsied to him and regally swept out of the room. 

In a faint voice colored with despair, the king murmured, “I’ve lost her!  All my reputation in her eyes has collapsed and shattered in a mere moment!” 

Suffolk did not know what to say.  “It will be all right, Henry.” 

Henry stared out the window, his entire being pulsating with poignant emotions.  The shadow of the tall trees in the garden in the backdrop of the darkened sky was like nature dancing to the tune of darkness to celebrate the victory of gloom in his soul.  He prayed that he would patch up his relationship with his daughter, but only a silence of denial reigned around.   

Chapter Text

Chapter 6:  A Bellicose Spirit

September 20-21, 1536, Château de Chamerolles, near Orléans, Loire Valley, France

“My brave and honorable comrades,” King François addressed the lines of his soldiers.  His voice sounded majestic and unyielding, like that of the God Ares.  “Our great country has been attacked by two Habsburg barbarians.  They accused me of the murder of Queen Eleanor, my second wife, and I swear upon my eternal soul that I did not do this.” 

The monarch of France lapsed into silence.  The picture before his eyes was monumental:  he stood in the middle of the huge military camp pitched near a large Italianate castle.  Everything around him was paved with human countenances tinged with reverent awe.  

Located in the northern bend of the Loire River, the city of Orléans had been chosen for the central command of the French armies.  François and his entourage had departed to Château de Chamerolles, which was located a short ride north-west of the city, soon after his wedding to Anne Boleyn.  The Queens of France and Navarre had been left at Fontainebleau to handle the current state affairs and to communicate with the country’s potential Protestant allies. 

The ruler continued, “I am not Emperor Carlos and the likes of him.  I would never have harmed a royal person!  Eleanor died of consumption which had been draining strength out of her throughout many months.”  His voice rose to a crescendo of fury that was right beneath the surface.  “The emperor concocted a vile story of his sister’s death.  He besmirched his own honor and the memory of his sweet sister.  Is a good man capable of such a villainy?” 

Laced with outrage, this speech produced a wild roar of implacable hatred.   

“The emperor must pay for his crimes against His Majesty!” 

“King François is innocent!  His foes have trapped him!” 

“Our great monarch is too chivalrous to stoop to the emperor’s level!” 

“That Spanish dog must burn in hell for attacking France!” 

“Our liege lord is the Knight-King!  The emperor is the devil!” 

François waited until they quietened.  “We have endeavored hard to defend our country.”  He dragged a fortifying breath, his features twisted in anguish.  “All of our comrades fought courageously at Arles and Tours, but, unfortunately, those battles ended in a fiasco for us.”  

A funereal hush fell over the assemblage, the air vibrating with the sound of mourning dirge.  The agonizing collective heartache caused tears to spring into many eyes. 

“God’s name…”  The monarch’s voice broke like a snapped string.  Grasping the hilt of his sword, as if he were in the melee of combatants, he squinted around at the men, encountering the same blackness as the one governing his realm.  “For that defeat, I’ll forever beg the Lord for mercy upon my soul.  As your king, I ask you all to forgive me as well.”  

The soldiers shook their heads vigorously, expressing their disagreement with him. 

“Your Majesty is not guilty!  We were attacked!” 

“Our comrades all died heroes’ deaths in those battles.” 

“The Habsburgs are responsible for that heinous slaughter.”

“Those Spanish barbarians did not even take prisoners.”

“They wanted bloodshed, so they destroyed everyone.” 

“France is bleeding and crying!  But our king must live!”  

“God bless and protect our great King François!” 

His heart lightening a bit, the ruler brought one palm to his forehead.  He felt the gold of the crown under his fingers, and, all of a sudden, it weighted him down, as if his kingship had cast its chains over his limbs and anchored him to the earth.  But the screams of his men moved him back into the resistance mode.  I have no right to be weak now, he commanded himself. 

“My friends!”  the king shouted, the light of life reigniting in his amber eyes.  “In these dark times for our nation, we all wonder whether we can make a voyage to the peaceful, prosperous future.”  He stilled for a split second.  “I’ll answer: we shall win the war!” 

His uplifting speech was greeted by a burst of cheers, everyone’s faces brightening.   

François pointed heavenward, as if appealing to the Almighty.  “Once we were defeated, but we will not drop our weapons.  We are not cowards!  We shall not surrender to the Imperial enemies just because they want to make us an outpost of Spain.  Honor and chivalry are valued by us above all else.  We will defend our magnificent heritage from the invaders.”   

As the monarch fell silent, the air exploded with loud shrieks of approval. 

“We are not as uncivilized as the Spanish seem to be.”   

“The French are all true knights, just as our king is.”   

“We won the Hundred Years’ War.  We shall win this war, too.” 

“We love France and our culture!  We shall save the nation!”   

The king waved his hand for silence.  “God and truth are on our side!”  His ebullient voice was something more exquisite than they had ever heard, he affirmed, “We are all the children of our gracious Lord.  His will cannot be the destruction of our country, because Jesus Christ wanted peace to reign supreme on earth.  We want peace as well, but we have to fight for it.”   

His expression determined and benevolent, King François continued, “We, the French, know that Christ’s teaching abrogated the old saying, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’.  For us, clemency instead of punishment is our philosophy.”  His raised his voice.  “We will inflict a crushing defeat on all of the Imperial forces in a fair contest, and we shall try to eschew from violence whenever we can.  Let the world see whose nation is more Christian, then.”   

This magnanimous declaration was followed by shouts of concurrence. 

The ruler veered his gaze towards the sky that was painted gold and pink by the rising sun.  He then averred, “The Lord never gives His children a duty to do without giving them the means to do it, and without providing an assurance that they can cope with it.” 

“God bless France and King François!”  the soldiers chorused. 

The ruler partly echoed their words.  “Gracious Lord, bless France and the French people!  Help us restore the glory and honor of our great nation!  Let your holy will prevail!” 

The king’s confident air was reinforced by his belief in his cause.  “To counterbalance the Imperial power, we are now creating the anti-Habsburg alliance.  Many Catholic and Protestant rulers across Europe condemned the emperor’s actions in France.”  He punctuated the moment of importance by a short pause.  “We have already signed treaties with the Schmalkaldic League and Sweden.  The German Protestant States will fight alongside us against Spain.” 

Further improving the morale, the announcement elicited cries of delight.   

Someone asked, “Was that the purpose of Your Majesty’s marriage to Anne Boleyn?” 

“Indeed, and that was the right decision,” answered François with confidence, as if those were the words of the Creator.  “You all believe in your king.  Thus, I ask you to trust my judgment and to be deferential to your queen.  Our success depends on the rate of our progress towards the bigger and stronger anti-Habsburg coalition.  My union with the Queen Anne serves this purpose.” 

“What about the church?”  a bold youth questioned.  

The royal answer pleased everyone.  “France has always been and will remain a Catholic country.  Queen Anne shall work tirelessly for the benefit of the realm, and her retention of her faith is not an obstacle to our aims.”  Avoiding any further conversation on this sensitive subject, he moved the discourse to the end.  “We all believe in the same God – Jesus Christ.  We all have the same goal – to crush the enemy and to keep France as an independent country.” 

A sonorous roar of consensus reverberated through the air like a morning bell. 

“We shall triumph over all of our enemies!” 

“The Spanish will burn for their transgressions!” 

“God help us save France from the invaders!” 

“The truth is with us, and we shall win!” 

A satisfied François grinned.  Even though he would have preferred to hear his men hail both Anne and him, he realized that it was too early to expect that from them.   

Smiling at his subjects cordially, the French monarch gestured towards the Marshal of France, signaling that it was high time to leave.  The crowd parted to let them through, and the king strutted to the exit from the camp, followed by his councilors. 

Outside, the ruler and his entourage paused on the road overlooking the river.  As always, the Scots guard remained vigilant nearby to protect their sovereign. 

“Where is the emperor now?”  inquired François, his voice devoid of emotion.   

Anne de Montmorency shared the available bits of intelligence.  “Your Majesty’s mortal foe has laid dormant in the past weeks.  He has been seen in Sancerre, Berry, and the Loire Valley.” 

“It is the lull before the storm,” Claude d’Annebault opined.  

“I do not like their tactic,” interjected Cardinal de Tournon.  “He and his brother – both are spawns of the devil – must be plotting something.” 

“They might entrap us again,” François uttered imperturbably. 

“Yes,” chorused his councilors.  Philippe de Chabot was still not with them, for his wound was too serious, and the royal physician said that he needed several months to recover. 

The king quizzed, “How many new men have you recruited?” 

Montmorency’s expression was enlivened with a smile.  “At present, the whole nation is united against the Imperial adversary.  More than twenty thousand able-bodied men have arrived only in Orléans in the past month.  The Bellay brothers reported to me that they had recruited more than fifteen thousand in the north of France.  These soldiers are being trained now.” 

“Good.”  The ruler’s shoulders sagged in fleeting relief.  “It is unclear when the Habsburg forces will launch another assault.  We need more time to train our new troops.  As we no longer have our southern army while our eastern forces were significantly weakened, our northern troops will not be enough to resist them.  It is vitally important to postpone the final confrontation as much as we can, even though it is terrible to have the south of France occupied by the enemy.” 

Annebault interposed, “The Protestant allies shall send more soldiers soon.  For example, Landgrave Philip of Hesse promised to give us their armies by the end of September.” 

François let out a wan smile.  “Excellent!  What about the Turks?” 

Tournon said, “We are awaiting the news from our envoys.” 

“Let’s return to the castle,” instructed the king.  “I must write to my sister and wife.” 

King François swung onto the back of the stallion, caparisoned in white damask down to the ground.  He had adopted the color white as the symbol of France’s victory over the invaders.  His departure was accompanied by jocund strains from psaltery and blasts from the trumpets. 

Surrounded by his loyal guards, the sovereign of France and his advisors galloped across the field towards the local bailiff’s residence, where they were staying at the moment. 

§§§

“François, François, François,” a sulky female voice said like a mantra.  The emerald eyes contemplated the sun’s ascendance in the firmament.  “I must talk to him.” 

An extravagant litter, draped in cloth of gold, passed through the ally of oaks and maples.  It contained the infamous Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly, Duchess d’Étampes, the ruler’s second long-term maîtresse-en-titre, and her sister, Péronne de Pisseleu.  Over the litter, was borne a canopy of cloth of gold, which was ornamented at the corners with golden bells, ringing forth a convivial tune as it moved along.  Each staff was carried by ten knights in Valois livery.  

Murmurings arose from the camp all around.  The appearance of such a grand litter, which obviously belonged to a high-ranked noble, attracted the attention of officers and soldiers.   

The Duchess d’Étampes wrung her hands in agony.  “When that Boleyn creature came to Fontainebleau, I should have expected that she would be dangerous.”   

The royal mistress had been in a foul mood since learning about the king’s third marriage.  The English Anne had already become her mortal enemy, her emotions spinning out of control. 

Péronne sighed.  “Our sovereign’s new marriage does not affect your status, sister.  You ought to accept Anne Boleyn as our queen and respect her at least in the king’s presence.”  

Anne’s nostrils flared, and her lips pouted.  “How can I acknowledge that strumpet, who was convicted of adultery and treason, and then exiled from England, as François’ wife?!” 

Péronne rolled her eyes.  “In rage, you have become irrational.  We are both of a noble birth, but our parents come from minor seigneurs.  Out of his affection for you, the king married you off to that dull man, Jean de Brosse, to elevate you to Duchess d’Étampes.”  

“Do not remind me of my husband.  I hate him, and he loathes me.”     

“Aye, that he does,” Péronne said flatly.  “You have been a royal mistress for years.  Anne Boleyn was King Henry’s anointed queen.  Now she is the Queen of France, while you are not.” 

Her sister scowled.  “Why are you being so cruel to me?” 

“I’m trying to reason with you.  The other Anne is the king’s wife, you cannot change it.” 

Despair mingled with fright billowed through the royal paramour.  “Péronne, how can I be calm when that Boleyn slut is François’ spouse?  That woman, not anyone else!” 

The four white palfreys, caparisoned in white damask, drew the litter into the courtyard. 

Anne recalled, “François took me to Calais when he met there with King Henry.” 

“So, you know how this notorious woman looks like.” 

The duchess assessed her rival.  “Though not conventionally beautiful, Anne Boleyn is an enchanting temptress.  Her dark loveliness is like the red rose in the garden of the white ones.  Having grown up at the French court, she is one of the most educated women in Christendom.  When she glides across the room, everyone stares at her in rapture, for she is uninhibited, nicely groomed, graceful, and exotic, fascinating men as easily as one breathes.” 

“I do not understand where you are going with this.” 

The royal mistress summarized, “That Boleyn woman poses a threat to my happy future with my François.  She is exactly the type he is attracted to.” 

Péronne bit her bottom lip.  “Ah, I see why you are so worried, then.” 

The litter stopped beside the palace’s rear.  The two pages in white and blue satin, who escorted them together with the driver, aided the Pisseleu sisters to climb out. 

As soon as her feet stepped onto the ground, Anne rushed towards the entrance to the castle, like a gust of wind.  Shaking her head in disapproval, Péronne followed her sister. 

The Duchess d’Étampes paused on the front steps.  She had never been in this château, for the king’s nomadic court hadn’t come here before.  With four levels and an imposing gatehouse on the east side, the castle formed a quadrilateral with a large cylindrical tower at each corner.  The architectural ensemble was surrounded by moats, as if they had come to a besieged fortress. 

“My François,” Anne de Pisseleu whispered.  “I’ll help him relax.” 

Galvanized into action by these pleasing thoughts, she climbed the steps and ran inside.  In the great hall, she stumbled into Anne de Montmorency, who furrowed his brows at her. 

The duchess jeered, “Monsieur de Montmorency!  You have fought so many wars that you have forgotten it is a man’s duty to treat a lady with respect instead of bumping into her.”    

“Oh?”  Montmorency arched a brow.  “Where do you see a lady here?  Only a whore!” 

Snickering at her, the Marshal of France strode away.  He despised that woman since the day she had caught his liege lord’s eye, and she reciprocated his animosity.  Montmorency was a devout Catholic, while the duchess was at the center of the Protestant-sympathetic faction at the French court.  The differences in their religious backgrounds further intensified their hostility.  He preferred Anne Boleyn to Anne de Pisseleu, despite the queen’s role in the English church reform. 

The duchess hissed, “One day, I’ll destroy you, Monty.” 

In the next moment, Seigneur Gaspard de Chamerolles, who was Bailiff of Orléans and the castle owner, appeared to greet the guests.  Bowing to her, he blinked in uncertainty, but as the king’s mistress introduced herself in that arrogant manner of hers, he realized her importance.  In a few minutes, she was lodged in one of the most luxurious apartments here.   

§§§

Much to her chagrin, the Duchess d’Étampes was admitted to the King of France only at sundown.  After settling in her quarters, she had barged into his rooms, but she had not found him there.  Her royal lover had spent the whole day with his soldiers and Protestant ambassadors.   

To fend off the dark, candles were lit in the presence chamber.  During the monarch’s stay at the château, the previously dull appearance of the room was made stunning, the walls being hung with arras which represented the life of the legendary Charlemagne.  The massive carved throne stood in the center upon a carpet, emblazoned with the face of the Goddess Athena.   

“Anne,” beckoned the French monarch.   

Holding her head high, Anne de Pisseleu crossed to the king’s throne, her posture elegant and tinged with innate sensuality.  Her gait was slow and measured, like that of royalty. 

François watched his mistress sink into a deep curtsey, her graceful movements like those of an adroit feline.  Anne Boleyn’s curtsey is more enchanting than Anne de Pisseleu’s, although they both have exquisitely refined manners.  In the twinkling of an eye, the dart of perplexity hit him as he wondered why he compared these two women. 

To her surprise, her lover did not stand up from the throne to hug her.  “Rise, Madame.  Such a lovely lady should not be at the feet of a man, even if he is a king.” 

Straightening, the duchess scrutinized him.  Dark circles shadowed his eyes, and his pallor accentuated the lack of buoyancy which usually characterized François.  Today, his simple attire was a blending of pastel shades: mauve brocade doublet slashed with lavender silk from top to the bottom of sleeves, hose of the same fabric, and toque of mauve velvet ornamented with gems. 

“Your Majesty looks tired,” she observed. 

His sigh seemed heavier than the load of all his burdens.  “I’ve been extremely busy as of late.  Life will become more troublesome as the emperor’s troops are nearing Orléans.” 

Anne de Pisseleu was genuinely worried about the monarch and, of course, about France’s future.  Like all the French, she hated the Habsburgs with every fibre of her being.  She wished François to triumph over all of his foes so that the ruler could make the grand entrée into Paris with her at his side.  Visions of how they together would ride on white horses to the Palais de Louvre amid flourishes of trumpets and acclamations whirled in her head, like a heady wind. 

Most of all, the duchess craved being the only woman in François’ life who would share the future grandiose victory with him.  However, her lover had wed another woman to win the confrontation with Spain, so she now was a prey to the persistent alarm.  The mistress dreamed of merrymaking and feasting at the extravagant French court, of sleeping in the king’s strong arms after their fervid lovemaking, bacchic just as that of the God Dionysus and his wife, Ariadne.  

François is the best and most handsome man I’ve ever been with, the Pisseleu harlot mused.  She would ardently have accepted him into her sheath right now.  Unbeknownst to him, she had several more lovers, one of them being his favored advisor.  Yet, François occupied a special spot in her fickle heart: she fancied herself in love with him.  She was haughtily proud of her own alluring charms which had produced such a salacious effect upon him. 

Anne’s countenance transformed into concern.  “If only I could assist you, François!” 

He stretched his long legs further out.  “Why have you come here?” 

“I’ve missed you so much,” she breathed. 

“I see.”  It puzzled him that he had spared her little thought in the past months. 

At his dry response, her temper spiraled high – a miscalculation on her part.  “Why did you marry that woman without asking my opinion on the matter?” 

For a handful of heartbeats, King François contemplated his paramour in annoyance.  The willing amorous nymph, who usually elated his mood like few other things could, had vanished to leave in her wake this sharp-tongued and presumptuous virago.  Whatever remnants of his famed chivalry and courtesy he might have felt disappeared after what she had just said.  

His arctic gaze pierced her to the core.  “Am I the King of France or your subject?” 

The intemperate and spoiled Anne de Pisseleu met his challenge head on.  “François, we have long become almost husband and wife.  But you wed that witch, who slept with your rival.”   

The slur against his wife angered him.  “Madame d’Étampes, do I have to teach you a hard lesson to make you respect my decisions and Queen Anne of France?”   

She burst out, “François, mon amour!  This woman is using you!  She bewitched you into marrying you, because she yearned to be a queen again!” 

A man of mellow temper, François was now enraged.  “How dare you slander my wife?  Like others, you must understand that Anne Boleyn is innocent of all the charges leveled against her.”  He stilled for a moment before saying acidly, “My queen is a more decent woman than you have ever been.  At least, she has been only with her two husbands – Henry and me.  You were not a virgin when I took you to bed on your seventeenth birthday.” 

Anne de Pisseleu realized that she had crossed a line.  “I’m sorry, François.” 

He shifted in his seat.  “You should not have said those things.” 

“I’m sorry,” she reiterated.  “I fear to lose you, my king.” 

The ruler ordered, “Anne de Valois – this is her name now – is my queen, and I shall not repudiate her.  You must always pay her all the honors befitting her highest station.”   

The Duchess d’Étampes swallowed a lump.  “I understand, Your Majesty.” 

I’ve never seen this side to her before, the king remarked.  At the present moment, Anne de Pisseleu was not that young, intelligent, and sweet woman who had captivated him years ago.  Her continuous attempts to manipulate him had long commenced grating on his nerves.  Now the capricious and no-holds-barred facets of her character were revealed to him. 

Finally, François stood up.  If there were not so much discomfiture on his part, he might have questioned her acceptance of his instructions.  “This time, you are forgiven.” 

Schooling her features into devilish sweetness, Anne de Pisseleu closed the gap between them.  Tears shining in her eyes, she embraced him and put her head onto his chest.  As he had never been able to watch a woman cry, François closed his arms around her waist.   

She whispered, “You sent me away from court to wed her.  Why did you act so callously?” 

Immediately, he extricated himself from her grasp.  “Predicting your reaction in advance, I strove to avoid a quarrel with you.  Moreover, I’ve been too focused on the formation of the anti-Habsburg alliance since my sister suggested this great idea to me.” 

The duchess disliked the king’s sister a lot, although they both were interested in new religious teachings.  “So, Queen Marguerite arranged this marriage for you.”  

“Sort of.”  He stepped aside, as if wishing to put a distance between them.  

“May I stay with you, my beloved sovereign?” 

“I would prefer that you leave.  But if your mind is firm, you can be here.” 

“It is!”  Anne flashed a provocative smile.  “My François!  Mon amour!”   

François walked over to an oak cabinet at the far end of the room, leaning against it. 

He viewed his paramour from top to toe.  A tall, slender woman of fair complexion, her gaze now shining with untrammeled desire for him, Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly exuded a powerful blend of feminity and sensuality.  Her classically beautiful features were so perfect, her alabaster skin so smooth and glowing, her breasts, stressed by her indecent décolletage, so ample, and the aura of the Goddess Venus, which radiated from her, transformed her into a vision, a dream too enchanting to last.  Her emerald eyes gleamed with the sultry promise of carnal pleasures. 

Anne’s magnificent gown of crimson brocade, worked with gold, had a low, square-cut neckline and long, open, pendent sleeves.  Her stomacher of white velvet, twisted with threads of Venetian gold, glittered with rubies, sapphires, topazes, and emeralds.  Her glossy, blonde hair cascaded down her back from beneath a headdress of goldsmith’s work, which was encrusted with rubies and diamonds.  From her neck, dangled a necklace of oval-cut and massive diamonds, which was part of the Crown Jewels and which she wore with his permission. 

The Duchess d’Étampes was one of the most fabulous women in France.  Being talented in the art of physical love, she had held the amorous monarch captive for years.  Neglecting his unwanted wife, Eleanor of Austria, François had let his maîtresse-en-titre wield such power that no royal courtesan possessed in Europe, although she failed to manipulate him in most cases. 

She effused, “I love you so much, François!” 

“That remains to be seen,” he teased, his smile listless. 

Anne de Pisseleu impetuously darted to François and tiptoed, snaking her arms around his neck.  Her hand raking through his chestnut locks, she sealed her mouth to his. 

The Pisseleu’s erotic conjurations roused all of the monarch’s sensual rapacity.  François pushed her back to a table, and the duchess obeyed him like a slave, at the same time experiencing a devilish satisfaction at this testimony to her superior power over his male needs.  He reached down and shoved her skirts up to her waist, hastily removing her undergarments.  Her expert hands were so dexterous that Anne finished unlacing his hose within several blinks of an eye. 

Now François typified the god Pan, the master of the wild fields, groves, and glens, who was depicted by the Greeks with an erect phallus.  She arched her hips towards him and let a moan rumble in her throat, spreading her legs wide and inviting him in.  With a lascivious smirk, Anne beckoned him to herself, and he embedded himself into her in one hard, forceful thrust.  He drove into her over and over again, building a furious rhythm of plunder and somehow ending up pressed against the wall.  Every time she tightened her sheath around his shaft, the king moaned, and she laughed like the Roman Messalina giving herself to one of her countless lovers. 

An utterly aroused Anne crushed her lips into his.  For a while, their bodies wriggled and writhed in a mechanical, vehement rite, almost grotesque for old lovers such as themselves.  The prurient rhythms of the ruler’s pulsating flesh demanded that he deliver his harlot to the Pan’s homeland in rustic Arcadia so that they could celebrate the culmination in an unspoiled wilderness.  Gulping breaths and groaning, he swelled even more, throbbing and burning until he thrust long and deep into her before they both dissolved in an ocean of unalloyed carnal bliss. 

His mistress nested her head against his chest.  “François …”

Opening his eyes and encountering two emerald caverns, the king frowned as he beheld the marshy swampland with stagnant water.  His entire personal life stretched in front of him, barren of love and full of numerous lusts, which he was clinging to with ferocity for years. 

I’ve been slogging through the green swampland of Anne de Pisseleu’s eyes for so long, the ground where she steps sucking at my feet, François realized.  Physical aroma wafted from this smart and wanton creature, tying his body to hers, though not to his soul.  For so long, their feverish lovemaking had usually been followed by intellectual discourses and many merry days in a row, but today the moments after their coupling were sour-mouthed and nauseated him.

A mangled groan erupted out of his throat.  “We should not have done that.” 

Her eyes widened fractionally.  “Why?”  Her lips curled in a grin.  “I only regret that you didn’t take me in natural settings, in a cave or a grotto, just as Pan slept with nymphs.” 

Pushing her back, he adjusted his hose.  “I wish to be alone.” 

She rearranged her skirts.  “But I crave to be with you again!” 

Lust had evaporated from his loins.  “Do not annoy me, Anne.  I’ve always been kind to you.  But if you ever disparage my wife again, you will lose my favor.” 

The Duchess d’Étampes retorted meekly, “I’ll do what you want.  That I promise you.” 

The amber eyes turned affable.  “Go to your apartments.  We will talk later.” 

“As Your Majesty commands.”  Bobbing a curtsey, she backed away to the exit. 

After she had vacated the room, François was conscious of guilt at the thought of hurting his mistress.  Relationships were rarely unselfish, so he had not evicted Anne de Pisseleu for her lapse of manners.  His life would evolve into a dry, desolate desert without ladies, while his English spouse would probably never become his secret oasis.  Part of him still hoped that the duchess could become his cool waterfall, but this illusion was swiftly dissipating, like mist in summer. 

These feelings were superseded by a surge of contrition that he had copulated with Anne de Pisseleu.  An axe of guilt stabbed François in the stomach: he had just broken his marital vows, smearing his marriage to Anne Boleyn with the grime of his infidelity.  That was a new sensation for him: throughout his matrimonial life with Eleanor of Austria and even with the almost ideal Claude of France, he had committed adulteries without compunction, sometimes in a scandalous manner.  Anne, my wife…. Forgive me for what I’ve just committed, the puzzled king mused.       

§§§

François de Valois was awoken by the sounds of loud screams and the hurried march of footsteps in the corridor.  Apparently, a frenzied commotion was escalating outside. 

“Again the Habsburgs?”  His mind raced in the cool way, like a commander’s.    

Pushing aside the silk sheets, the monarch scrambled out of bed, and made his way to the window.  The firmament was brightening in the east, heralding dawn.  The courtyard was swarmed with dark forms, moving stealthily towards others, whirling in the internecine dance of mortality.  Even from his bedchamber, he could hear the muffled cries of the wounded and dying. 

The door flung open, and Anne de Montmorency rushed in.  “We are under attack!” 

A thoughtful François swiveled to face him.  “They planned it beforehand.”

“Your Majesty, you must sneak out of the palace!”   

“Never!”  The ruler struggled into his garments in haste.  “We fled from Arles because the situation was critical.  But here we will make our last stand here, if necessary.” 

His subject would not persuade him otherwise.  “I’ll protect you, then.” 

“My burgonet!” demanded the king.  “It originally belonged to my father.” 

His groom delivered the crowned burgonet studded with carbuncles and King François’ emblem – a salamander.  Years ago, it had been commissioned by the monarch’s father – Charles d’Orléans, Count d’Angoulême – for his participation in the Italian war led by Louis XII of France.  

François donned the helmet.  “If they want to kill the king, they can easily find me.” 

“Oh, Your Majesty…”  Montmorency heaved a sigh.  His sovereign’s foolhardiness was both admirable and reckless, so his generals were always on high alert to keep him alive. 

The ruler drew on his gauntlets.  “Fortune favors the brave.” 

In a few minutes, the monarch and his subject strode through the hallways. 

Clad in his fancy golden armor, King François embodied the most extravagant Christian knight.  His hand rested on the hilt of his sword, which was studded with rubies and the salamander.  A poniard hung at his waist, the scabbard encrusted with the salamander as well. 

In the great hall, Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly ran towards her royal lover.  “Your Majesty, are you all right?  What should I do?  How can I aid you?” 

He stopped beside her.  “Anne, return to your rooms.  If the situation worsens, we will evacuate you.”  Then he and Montmorency spun on their heels and exited.   

Outside, a bloody gale blew the ruler and the marshal into the scrimmage.    

Pulling his sword, François exhorted, “Crush the Imperial ruffians in the name of God!” 

His cry was repeated by all the French, encountering their opponents in the lethal cascade of steel and bone.  Exacerbated by their recent losses, their temper broke the grip of their traditional chivalry, paving the way to the fiendish mutilation of their adversaries.  Bloodlust seized them like the claws of a ravening beast, torrents of crimson liquid fire gushing everywhere around. 

The king charged into battle like a warrior possessed by a bellicose spirit.  Wielding his sword in one hand and brandishing his poniard in the other, he dissolved into the bleeding and screaming chaos.  The insane abhorrence towards the emperor, the hatred towards the Spaniards, and the doom they could face tonight – everything fused in the heat of his righteous wrath.  The ruler cut the threads of countless lives, his weapon arcing in dark, sweeping blows.  

“To the gate!”  Claude d’Annebault bellowed as he stabbed a Spaniard in the torso.  “All arms to the gate!”  He spun around like a whirl, blocking and parrying. 

“Repel the invaders!”  The monarch’s poniard bisected someone’s abdomen. 

The monarch’s voice rang out loud and clear across the courtyard.  More warriors, some still sleepy, stormed out of the château and nearby buildings, drawing their weapons and strapping on armor.  The battle raged ferociously, and the French artillery was firing incessantly.     

Above the human mass, the canvas exploded with hues of scarlet and gold.  The rising sun transformed into an oriflamme of indescribable, yet lethal, gorgeousness that presaged ruin. 

The Valois king morphed into an incensed Zeus battling against the Titans for the Mount Olympus.  “Send someone to the camp!  We need our men’s aid!”   

“Done, my liege!”  Staying in his sovereign’s close vicinity, Cardinal de Tournon skewed the man, who labored to slain François, through the side.  “They must appear soon.”   

Someone shouted in Spanish, “The King of France!  Kill him!” 

François howled with laughter, as though it was the funniest thing he had ever heard.  “My Imperial friends, take me alive or murder me, if you can!”  He slashed in a horizontal cut.  

“Protect His Majesty!”  Montmorency’s blade pierced his rival’s heart.   

Gifting a fatal blow to his opponent, Annebault paused for a fraction of a second, as he eyed the carnage.  “Those fucking Habsburgs have performed a sneak attack at night.” 

“For France!”  The ruler’s sword was carving its bloody path. 

The warriors repeated his rallying cry, “For France!”

Led by Annebault, a French squad took the battlements.  Corpses, some of them smashed beyond recognition, spread around like a crimson carpet, oozing with the mingled blood of the dead and wounded.  At Montmorency’s command, a train of artillery fired at the enemy again. 

“That man!”  yelled a Spanish knight who was dangerously close to the king.  “He wears the burgonet with salamanders!  He is King François!  Destroy that Valois dog!”   

“Die, you scoundrel.”  Anne de Montmorency impaled the instigator.    

The universe narrowed to two goals: to defend the king and to overpower the attackers.  The gates were unexpectedly opened by an attack, as more of the Imperial men pressed the French into the courtyard, only to have a division of shield-bearing French warriors crash into them. 

Montmorency apprised, “Our men from the camp have arrived!” 

The French troops were finally here, pouring into the courtyard in a torrent.  The two parties came close together, then retreated and engaged again, their swords colliding and scraping together with the violence of their mutual aversion.  The Spaniards could not withstand the onslaught of the French, who were in the better condition compared to their opponents.  

The King of France fought at the heart of the conflict.  “We are winning!” 

The sun’s glow illuminated the towers of the castle as the French welcomed the daylight and victory.  Suddenly, warriors, bearing the standard of Philip I, Landgrave of Hesse known as the Magnanimous, entered through the gate.  Among them there was a lady, wearing beautiful shining armor inlaid with silver filigree, her figure shining like a beacon of truth.  Next to her, stood a slender knight of average height with manacled hands, the visor of his armet flipped down. 

Sizzling heat rushing up through his essence, François froze as his opponent tumbled to the ground.  “Anne,” he whispered, his lips stretching in a grin.  “Anne!” 

Someone announced, “Queen Anne has brought the German forces!” 

Veering his gaze to his marshal, François urged, “Monty, safeguard my wife.” 

His friend nodded.  “I shall!  Just be careful, my liege.” 

Silhouetted against the red halo of dawn, the queen and Montmorency huddled together.   He defended her from all perils, as the French and German knights charged at the Imperial men. 

Soon most of the invaders had been vanquished.  Those who remained alive were goaded into the ferocious resistance in the face of their impending doom.  At the sight of the prisoner who stood beside Anne, the Spanish soldiers raced through the melee towards him, as if saving him was the matter of life and death.  However, they were encased in a thunderous cascade of artillery and musketry fire, waves of their pitiful moans rolling over the area. 

As cannonades proclaimed the French triumph, the fighting died out.  For a skirmish, the carnage was so unthinkable that the battlefield looked like some scene on a tapestry of Crusades. 

Sheathing his weapons, King François approached his wife and removed his burgonet.  In a voice dripping in amazement, he enquired, “Although it is amusing to see you in armor, Anne, I wonder what you are doing here.  You must be with my sister at Fontainebleau.” 

 Her countenance expressing her haughty pride, Anne answered, “Your Majesty should not be angry at the two women who have done everything in their power to help you.”  Gesturing towards the unknown warrior, she proclaimed, “This is His Highness Ferdinand von Habsburg.” 

The amber eyes widened.  “What?” 

Montmorency sniggered.  “At first, I could not believe that, but it is true.”   

Philip I, Landgrave of Hesse, bowed to the ruler of France, who swept a bow in response.  François was startled to see the key leader of the Schmalkaldic League in front of him. 

“Your Majesty,” Philip addressed the Valois monarch.  He spoke in French, his accent heavy.  “I’ve led my army from Hesse and my other lands to assist you in punishing the Spanish Catholic invaders.  When we arrived at Fontainebleau, your sister, the esteemed Queen of Navarre, offered us to join you at Orléans.  Your queen accompanied us on the way here.” 

“Thank you.”  Pointing at the prisoner, the king asked, “How did you capture him?” 

Anne surveyed her husband, unaccustomed to seeing him encumbered with armor.  François winked at her, conveying that it was unusual to see such a belligerent lady. 

The queen explained, “The emperor’s brother perpetrated the attack on the castle, most likely with the intention to kill Your Majesty.  When his plan was foiled, he attempted to escape, but we intercepted him in the central alley leading to the château.” 

“I know him well.”  The Landgrave of Hesse gestured towards the captive. 

François stepped to his mortal foe’s younger brother.  Switching into accented Spanish, he pronounced, “Your Highness, welcome to France!  You must feel that your dignity has been compromised because you are now standing in front of us – your enemies.  However, it is your fault, and you must also blame Carlos for your current predicament.  As your stay in our country will be a long one, you will have the chance to learn the famous French etiquette and courtesy.” 

After a moment’s dithering, Ferdinand flicked up his visor to reveal pale blue eyes full of impotent fury and scorn.  “I yield,” he ground out in Spanish. 

“Take him away,” ordered François.  “Treat him with the respect befitting his station.”   

After the notable prisoner had been led away, the king stared into two dark pools.  Anne… How natural it is to call her my wife…  She has arrived like a general on the parade.  He was used to desire women, but his stirring emotions towards his spouse had an exotic quality, as if looking at her was the piquant experience of seeing a rare treasure from the Orient.  François wondered what future held for him and his new spouse who had quite a strange effect on him. 

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: On the Brink of Changes

October 5, 1536, Château de Chamerolles, near Orléans, Loire Valley, France

“Your dearest Majesty,” began Anne de Pisseleu.  “I’ve come to greet you in person.” 

The Duchess d’Étampes curtsied to her lover’s wife, endeavoring to move as gracefully as she could.  It was as if she intended to compete with the famous elegance and style of Anne Boleyn.  As the royal paramour rose, the emerald pools of faux sweetness encountered the ever-penetrating dark gaze which pierced her to the core, like a scorching ray of sun.  

The antechamber was lit by candles, but not a single shadow faltered or hue flickered.  Anne Boleyn waved her hand, dismissing a lady to stay alone with her guest. 

Her gaze traversing the visitor, Queen Anne of France bestowed a smile upon her.  Her husband’s maîtresse-en-tire possessed the flamboyant and lascivious beauty of the mythological goddess of beauty and desire.  It was no wonder that Anne de Piselleu d’Heilly had won the contest for the place in the royal bed with the older Françoise de Foix, Countess de Châteaubriant, and become the ruler’s chief mistress.  The Valois monarch compared his most favored paramour’s body to that of Venus, which was a true testimony to her perfectly formed figure.

The genius Michelangelo could not have sculptured a finer statue, the queen concluded.  I’ve never lacked for admirers, but this woman is more beautiful than me.  Her mind conjured appalling pictures: Anne de Pisseleu peeling off her night robe so that her sexual allure could shine everywhere in blinding attraction, and King François kissing her possessively while grounding his hips into her in slow, erotic circles.  For some peculiar reason, this made the queen angry.    

The royal wife grinned.  “I hope, with good intentions, Madame.”  

“Yes, of course,” answered the king’s courtesan with an artificial smile.  “I’m honored to be here and meet with the sheer legend of Christendom.  Your persona has long become the symbol of feminine grace, topnotch intelligence, amorous feats, and religious novelties.” 

“And so has your name,” the Queen of France pointed out.  

Bewildered, the mistress said in a lowered tone, “What?” 

Her voice as silken as the finest velvet, the ruler’s spouse said, “Most definitely, Madame la Duchesse.  You have kept the monarch of France’s interest for so long that it deserves profound admiration and praise.”  Stilling for a moment, she regarded the courtesan.  “The gallants of the French court say that you are ‘the most beautiful among the learned and the most learned among the beautiful’.  They are right, for you are a prime example of loveliness and intelligence.” 

Anne de Pisseleu was flattered, but she surmised that the queen was testing her.  “Your Majesty is most kind to me.  However, my personal virtues are naught compared to yours.” 

Anne Boleyn seated herself in a chair.  “You are belittling yourself.” 

The duchess raised her chin defiantly as she quoted one of the king’s poems in her honor. 

A flush, a glow on the morning skies,

Earth smiles in her happy awakening;

Whispers the wind, “Arise now, the Knight-King!

Your Venus is waiting for you, right next to you!”

The dawn of our passion is beaming again.”

And his affectionate eyes look on her form,

And their faces shimmer like the sunny brook,

He flashes a smile that has conquered many hearts

But that is only for his Venus and her heart. 

The goddess tells her king: “I love you! 

You are my dawn that comes every new day!

Your voice is only for me in this sweet time,

We are bathing in resplendent joy together.” 

Together we watch the gorgeous sunrise,

And the songs of our lives ring gaily out there

The eternal spring of our passion is here!

Anne de Pisseleu was so engrossed in the verse that a strong rush of desire went through her.  “This lovely poem illustrates how deeply His Majesty feels for me.”

“It is interesting that the king speaks about your passion, but not his love for you.” 

The royal harlot boasted, “François wrote this poem to me while we were in bed.” 

The queen’s smirk turned into a painful twist of lips.  “His feelings for you are a primitive carnal passion?  Men are lustful creatures who chase after nymphs because of their beauty.” 

“Love and passion!”  the duchess objected. 

The queen was astounded with the duchess’ frankness.  She knew that François composed poems to some of his paramours either to seduce them or to paint his continuing affairs with the hues of romance.  Endowed by nature with the most remarkable gifts of body and mind, the ruler had acted in the same manner during his seduction of Mary Boleyn, who had easily fallen victim to his unparalleled allure.  Despite having been a girl back then, Anne had seen the king’s poems for Mary, and she remembered how her sister had ‘ahed and ohed’ while reading them. 

These memories unsettled Queen Anne.  “Over the course of time, countless women have willingly surrendered to King François’ expert charms.  My sister was once like liquid in his arms, only to be later cruelly defamed by him.  His escapades dubbed him a notorious heartbreaker.” 

The mistress led her vanguard against her rival.  “François has been with many women, and I’m aware that he has other mistresses.  At the same time, he loves me so wholeheartedly and endlessly that he would do anything for me.  His love for me is a gift he gives daily, expecting nothing in return.  He walks at my side, as the light from me is a torch to guide him along the path of heavenly delight.  I own the king’s heart, and nothing will ever change that.” 

“Do you fear that I can alter it?”  asked the queen, her eyebrow arched. 

Taken aback, Anne de Pisseleu didn’t reply straight away.  All-pervading fright gripped her in its pitiless hands.  It was exactly what she was afraid of since she had learned about François’ wedding.  One glance into the mysterious, dark hooks of the Boleyn temptress, which were more haunting than visions of paradise for a sinner, was enough to enslave a man.  I shall not let that woman take my François away from me.  Woe betide her if she tries to make him fall in love with her, just as she did to the English ruler.  Such were the duchess’ unsavory musings.    

The mistress’ face was uncertain.  “What do you mean?”   

Mirth flashed in the eyes which turned opaque.  “You think that I’ll ensnare King François like my first husband.  A flicker of fear in your eyes and the rigidity of your frame prove this.” 

The royal courtesan let her breath out in a sigh.  “With all due respect, you are mistaken.” 

With a philosophical air about her, Anne Boleyn pontificated, “Every woman is looking for that blessed hope and glorious love she can read about in chivalrous romances.  With joyful longing, she waits for her gallant knight to court her, to confess to loving her, to marry her, and then to make her the happiest woman on earth.  She entreats the Lord to grant her a content and life-long marriage, yearning to become her beloved’s devoted, faithful wife.”

Confusion filled the emerald eyes.  “I do not understand.” 

With paralyzing sagacity, the royal spouse commented, “Once I was such a woman.  I was drawn to the King of England like a moth to a flame – and I was burned.  However, you have never wanted any man out of pure love, for you do not know what true love is.”  

The duchess’ temper flared.  “Your Majesty does not know me!” 

The queen assessed the other woman’s character.  “I can see through you.  Your capacity for mischief in affairs arouses passion in the hearts and loins of men.  You are proud of your enormous skill in ridding married women of their husbands.   For many men, the very prospect of catching your glance at them is like a rare dream.”  A smirk puckered her mouth.  “Over time, your ordinary life widened to the royal universe, where you became the king’s powerful maîtresse-en-titre.  Your sovereign indulges you beyond measure, and you believe that being with him is the supreme purpose for which you were born.  Is that not true, Madame d’Étampes?” 

The courtesan was totally abashed.  “François and I are–”

Queen Anne interrupted, “At some point in time, a lover – whether he is a king or not – realizes the truth about his mistress, even if now he adores her.  Inevitably, reality will intervene, and in this case, her talent in amours will become worthless, like a mirage in the desert.  Everything has its beginning and its end, and the end of any liaison occurs as soon as the lover grasps the dismal truth.”  Tittering, she concluded, “These thoughts have long started nagging you.” 

Her cheeks purpling, Anne de Pisseleu throttled her rage.  For once, her intuition had been at fault before this meeting.  She had initially believed that she would assure Anne Boleyn of the total security of her relationship with the French ruler.  But she had underestimated the dratted woman, whom she refused to call a queen in her mind.  Not only had the king’s new wife defeated the duchess in their philosophical, yet acrid, discourse, but also had backed her into a corner. 

“That is not true,” lied the ruler’s chief mistress, her voice laced with steel.  “Our mutual love with François has been blessed by the Almighty.  Nothing could be better than that.” 

“I’m glad His Majesty has such an ardent lover, but for a different reason.” 

Truth be told, the queen regretted that the duchess had proclaimed herself Anne’s enemy.  At the beginning of their conversation, she had been inclined, in her genuine sincerity, to inform the king’s paramour that she had no part in her own spouse’s life, and that the other woman had nothing to fear.  However, Anne de Pisseleu’s arrogance was so overwhelming and overweening that the queen was determined to put the harlot in her place, no matter what. 

In France, Anne Boleyn could discuss her erstwhile life only with Queen Marguerite of Navarre, so she felt lonely, as if stranded on a barren island.  Her only comfort was memories of her dearest daughter, Elizabeth – her sacred mental abode from troubles, yet she feared to dwell on them for too long for long to avoid hurting herself even more.  I’m all alone and need allies, not foes.  But now I have a new dangerous adversary, so I must watch my back.   

“You are dismissed, Madame,” stated Queen Anne with arctic chilliness. 

Gritting her teeth, the Duchess d’Étampes swallowed her ire.  “I bid you a good day, Your Majesty.”  She compelled herself to curtsey, spun on her heels, and stormed out.

§§§

As the door behind her slammed shut, the Queen of France rose to her feet and stalked to the window.  The last vestiges of sun were a tenuous streak across the firmament, and, together with them, the remnants of her good mood faded, like a wisp of smoke. 

That was both preposterous and hilarious: the confrontation of the jealous harpy and the spouse, who hates the very idea of marriage.  At this moment, Anne acutely felt the difficulties of her second matrimony.  The word ‘wife’ made her discomfited, terrified, and furious all at once.  François and she had agreed to give little meaning to their relationship of mutual convenience, but she was haunted by the thought that soon her life would be upended in some dramatic way. 

Suddenly, a wave of dizziness swept over her, and Anne’s eyes fluttered shut in response to the nausea that followed.  “I did not sleep well today.  I just need to rest more.” 

Anne prodded across the room to a large, canopied bed, draped in gray brocade, its thick draperies tied back.  Two walls were frescoed with images from Sophocles’ Greek tragedies, and the others were covered with more gray brocade.  The bedside tables were made of walnut and marble.  All of the armchairs and coaches were silvered and upholstered in dove-colored silk. 

Climbing onto the bed, she snuggled under the covers, intent on falling asleep.  Instead, her thoughts were whirling, like leaves in an autumn wind, drifting towards her husband. 

Separated by an insurmountable, ugly wall of superstition and custom, spouses in most arranged marriages were unlikely to develop knowledge of, and respect to each other, without which every union was doomed to failure.  In Anne’s case, the situation was worse:  her husband was a monarch, who could burn her to cinders lest she outlived her usefulness.  Dante’s motto over his Inferno applied with equal force to marriage: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” 

Anne had taken huge risks when she had wed another ruler.  “God, I beseech you to guide me.  It cannot be that I was born to suffer in each of my marriages to two kings.” 

Another of the queen’s numerous phobias was that King François would demand absolute obedience in all things.  To Anne, such a turn of events would be the most horrible thing, at which her soul revolted, roared, and wept at the same time.  The subjugation of female nature by husband was worse than ruination, for it led to the soul’s poverty and its sordidness.  Anne’s heart wounds were still deep, raw, and bleeding, like a prisoner’s multiple injuries from the rack.   

Anne again found herself weak with dizziness, her stomach pitching with slight nausea.  Ignoring her discomfort, she told herself, “I shall not be governed by François.  Never ever!  If one day he decides to destroy me, I’ll fight against him tooth and nail.”   

Monarchs always expect their subjects to fulfill their wishes.  I am not François’ mere subject, but he is still my sovereign, so he can order me to do anything.  By the natural significance of the matrimonial institution, he had the right to force his queen to perform her conjugal duties.  She entertained for François all kinds of feelings, except for amorous ones, and she wanted their union to remain one based on their mutual political needs.  It was not in the power of the new Anne Boleyn to bestow even a shred of affection upon any man, even her own husband. 

“I’m not destined for happiness,” the queen speculated, her arms folded over her chest.  “Only young people allow themselves the luxury of romance.  And they are pounded by the rough hands of fate until they get wiser.  Henry made me more than sensible.” 

Suddenly, the world spun around, like a dancer performing a spirited tarantella.  Anne leaned from the bed and emptied the contents of her stomach onto the floor.  As she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, she thought that she could have eaten something that damaged the balance of her humors.  It is nothing.  Soon I’ll feel better, the queen persuaded herself. 


October 10, 1536, Château de Chamerolles, near Orléans, Loire Valley, France

The military council was held in the royal presence chamber.  The shadows of the evening stretched out across the land.  The candlelight illuminated the room that was filled with the French councilors, who were cheerful after the capture of the emperor’s younger brother. 

The detailed map of the Loire Valley was laid out on the long table.  It was full of small notes about all of the territories, which were currently occupied by the Imperial forces, as well as about the fortresses and other places, which belonged to the French at this stage. 

King François leaned back in his throne-like chair, adorned with the Valois heraldry.  “We should launch an offensive on the Spanish.  Since Ferdinand’s capture, the opposing parties have been staying close to each other but not attacking.  It is a lull before the storm.” 

Anne de Montmorency concurred, despite his usually conservative approach to military operations.  “The emperor’s ultimate goal is to capture Paris.  He has not tried to attack us only for one reason – we have Archduke Ferdinand in custody.  But he has not acceded to our main demand to withdraw his forces to the south, so now he might be plotting.” 

Cardinal François de Tournon estimated their sworn foe’s talents.  “Charles von Habsburg is a cunning strategist.  All of his battles are products of art.”  

Concentrated, Queen Anne didn’t miss a word.  A sense of alarm and unease crept along her spine as questions assaulted her consciousness.  What if the emperor endeavored to attack the French troops in order to liberate his brother?  Did François ever consider that his armies could be vanquished again?  Her mind recoiled from such thoughts, like an exorcised demon. 

Montmorency’s voice was laced with worry.  “One of the emperor’s maxims is that war should be undertaken with forces proportionate to the obstacles a general must overcome.  Now there are two hurdles to his victory: our Protestant alliance and his brother’s captivity.” 

A muscle twitched in the monarch’s jaw.  “So, he might try to harm my wife.” 

Queen Anne remained silent, but a shadow crossed her otherwise blank countenance.  As her gaze intercepted the king’s, she discerned a momentary flash of fear in his eyes.  Emperor Charles was her adversary since King Henry had started the Great Matter to dispose of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.  The man had not acknowledged her as the Queen of England, and he must have rejoiced when Anne had been defamed by Henry as a treacherous adulteress. 

“That is possible,” opined Tournon. 

His eyes flying to his spouse, King François encapsulated, “Anne is France’s symbol of international unity against the Habsburgs.  She is the very reason why the German Protestant States have allied with us, and the emperor shall not condone it.  As now we have his sibling jailed, he might attempt to capture Anne and then exchange her for Ferdinand.” 

Anne set her chin at a defiant angle.  “I am not afraid of the emperor.” 

The monarch retorted, “Fearlessness is like a muscle.  The more one exercises it, the more natural it becomes not to let one’s fears overrun them.  Is that right, Anne?” 

In Orléans, the queen avoided her husband like a plague.  To her surprise, now she was glad to indulge in light conversation with him.  “Fearlessness is our great joy.” 

François guffawed heartily.  “What a magnificent situation we have found ourselves in! The intrepid Anne Boleyn and I are together against the Habsburg Empire!” 

An involuntary smile curled her lips.  “It is the union of brave hearts!” 

“That is true, Anne.”  His expression evolved into seriousness as the king emphasized, “Anne, you and I’ve both been falsely accused of things we have never committed.  That is why we have created the coalition of two courageous people whose reputations were besmirched.  I swear that we will reinstate them in due time and call our offenders to answer.” 

The advisors wondered what sort of deal existed between their king and queen.  It seemed that Anne and François intended to create some stratagem against the English monarch.  

There was a bellicose blaze in the dark eyes.  “God is on our side.” 

Nodding at his wife, the ruler turned to Annebault.  “Claude, I want you to have my queen watched every hour.  Fifteen most skilled men from the Scots guard should always guard the doors to her apartments and accompany her wherever she goes.” 

Claude d’Annebault promised, “Your Majesty, I’ll ensure the queen’s safety and have the security measures toughened.  I swear I’ll safeguard her with my life.” 

The monarch trusted Annebault.  “Thank you.” 

Montmorency moved the discourse back to the military agenda.  “In most of his previous battles, the emperor’s armies usually had their two wings resting aside or upon some natural obstacle, such as rivers, ravines, or chains of mountains.  At present, only one flank of their forces is stationed on the Loire River, and we can use it to our advantage.” 

“The other wing is exposed,” concluded the ruler. 

“Yes,” confirmed the Marshal of France.  “I’m in agreement with Your Majesty that we should attack him soon, before he has a chance to invent something against us.  If we give him a battle near the city of Orléans, only his supported wing will launch a counterstrike.  We can destroy the exposed divisions while simultaneously engaging the rest of their troops in battle.” 

François contradicted, “In this case, Charles will depend upon a central formation.  Then he will not allow the different divisions under his command to depart from him.   Thus, we will be unable to split the Imperial wings and then destroy the unprotected flank.” 

Annebault interposed, “The easiest way to be cheated is to believe yourself to be more cunning than your adversary.  That is why we simply need a crafty plan.”   

A thought lanced through Anne’s brain.  “It would be difficult for the emperor to contend with us if his both flanks are exposed.  Therefore, if we could make the unprotected wing of his troops retreat south from the river bank, then we will be able to exploit his weakness.” 

Once more, her intelligence surprised Anne de Montmorency.  “That would be the best thing to achieve.  If their divisions retreat a few miles from the river, we will try to further split the adversary.  The question is how we can accomplish that.” 

Anne schooled her features into modesty.  “The art of war is similar to that of winning in chess.  In life and war, as in chess, forethought, craft, and strategy win.”

François encouraged, “I want to know your opinion, Anne.” 

The queen demonstrated her brilliant knowledge of history.  “I mentioned the second Persian invasion of Greece during the military council at Fontainebleau.  Now I cannot help but remember it again, especially the Battle of Plataea.  It was the final land confrontation between the Greeks and the Persians.”  She stilled for a fraction of a second, collecting her thoughts.  “After a series of disastrous losses, the Greeks assembled a large army in the Peloponnesus in the summer of 479 BC.  They then marched to Plataea, where the Persians erected a fortified camp.” 

The king smiled, for he and his wife both liked the ancient history of Rome and Greece.  “If my memory serves me well, upon their arrival there, the allied Greek forces didn’t engage the foe straight away.  They remained at some distance from the Persian camp, and, after spreading a rumor that their supply lines were disrupted, they feigned a retreat.” 

His wife grinned at him.  “Your memory is perfect, sire.  Thinking that the Greeks were in precipitate retreat, the Persian general Mardonius ordered his forces to pursue them.  The Greeks halted and took the offensive against the enemy, annihilating the Persian infantry and Mardonius.” 

Impressed, everyone gave an exclamation of amazement. 

François admired Anne’s intelligence, which he had already seen in full display.  Yet, he had never known any lady – save his mother and sister – who could be as shrewd and pragmatic as a weasel.  It was what he had lacked in early youth.  Anne would make a great consort, so the king would let her rule alongside Marguerite and him.  Maybe she will understand that I am not like Henry and do not need women only for childbearing.  This thought surprised him.   

The royal smirk was quite jaunty.  “We will approach the emperor’s protected flank near the Loire River.  After pausing nearby, we will spread gossip that we will not attack because our supply and communication lines were disrupted.  Then we will feign retreat to goad Charles into launching an onslaught on us while being ready to make a fierce counterattack.”  

Annebault conjectured, “If we act quickly, we may have a large portion of the Spanish army trapped in their camp.  So, we can end up having a skirmish, not even a battle.” 

Montmorency advocated caution.  “This plan may result in our resounding victory.  Yet, I expect a bloody battle.  If we win, the exposed Imperial flank will be razed to the ground, and the rest of the Habsburg armies will move south, where we will split them further.”  

The queen’s gaze was glued to the Marshal of France.  Once King François had mentioned that Anne de Montmorency and Diane de Poitiers were allies and friends.  Diane could become her enemy: the dauphin’s beloved mistress would hate to be outshone by Anne and to lose some of her influence at court after Anne’s wedding to the monarch.  On the other hand, Montmorency was a foe of Anne de Pisseleu, who was also the queen’s adversary.  Having a good relationship with Montmorency may help me.  The enemy of my enemy is my ally, the queen mused

In the next instant, Anne noticed Montmorency’s unblinking scrutiny riveted upon her.  In his eyes, she deciphered a grudging respect for her talent and her genuine desire to help France.  Perhaps she would find common ground with the marshal, despite his being a devout papist.    

Tournon predicted, “Then he will withdraw south to ensure his brother’s safety.” 

The queen reveled in the prospect of the French victory near Orléans, especially if it would be based on her plan.  “Emperor Charles is a devious spider, who weaves a web to catch his prey.  We should act in the same fashion: like the most competent chess player, we will take his flanks out of the game, and then split his remaining troops into more exposed wings.”  

The King of France was exalted at this stratagem.  “Chess and war are not for timid souls.” 

Tournon quizzed, “Does Your Majesty approve of the plan?” 

“I do.  Ensure that our men know what they must do.”  The ruler’s smile testified to the nascent hope that they would succeed in their endeavors. 

“I shall see to it,” promised Montmorency. 

From the beginning of the invasion, all of the military debates had run hot and heavy.  But the final word lay with the King of France.  In the art of war, one of the main premises for success was to confer the command upon one individual.  If the authority was divided in battle, the opinions of the commanders often varied too drastically, and, consequently, the operations were doomed to be deprived of that strategic ensemble which was the first essential to triumph.  Moreover, all the generals believed in their liege lord’s ability to succeed in the enterprise of France’s salvation. 

Annebault supplemented, “Landgrave Philip of Hesse and I’ve been training our men to coordinate their actions in battle, and I’m satisfied with the results.  In a couple of weeks, the armies of Philip’s allies from the German Protestant states will join us at Orléans.” 

“Excellent!”  There was something else the King of France wished to know.  “Any news from our Turkish allies?  Have our envoys returned from Constantinople?” 

Tournon managed international affairs, so he regularly received the information from foreign courts and the bits of intelligence from their spies.  “The Turks received our call for help.  They earnestly consented to coordinate their actions with us.  They are currently assembling their huge armies to move them towards the city of Vienna, for they want to seize the chance to partition Austria in the absence of both the emperor and his brother.” 

This announcement drew malicious smiles from the congregation.  

The ruler exploded with laughter.  “God is apparently with us!  It would be spectacular to watch the Ottomans take advantage of their superior numbers.” 

Montmorency’s features twisted in disgust.  “Your Majesty knows that I’ve never been fond of our alliance with the heathens.”  Then his countenance softened.  “Nevertheless, now we have to rely on them.  The threat from the Turks will place the emperor in a difficult position.   He will have to choose whether to continue his attempts to subjugate France or to move his armies to Austria and defend Vienna.  Perhaps he will remove all of his mercenaries from France.” 

Anne had a different forecast.  “The emperor will do that, but not before he labors to crush the French once more and to have his brother released.” 

“Perhaps Your Majesty is right.”  As usual, Montmorency found her words reasonable.  

“What about the Ottoman navy?”  The monarch wanted the Turks to attack Vienna while also undertaking some operation against the Spanish fleet at sea. 

In the candlelight, Tournon’s grizzled beard glistened like snowflakes in the winter sun.  “Sultan Suleiman will also order his fleet under the command of Hayreddin Barbarossa to blockade Genoa and Spanish ports, particularly Seville, Malaga, Almería, and Cádiz.  They think that the best tactic would be to blockade the mouth of the Guadalquivir river in order to keep ships from getting to their ports.  The trade will be paralyzed, and there will be no delivery of gold either.” 

A whoop of joy echoed through the room, like the hymn of their upcoming triumph. 

At this moment, the monarch’s frame of mind was nearly airy.  “With all the bad events which have transpired during the invasion, this outstanding tidbits is like an oasis.” 

“We must all pray for France,” asserted Anne with reverence. 

“God help us!”  chorused the councilors. 

François summarized their today’s discussion.  “Time for doubts and scruples has passed.  Now we must hope that providence or our own wisdom will avert demons from France.”

At their sovereign’s sign, his advisors stood up and swept bows to the King and Queen of France.  Then the assemblage quitted the room and retired to their chambers. 

§§§

Queen Anne rose to her feet.  Before she could take a step, her whole world commenced swirling clockwise and then anticlockwise.  Caught up in a vertigo, she felt like she was close to fainting, so she tumbled into her chair.  Suddenly, all the strength seemed to have been sucked from her.  A wave of nausea assaulted Anne, sending a lot of bile into her throat. 

“Ah,” she breathed as she shut her eyes, touching her forehead. 

A concerned François approached her.  “You look rather pale, Anne.” 

“I’m fine, sire.”  Her quiet voice was layered with ire.  She was furious with herself for being so vulnerable in the king’s presence.  “I’m feeling much better now.” 

As she opened her eyes, the monarch stood beside her, his visage imbued with concern.  Wounding an arm around her, he hoisted his wife to her feet and steadied her as she wobbled. 

The ruler offered, “Let me walk you to your room.  Then I’ll summon my physician.” 

After the weakness receded, Anne protested, “I’m unworthy of Your Majesty’s care and attention.  You must have other important affairs to attend to.”  

The queen curtsied and hastened out of the room without a backward glance. 

A spasm of hurt knifed François like a poniard in the heart.  The walls, created by his wife between them, seemed as impregnable as the thick stone battlements of an unassailable fortress.  Anne’s misery was fully attributable to Henry’s atrocities towards her, and the roots of her decision to distance herself from François lay in the horrible blackness of her recent past. 

Anne had grown up at her husband’s cultured court that was frivolous.  Yet, any French girl was told from infancy that marriage was her ultimate goal, so her training and education were directed towards that end.  Maybe a French maid knew more about her function as wife and mother than other virgins.  As most nobles married strangers, love and happiness were mostly incongruent things in their pygmy lives, and François himself had not loved any of his previous wives. 

Anne Boleyn was a Frenchwoman in many ways, but she was not like the king’s female courtiers.  There was no doubt in François’ mind that Anne was a person of high moral code and values, one who was more decent than most of the French noblewomen.  Nonetheless, she knew how to use her allure and education to the utmost benefit, which had assisted her in conquering the volatile Tudor monarch.  In any country, a woman could wed someone only to find herself repelled by his mere presence, but it should not have been the case in Anne’s marriage to François.  

Poisonous fumes of hatred penetrated the Valois monarch.  We were on good terms before our wedding.  I believed that our friendship would last into our marital life.  Because of Henry’s transgressions, I cannot have a normal life with Anne.  His spouse was no longer a maiden, who considered it filthy for her to know anything of the marital relations.  Nonetheless, Anne despised the foundations of matrimony, for she had no desire not only to share a bed with François but also to be in his company.  The King of France blamed his English counterpart for that. 

“How can I change my marriage to Anne?”  King François said aloud, staring at the door.  Not wishing Anne to suffer, he was puzzled as to why he cared about her sentiments.   

§§§

After returning to her quarters, Queen Anne asked the few ladies who had accompanied her to Orléans from Fontainebleau to leave her to a deep and much-desired solitude. 

She stood near the window, pressing her face to the glass.  The sun had descended to its nighttime home, and the heavens were dark, like a black glass.  It would start raining soon, torrents of water gushing forth like a breached dam.  The summer had long departed, and autumn was in full swing, so the chill seeped into the room, as well as into Anne’s skin through the glass. 

It would be quite interesting if you found yourself with child after this night.

The words spoken by François on their wedding night had turned out to be prophetic.  Her frequent dizziness and nausea had confirmed her suspicion.  Those words reverberated through her brain and drowned out the tragic melancholy of her current personal situation.  Anne eagerly clung to them, never wanting to lose the feeling of the truth as it settled into her bones.   

“I must be pregnant,” Anne Boleyn whispered to herself, tears of gladness brimming in her eyes.  “God, I conceived François’ child on the wedding night.” 

At present, she was positioned on the brink of tremendous changes, moving towards the realm of motherhood.  Since her departure from England, the bleak slopes of loneliness had risen towards the shark-finned ridges of Anne’s barren existence in France.  Now a new life was growing inside of her, and Anne could feel the rhythms of her baby’s tacit little soul.  No longer would her desolation be intensified by frigid moonlight, if she awoke in the dead of night. 

“I love this unexpected child.”  She let out a laugh of delight, her hand sliding to her belly. 

A veil of sadness tinged her countenance.  Despite being an ambitious woman, she viewed motherhood as the highest fulfillment of feminine nature.  Any child needed love and care, and its parents should love each other in the ideal situation.  However, according to her experience, marital bonds could defile a mother’s happiness, just as Henry’s disappointment with Elizabeth’s gender had once smashed Anne’s life into pieces.  I do not love the father of my baby, and François does not love me either.  Will he care for the child as much as I do?  And what if it is a girl? 

She swiveled and crossed the room, yearning to escape from her apartments.  The interior was too somber and had lacked the warmth of human occupancy for quite some time.   Everything around was gray, and the ceiling, swathed in dark brocade, hung overhead like a canopy of gloomy clouds.   She was too delighted with her discovery to stay here for another night. 

As Anne exited into the antechamber, there was a genuine smile on her face.  “Ladies, I want to be lodged in another room decorated in vibrant colors.” 

The hymn of life streamed from the heart beating in her belly.  This time, her motherhood was not of free choice, of love, of ecstasy, and of passion.  Even if Anne had a son, the babe would not have a crown upon its head, for François already had two sons to succeed him.  But her child would not need anything, and Anne would love it with every fibre of her being. 

§§§

As the evening tumbled into night, the monarch retired to his quarters.  In spite of being spacious, they were not nearly as luxurious as his apartments at other royal châteaux.  The walls were draped in tapestries depicting colorful fairies and birds.  This room would better suit Anne than him, or both of them if they had shared a bed.  Pushing these thoughts aside, he surveyed the heavy ebony furniture which certainly belonged to the years of King Louis XI’s reign.   

At the knock on the door, the king stood up.  “Come in.”   

The door opened.  “It is done, my liege.”  Anne de Montmorency stood on the threshold of the bedchamber, but he did not enter.  “I’ve arranged everything as discreetly as possible.” 

“Thank you, Monty,” François responded with a grin.  “And you?” 

There was an odd embarrassment in Montmorency’s visage.  “Annebault has fetched two pretty courtesans from the best brothel in Orléans for us both.  I’m a martial man, but sometimes, I need to relax.  It is worse than an affair with a noblewoman, but we are at war.” 

The monarch patted his shoulder.  “There is no reason to feel ashamed.” 

The Marshal of France attempted to smile, but it was a rather lopsided effort.  “I hope that you will like the woman who obviously wants to be with Your Majesty.” 

Montmorency bowed and left the room.  Then the lady, who was the wife of Gaspard de Chamerolles, Bailiff of Orléans, walked in.  As she sank into a deep curtsey, her lips curved in a salacious grin, and her cheeks flushed like the petals of an apple blossom.  

“Rise, Madame de Chamerolles,” François permitted as he closed the door.    

Straightening, she met his assessing gaze.  “Good afternoon, Your Majesty.  Thank you for inviting me to your chambers.  I’m Dangereuse for you.” 

“Dangereuse!  It is such a lovely ancient Poitevin name.” 

“I was named after Dangereuse de l’Isle Bouchard, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s grandmother.” 

His breathing quickened.  “Your parents had a fine taste for names.” 

A lewd light came into her eyes.  “I’ll not disappoint you, my liege.”   

“What about your spouse?  Will he challenge me to a duel, then?” 

His jest sent her into a fit of laughter.  “He knows that every dame must please her king.” 

“As always.”  Many fathers and husbands sent their daughters and wives to court.  In the hope of obtaining privileges, they were instructed on how to catch the king’s eye. 

Dangereuse de Chamerolles removed her cloak of violet damask ornamented with silver.  As she did not wear any undergarments beneath it, now she stood nude in front of her sovereign.  Her head was tilted so that her long, auburn hair flowed back in bronze waves, almost touching her waist.  Although she was approximately of Anne Boleyn’s age, her young body was not the envy of all women and was not desired by all men, for it bore some marks of her pregnancies by her husband.  However, Dangereuse was voluptuous and shapely, her feminine curves enticing, while her face was attractive with verdant eyes, thick golden eyebrows, and full mouth. 

His silence unnerved her.  “Is everything to your liking?”

François howled with laughter.  “Of course.  I admire your boldness, Madame.” 

Her lips were moist and vividly colored.  “An indecent boldness meets with friends.  And its best friend is the most amorous and handsome monarch in the world.” 

He observed the lust-dazed expression of her eyes.  “Then fall into my arms.” 

Compelled by an ageless male need, the ruler engulfed her into an embrace and kissed her.  His lover pushed aside his robe and stroked his chest, exploring his muscled torso.  Soon they were in a big bed canopied with pink taffeta curtains.  Without restraint, she unashamedly offered her body to him, her arms closing hungrily about his shoulders as François pounded into her, alternating slow and frantic rhythms, their cries and groans intermingling.  Frequently, Dangereuse interrupted their couplings to lavish the king with the most audacious caresses, and the carnal arching of their entangled forms reflected in their sinuous movements. 

At midnight, Dangereuse wanted him to make love to her again. “No woman can ever withstand your overpowering attack on her senses.  Take me again, my king!” 

To her surprise, François rolled to the other side of the bed.  “Leave.” 

After the offended woman was gone, the king donned his robe.  He lit a candle and sat at his desk, slowly drinking wine while composing a verse, his mind fully on his spouse. 

The Knight-King was a picture of delight

When first Queen Anne gleamed upon his sight.

She was a lovely apparition, sent

To be just a moment’s ornament,

Her eyes as shadows of twilight dark,

Like twilight’s colors, too, her luscious hair. 

But all things else about her drawn

From their short friendship and their former dawn,

A flickering joy and, worse, a shadow

Remain to haunt, to startle, and to waylay.

He saw Anne upon nearer view,

A dead spirit, yet a woman, too!

Her motions no longer light and free,

And steps of grace, yet doom, to heavy! 

A countenance in which did once meet

Vivacious smile and sweet records,

A creature too bright to ever exist

For human nature’s daily food, even his,

Anne is for transient sorrows and for bliss

For praise, love, smiles, and kisses, especially his.

As he finished the verse, the monarch repeated the last words depressingly, “Anne Boleyn is not for eternal grief – she is for praise, love, smiles, and my kisses.” 

François thought of his wife, despite his body being sated tonight.  His affairs no longer entertained him as much as they had done before his marriage, and this conundrum consumed him, robbing him of sleep.  He did not care that Anne de Pisseleu would be angry with him for his liaison with Dangereuse, for his mistress had no say in his life.  Yet, he felt guilty for again cheating on Queen Anne, which had become a recurring feeling during his rendezvouses.    

“You will not see this poem, Anne.”  He folded the parchment and slipped it into one of the drawers.  “You are an apparition of your former self.  But even your shadow delights me.”

Tomorrow, the king would relocate to the rooms closest to his consort’s apartments, where she had moved in the afternoon.  Maybe if he was closer to her, she would talk to him, because he knew that she appreciated their intellectual parleys.  However, optimism was a good hypothesis that did not always work, so he sighed regretfully.  Nevertheless, François was drawn to Anne far more than any of his mistresses, and the very idea that they could spend a mere hour together inundated him with a rapture beyond the power of words to express. 

Chapter Text

Chapter 8: Battles of Love and Hate

October 20, 1536, the Palace of Whitehall, London, England

 “Fetch me Lady Anne Bassett,” enjoined King Henry as he eased himself onto the bed.  

He stretched his body along the red silk sheets, letting out a sigh of frustration.  His gaze veered to a window, and he saw the leaden firmament that pressed down upon the earth.  

Five months had elapsed since his former queen’s release from the Tower.  Five months of tranquility and peacefulness on the surface, but underneath a seething cauldron of inner tumult and boredom.  Since he had learned about the sensational wedding in France, Henry’s emotions alternated between berserk fury, chasmal desolation, and satanic hatred.  Each of them was caused by the only woman who could make his mood swerve in all directions – Anne Boleyn. 

Heartache was an overriding emotion, excruciating like a knife point jammed through the skin all the way to the bone.  Day and night, Henry was haunted by visions of Anne and François, which were devouring him like hungry lions would do to a prey.  Anne and François joining hands and exchanging vows.  François making love to his new wife, who moaned in pleasure, begging him for more.  François and Anne laughing maliciously at Henry, calling him a wretched fool. 

“Damn you, Anne!”  Henry roared, as if she could hear him.  “Why did you marry that French bastard?  How could you betray England and me so utterly?”  

“Your Majesty,” called his paramour, struggling to keep her voice devoid of displeasure.  She had entered exactly at the moment when the ruler had cursed his former queen. 

A tall and slender woman, Lady Anne Bassett, with her golden fluff of hair, bright golden-green eyes, and lush, rosy lips, was the cynosure of all eyes at court.  Many nobles admired her beauty and wanted to be her partner in the lewd dances of pleasures; she frequently received indecent offers from them.  But she would be with none of them, as at present, her body belonged to the King of England, who, however, was not someone she could ever fall for.   

Her femininity surpassed the appeal of her youth.  Her innocence had long dissolved in the whirlwind of court life.  Her sultry smile was as natural to her as breathing.  Her red robe, ornamented with pearls, stressed her slim waist and ample bosom, drawing the ruler’s attention to the roundedness of her hips.  I do not care whether she loves me.  I want her body, Henry mused. 

The monarch beckoned, “Come to me, my sweet Anne.  Make me happy tonight!” 

I’m just a poor replacement for the woman the king cannot have, Lady Bassett spat in her mind.  Though burly, Henry was handsome and still quite athletic in build, so it was not unpleasant to be pressed by his broad frame to the sheets.  His red-flaming hair was like the fingertips of a raging fire which burned a woman from the inside out when he made love to her.  Regardless of the monarch’s tyranny, he was an ardent and skilled lover, whose appetite was voracious. 

The royal paramour plastered a smile on her face.  “I’ll do whatever my king wishes.”

As she approached, King Henry pulled her down on the bed, his body covering hers.  The touch of his mouth at hers was so bruising, yet intoxicating, that Lady Bassett unconsciously arched up closer, her head thrown back, and her eyes closed in the sensual delight she always felt in his arms.  The anger she had felt with him moments ago abated, and she snaked her arms around his back.  They both held each other willing prisoners of passion in their embrace.  

His breathing shallow and ragged, Henry commented, “You are so experienced.”  

“Is that good or bad?”   Her face was flushed, her mouth red from their kisses. 

Grinning cynically, he pontificated, “Normal for a lover, but not for a wife, especially not for a queen.  A royal mistress nourishes and feeds her liege lord’s body.  She must possess perfect physical beauty that delights the eye of her king.  She must express her knowledge in lovemaking with unstinted eloquence in a way that is the most gratifying for her sovereign.” 

A gush of fury surged through Anne, but she forced a stiff smile.  “Your Majesty’s desire is the law.  All of your subjects must serve your pleasure, needs, and wants.” 

He was as selfish as a screaming infant who thinks that the universe is there waiting to answer their cry.  The appeal of being a royal harlot suddenly waned like the ebbing tide, to expose once hidden doubts about her future after he discarded her.  Lady Bassett had once been a mistress of Sir Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter, and the ruler had not taken her virginity.  Yet, her liaison with the king, which everyone was aware of at court, had ruined her marriage prospects. 

Her response pleased the monarch.  “Then let me enjoy your body in all the ways I need.” 

Anne Bassett was torn between rage and submission.  The manner he conversed with her was condescending, but she craved the rapture of their dissolution.  “Dearest sire, you are the God Eros.  Any mortal woman who catches your eye surrenders herself to your passions and is happy to give her love to you willingly, abundantly, and faithfully for every moment of her life.” 

“You are obedient,” uttered Henry thickly.  He began kissing her neck, his hands roaming over her figure.  Breathing against her flushed skin, he muttered, “Yet, you are also a wild cat in my arms who, however, quickly bends to my will.  You are both fire and milk!”   

“Such an unusual combination.”  Her ire began simmering again. 

Henry jerked her head up, his mouth finding hers in a possessive kiss.  Their clothes were discarded and thrown off to litter the floor until they were both stripped bare.  The pristine hunger in the aquamarine eyes inflamed the mistress as much as the sight of his aroused body did.  Their blood singing with epicurean excitement, they kissed, explored, caressed, and found themselves in numerous pleasurable positions, which Henry could never try with his wife, Jane Seymour. 

As the monarch lay on his back, his mistress kissed and licked his throat, chest, ribcage, and stomach.  Her head slipped up and down as her mouth was being assaulting his torso.  As there were no inhibitions in their lascivious games, her lips slid to his hips, and she sucked his manhood for a long time, his groans almost ear-piercing, punctuated by her laughter.  In these moments, they were just sinners, drowning in a deluge of gorgeous carnal enjoyment. 

Moaning wantonly, the royal paramour fell back onto the soft sheet, crooking her finger in invitation.  “My king, take me!  Please, fill me with you!” 

Satisfaction nickered across his face.  “That I will, my frolicsome cat.” 

As he lay on top of his lover, Henry pulled her legs apart and penetrated Anne with one hard stroke.  To avoid the uncomfortable feeling of his heavy body on her lithe one, she managed to climb atop of him, and for a moment, he was sprawled out beneath her.  However, soon Henry dominated her again, putting her beneath him on the bed, and he began pounding into her violently, as if he were plundering a conquered city.  His thrusts became so wild and too strong that they pushed the coverlets and sheets off the bed until they rested on the mattress.  

It was as if the god Dionysus of wine and ritual madness infused drunken violence into Henry tonight.  The vehemence of this indecent and unrestrained lovemaking surpassed that of all their previous encounters.  Henry instinctively hoped to achieve with his passionate paramour the same feverish and celestial fulfillment as the one he had experienced with Queen Anne.  Images of his last intimacy with his exiled wife, when they had danced La Volta and conceived their lost son, tormented the monarch like fiends, and he clung to his mistress tightly, wanting to possess every part of her and to allow the heat of their bodies to shelter him from these memories. 

The ache in the king’s loins was quickening until he convulsed, as waves of exquisite rapture shuddered through him.  In an instant, his harlot was flying, her body quaking hard and fast, as she found the pinnacle, heat from their bodies swirling around her like a lover's caress.  At this moment, his lips were not on hers, and Henry shifted to the other side of the bed, as though she repelled him tonight, like something cheap and filthy that could not be scrubbed off. 

“Leave,” commanded the monarch in an uncompromising tone. 

Still dazed, Anne blinked.  “Your Majesty, have I done something wrong?” 

“I said leave!”  he bellowed, his glare blazing like a bale-fire. 

The scared woman clambered out of bed.  She donned her robe and curtsied to him, even though he stared vacantly into space.  Then she scampered across the chamber and stormed out. 

His emotions tangled, Henry flicked his gaze to a nearby window.  During their coupling, a rainstorm had started outside, and now the wind drove against the shutters with violence.  The trees waved and thrashed, as if in the throes of agony.  There was an almost human sighing and moaning in all these ominous sounds, as if portending some imminent trouble.

It was a long time since weather and nature in London had been in a more dismal mood.  The dreary weather mirrored the impervious blackness in Henry’s inner realm.  Never after Anne’s condemnation, had he been more cast down in heart and hope for the better future. 

The king’s heart hammered in resurfacing anger, as if propelled by a raging gale.  With dull wonder and dismay, Henry realized that tonight, his mistress had not quenched his need for the fire which only his former spouse could give him.  Despite her betrayals, he still had voracious hunger for the Boleyn whore, even though now she belonged to another king.  As the ire simmered, the loathing for Anne grew in equal measure, like a poison tree in his consciousness. 

Henry recalled that he had not slept with Jane in the past week.  Although his third wife was a sun of kindness and joy, gathering light and storing it, she no longer excited him as a woman, for she was too shy and phlegmatic in bed to his liking.  The months, which had elapsed without a child in Jane’s womb, cemented the king’s misery and increased his hankerings for affairs with other women.  But I have a marital duty to fulfill to sire a son, he sighed wordlessly.   

§§§

The vacant aquamarine eyes stared into the gray ones.  His hands tightening on her hips, Henry thrust into Jane deeper than before.  A guttural sound fled his throat as he shuddered and spilled himself into her.  He then rolled to his back, pulled the covers over his wife, and climbed out of bed, picking up his robe of tawny brocade ornamented with gold and Tudor roses. 

Suddenly, the queen felt cold despite the warmth of the sheets.  “Your Majesty, are you leaving me now?  Have I displeased you?”  Her voice was fragile like a thin string. 

His mistress had asked him the same question.  Now his spouse’s words exacerbated his temper, and the ruler snapped, “I did not plan to stay long, Jane.  As your king and husband, I can do whatever I want to you and anyone in England.  I do not need your permission.”

Having put on his robe, Henry strode to the door with a forbidding expression.  Outside, the rainstorm still whistled, torrents of water pelting the shutters, like handfuls of rocks. 

“I’m sorry, sire.”  There were tears in her voice and an edge of panic. 

Standing in the doorway, the king swiveled to face her.  “Jane, you are a lovely English rose.  However, only one thing can settle things right in my life and kingdom, as well as between you and me.  I need the healthy Prince of Wales who will carry on the Tudor legacy.” 

Jane grimaced ruefully.  “I do not know why I’m not pregnant yet…”  She schooled her features into calmness.  “I’ll beseech the Lord to take mercy upon us and give us a son.” 

He arched a brow.  “Upon us or you?” 

Us,” replied his wife confidently.  She then voiced her thoughts on the institution of marriage.  “Matrimony is holy and unbreakable.  Husband and wife are together, on the same side, and they can count on each other as a great source of encouragement and strength.” 

At this moment, all the good disposition towards his wife seemed to have left his nature.   “I’m the King of England, and if I speak to the Lord, He hears me and guides me to carry out His will.  I’ve done nothing wrong, so I have no reason to beg for His forgiveness.” 

Henry took several steps forward and paused in the center of the bedchamber.  His slitted eyes exuded such savage ferociousness that it caused Jane to feel as though her body had been wedged between two vice grips.  A chilly wind of his suspicion hit her like a physical blow. 

He gritted out, “Jane, have you sinned in a way that can taint our marriage?” 

Fear flashed over her pale countenance.  “I’ve never lied to Your Majesty.  I do not have any secrets from you.  You know that I was a maid when–”  She broke off, blushing. 

Most of his brutality vanished, but there was still a slice of distrust lurking in his eyes.  “I remember our wedding night, Jane.   Don’t be afraid of me, and do your duty to me.” 

She averred, “I’ll give you a son, sire.  I shall conceive soon.” 

His confidence was somewhat restored.  “I pray that it is true.  Good night.” 

After he had vacated the room, Jane dissolved into a flood of tears, sobbing like a heroine of some Greek tragedy.  She felt sick to the core – sick of her continuous unhappiness, of Henry’s insane obsession with male heirs.  Every day was a torture: Henry reminded her that her sacred duty was to give him a son, while her relatives blamed her for not falling pregnant quickly. 

Her thoughts tangled and coiled.  Why does he tell me that I’m the sun of his life and then suspect me of being a sinner?  But I love Henry with all my heart, and I’ll do anything to keep him as my husband.  Jane persuaded herself that her life would go back to normal when she finally conceived.  Once she birthed Henry’s baby boy, her achievement would appeal to that part of him that cherished all beauty and chivalry he had demonstrated to her during their short courtship. 

“I just need a son,” Jane murmured like a mantra, sobbing into the pillow. 

The door flung open, and Edward Seymour’s voice set chills down the queen’s spine.  “Indeed, you must give the king a son as soon as possible!  Your task is to ascertain that there will be a Seymour king upon the throne of England, not the whore’s bastard daughter.” 

The queen pulled the sheet over herself in instinctive caution.  “Edward, a man is not allowed to be in my bedchamber.  Please, get out!” 

“Rules matter not for our family,” Edward stated with a ring of finality. 

Elizabeth informed, “Your others ladies are sleeping.  They will not see us here.” 

“Jane, don’t be so coy.  You are no longer a virgin!”  Thomas was making fun out of her. 

Edward crossed the chamber, followed by his other siblings; only Dorothy said nothing.  Edward and Thomas settled in two matching oak chairs by the fireplace, where flames were licking over logs.  Lady Elizabeth Cromwell née Seymour and Lady Dorothy Smith née Seymour seated themselves on the edge of the royal bed, and Dorothy took her sister’s hand in hers. 

His brows furrowed, Edward inquired forthrightly, “Has the king plant his seed into you tonight, Jane?  We know that he spent the previous week with Anne Bassett.” 

Thomas interjected, “Is there hope that he could get you with child?” 

Jane was conscious of disappointment, anger, and embarrassment at this interrogation.   “Brothers, why do you never ask me about my wellbeing?  Are you indifferent to me?” 

Annoyance painted Edward’s countenance.  “Enough melodramatics and foolishness out of you, Jane.  Each of us wants only the best for you, but our family’s interests are our first priority.  Without a Tudor son in the royal cradle, our position at court is vulnerable.  To accumulate more power and to become invisible, we must prove our worth to the king.” 

Thomas concurred.  “Jane, only you can ensure that our family will become the noblest and richest family in the English realm in years to come.  Why have you not conceived yet?” 

The queen felt her sister squeeze her both hands.  “I don’t know.” 

Elizabeth made a report to the male members of their family.  “Jane is healthy, and her courses come regularly every month.  His Majesty bedded her every night in the summer and last month, but he has been too smitten with the Bassett prostitute since October.” 

Dorothy entered the conversation.  “As well with two other whores.” 

Clenching his teeth in frustrated rage, Edward got out, “We need to think how to ensure that the king continues to sleep with Jane every night until she has a babe in her belly.  But he is so lustful that his satisfaction seems to be dependent upon having a variety of women in bed.” 

His lips curved in a debauched grin, Thomas ventured, “Maybe I can seduce Anne Bassett to drive her away from the monarch.  What do you think about it?” 

Elizabeth opined, “You are the most charming and gallant man at court, Thomas.” 

“Oh my Lord…”  Shocked bemusement in Dorothy’s eyes mirrored Jane’s.      

“That might work,” drawled Edward.  “His Majesty must take a mistress whom we can control.  My wife is beautiful enough to attract his attention, but she is pregnant now.” 

Elizabeth sighed.  “It is a pity that Anne Stanhope cannot help us now.”  She veered her scornful gaze to Jane, who shifted closer to Dorothy on the bed.  “Janie is not capable of bewitching the king and at least to make sure that he is faithful to her for a few months.” 

Thomas sneered.  “The harlot married His French Majesty.  What if she gives her second husband a son, while Jane remains childless?  Being a famous philanderer, King François must be bedding the whore every night, if he is not on the battlefield.” 

A tense silence stretched between them, threatening to lengthen into a lifetime.  The air was heavy with the shock they had experienced upon learning about Anne’s second marriage. 

Edward balled his hands into fists.  “Damn Anne Boleyn!  I hope she perishes in France together with her damned spouse and the French nation.  We already have her daughter in one step from the throne, which is something that we cannot tolerate.” 

Jerking to her feet, Elizabeth speculated, “If the whore bears a son for the French ruler, King Henry will hate her more than ever.  Yet, Jane will also find herself on the receiving end of his wrath, if she fails where the harlot succeeds, even though Anne’s child is not a Tudor.” 

Edward concurred.  “In the king’s eyes, Anne’s ability to bear sons will raze Jane’s value to the ground, even though His Majesty will not forget about the whore’s crimes.” 

Thomas smiled.  “That is why Edward and I will work hard to safeguard our interests.” 

Rising to his feet, Edward barked, “We will discuss everything later.”

Elizabeth agreed, “We should go.” 

As he stood up, Thomas addressed the queen, “Now try to rest, Jane.  Pray every day – better, every hour and every minute – that the king’s seed is growing inside of you.” 

Pausing near the door, Edward muttered, “You have done your job for today, sister.” 

Without a backward glance, Edward, Thomas, and Elizabeth quitted the chamber. 

“Why are they so cruel?”  Jane asked Dorothy, her eyes brimming with tears.   

A veil of sadness blanketed Dorothy.  “Once we were a friendly, loving family.   But after our arrival at court, our brothers and Elizabeth morphed into wolves hungry for power and wealth.” 

The queen knew what they wanted more than anything else.  “They think that we all have a common goal – to make a Seymour monarch succeed my husband.” 

Dorothy nodded.  “Yes.” 

Tears trickled down Jane’s cheeks, like rain on a window.  “Henry… He is not as tender and caring as he used to be in the summer.  I believed that I would be content with him.”   

Her sister brushed off the wetness from her face.  “I am not sure that the king knows what love is.  I am under the impression that he is more in love with himself than he has ever been with any woman.  There are men whose greatest passion in life is for themselves.” 

“No!”  Jane shook her head.  “He still loves me!”  

Dorothy eyed the queen with pity.  “Jane, your head is full of illusions.  You are clinging to the idea of king’s love for you.  Over time, you will understand the truth.” 

Queen Jane had a fatalistic air about her, as if she knew that the months of her queenship were numbered. The vision of her own death flickered through her brain, and she shuddered, as if mortality itself had embraced her.  As if foreshadowing something bad, a sharp gust of wind hit the shutters which rattled violently.  God I entreat you to help me conceive a son to save myself and my family, Jane beseeched as she threw himself into Dorothy’s arms and wept. 


 

October 25, 1536, Château de Chamerolles, near Orléans, Loire Valley, France

King François paced back and forth before a window in the highest tower of Château de Chamerolles.  Claude d’Annebault patiently waited at the far end of the small room that served as a vantage point to observe the valley and the forest surrounding it. 

After climbing the stairs, the ruler threw open the wooden shutters and looked out.  What he saw troubled him a lot: the Imperial troops had moved closer to Château de Chamerolles and now were stationed only about five miles from the palace.  The weather was cold, but clear; there was no moisture in the atmosphere, no fog or haze, yet the sky was a gray pall.  

François ran his fingers through his hair.  “We should evacuate my queen now!  I should have sent Anne away last week, when the Duchess d’Étampes and her many ladies, as well as Madame Dangereuse de Chamerolles and her family departed.” 

Claude d’Annebault concurred.  “It is the best course of action, Your Majesty.” 

Turning to face his advisor, the ruler stared intently at the chessboard on his desk, loaded with papers.  “Anne says that to wage war is like playing chess.  I’m certain that our enemy has the same opinion and, hence, will endeavour to checkmate us, using my wife.” 

“We should take the queen to safety today.” 

“Claude, you must safeguard Anne.”  The ruler crossed to him, and administered a pat on his shoulder.  “I cannot risk her life – she must live at any cost.” 

“I’ll do what you order,” Annebault consented eagerly. 

François smiled wanly.  “Thank you.  You should both depart right now.” 

“Is Her Majesty ready?  How long do we need to wait before her trunks are packed?” 

A frown tucked between the monarch’s brows.  “Yesterday, I instructed Anne to prepare for departure.  But I didn’t think that the Spanish rodents would flock to our doorstep so quickly.”    

Annebault released a sigh.  “Perhaps our optimism was a bit premature.” 

The king veered his gaze to his councilor.  “Now it matters not.  We will act in accordance our plan and defeat Carlos in the Battle of Chamerolles.  But Anne should be here.” 

“I’ll take care of the queen.”  Bowing, his subject spun on his heels and left. 

Sighing, King François trudged to a window.  The Hapsburg standard was at that moment being unfurled in the wind, snapping and slapping at the air around it.  A wave of hatred ripped through him, and it had to get expunged by means of his victory over his mortal adversary. 

§§§

In the afternoon, the clouds dispersed, as if they were reluctant to witness the imminent battle.  The grayness of the sky became exceedingly clear, and it was also intensified by the soot and ash, coming from chimneys warming houses near the château and nearby local villages. 

In the French military camp, the monarch of France arrived at the army’s rear.  He was accompanied by his loyal councilors: Anne de Montmorency, Cardinal François de Tournon, and Philippe de Chabot, Admiral de Brion, who had recently joined them after his recovery. 

Flanked by his commanders, the ruler stood in the circle of his soldiers.  He proclaimed, “Comrades!  Today we will fight against the invaders, whose intention is to destroy France and her people, their homes and loved ones.  They will have to rip the hearts out of every Frenchmen, before we yield to their will and allow them to take our country from us and our children.” 

The vigilant men looked, as if they had stood at attention for hours.  They then roared in unison, “France is our land!  Death to the Spaniards and all other invaders!” 

Waving his hand for silence, François continued, “I’ve been your king for years, in times of peace and war.  Now we must stand together united against the external threat to prevent our enslavement to Spain.”  His voice rose in a crescendo of passionate conviction.  “Come and let us fight together the battle of the Lord.  For France and for our children!  We shall win today!” 

This speech had a resounding impact on everyone, further charging them with resilience.   

“For France and our children!” 

“Long Live King François!” 

“Death to all the villainous invaders!” 

“We shall expel them from our country!”  

The throng parted the way for the king and his men, who walked along the front lines.    

Turning his head to his advisors, François inquired, “Any news?” 

Anne de Montmorency reported, “The Imperial troops are on the move towards us.” 

The ruler nodded.  “I shall lead my cavalrymen to victory tonight.” 

Montmorency, Tournon, and Chabot exchanged smiles.  Their liege lord’s courage was as great and impressive as that of the Trojan hero Hector during the siege of Troy by the Greeks. 

The knights bowed to their sovereign, who strolled across the camp, his generals trailing after him.  Some high-ranking nobles, including Duke Claude de Guise, saluted, and the ruler returned the greetings enthusiastically, but his mind was otherwise occupied.  François knew that now more than ever, he had to present a confident, imperial façade of a warrior king.  

The royal subjects hurriedly prepared to encounter the enemy.  Swords slid harshly over sharpening stones, and horses were armored for the charge with light plates, strung on tough fabric.  Archers checked and rechecked their bows, fletching arrows and sharpening arrowheads.  

As François mounted his black destrier, he asked his generals, “My wife and Claude left an hour ago.  Have they slipped out of the city unnoticed?  What do our spies say?” 

“I think so, Your Majesty.”  Philippe de Chabot suppressed a grimace of distaste.  After learning about his sovereign’s wedding to Anne Boleyn, he had cursed for hours, for he had never felt even a shred of respect for the English whore.  He had not accepted Anne as his queen. 

Tournon chimed in, “They must be out of the city.” 

Montmorency opined, “Annebault will take care of the queen.” 

Relief washed over the monarch.  “At least, Anne will be safe.” 

Anne must survive.  The thought of her death is like a dagger to my heart, mused the King of France.  In his mind’s eye, Anne and mortality moved through the earthly world like things apart, as though they belonged to some other mode of existence.  His dreams lingered on the new phase of his life – his matrimony with the most extraordinary woman he had ever met, and then he chased them away to concentrate.  He would not have this life with Anne if the emperor had won. 

François steered his stallion towards the men, who picked up their weapons and mounted.  

§§§

“Signal the troops into position,” the monarch said to Philippe de Chabot. 

As the Valois royal standard rose high into the air, the effect on the army was astonishing.  The eyes of every soldier blazed with the fire of determination and faith in their victory.    

Everyone recited prayers to the Almighty.  Then officers, captains, and sergeants started prowl the ranks, barking orders and arranging the divisions in the strongest formations possible. 

Clad in his extravagant armor, François was at the head of the cavalry, with Chabot at his side.  Montmorency jumped into the saddle as he readied himself for the charge onto the exposed wing of the Imperial army, which was stationed close to a lake near the château – Miroir d’eau. 

Everyone froze in amazement when they saw Queen Anne’s splendid litter, swathed in cloth of gold, and drawn by four white palfreys caparisoned in white damask. 

The ruler felt a lump in his throat.  “Why is she here?” 

“I don’t know, Your Majesty,” mumbled Tournon.  Montmorency and Chabot shrugged.  

Postponing the attack, the ruler rode through the military camp.  He brought the beast into a snorting standstill at the same time when the queen’s litter stopped near the entrance to the castle.  Claude d’Annebault dismounted and genuflected in front of his sovereign’s horse. 

“Why have you returned?”  François demanded harshly. 

His wife stepped onto the ground from the litter.  “I don’t want to leave.”   

“I’m sorry, Your Majesty,” muttered a bemused Annebault, as he rose to his feet.  

The ruler berated, “Anne, you imperil your life.” 

The queen scoffed.  “Don’t tell me that the battlefield is not a place for a woman.” 

For a short time, Anne was petrified with fright.  There was someone in her belly whose life she treasured above all things, and maybe she should not have come to the camp on the eve of the battle.    Avoiding her husband, she hadn’t informed him about her condition yet.  Nevertheless, Anne was tied to François by chains of war, and so her vehement desire to prove her courage outweighed her other feelings.  Nothing bad will happen to me if I stay here, she convinced herself. 

Her husband parried, “I was not going to say this.  Your safety is too important.” 

She made the sign of a cross in the air.  “God save and protect Your Majesty!  Lead your army to the greatest victory!  Cripple the Spanish armies!” 

“Anne…”  François was overwhelmed with both awe and fear. 

“I’ll be waiting for you here,” affirmed Anne with a reassuring smile.    

A few moments later, Chabot appeared.  “Your Majesty, they are attacking.” 

Then Cardinal de Tournon came to them.  “Annebault and I will protect the queen.”  He was a man of God and could not fight, but he could help in the camp as much as he could. 

Regret that he had to leave Anne colored the king’s thoughts.   Given her return to the Château, François would have left the command of his forces to Montmorency so that he could escort his wife out of danger on his own.  However, his men would follow only him now.   

Turning to the Marshal of France, the king enjoined, “Monty, I lead the cavalry charge at the Imperial protected wing.  You will attack their exposed wing.”  His scrutiny slid to Annebault.  “Claude, stay here and command the artillery.  You will also be responsible for the queen’s safety.”  He glanced at Chabot.  “You will both be with me, Philippe and Your Eminence.”   

Casting an ambiguous glance at Anne, the ruler headed to the rear of the army.  Torrents of tension, mingled with dread for his wife’s fate, flowed through his veins like a rampant disease. 

§§§

“Charge at them!”  commanded King François in a majestic voice.  “Charge!” 

The monarch of France and half of his troops galloped across the fields, which stretched around the Château.  Despite the horses’ breakneck speed, they maintained a perfect formation not less than two miles in depth, which consisted of twelve thousand people. 

Long lines of warriors in armet and morion helmets against the field indicated that ten thousand enemy riders were approaching fast.  The thunder of their horses’ hooves drowned out the muttered curses in the French lines.  The opposing parties unsheathed their weapons.  The birds, which had roosted in the nearby trees ablaze with the colors of autumn, took to the air.   

“Archers!”  the monarch’s voice rose like the Creator’s own fury.  “Fire!”  

François flipped down his visor and lifted his shield.  The field, where he had chosen to engage the foe, was surrounded by the woods.  Trees protected the flanks of the French.    

“Ready to fire!”  Guillaume du Bellay shouted from nearby.  

The volleys of arrows were loosed, most of them finding their marks.  The archers weren’t encumbered with armor, for it would hamper their ability to move on their feet and fire rapidly.   Therefore, the archers were protected by knights’ shields, because they were all in the rear to be able to shoot over the heads of the enemy vanguard, executing the king’s plan. 

The shafts cut down quite many Imperial mercenaries.  Horses bolted, and hundreds of soldiers were tossed from their saddles onto the ground.  The surviving men raced on towards the French lines, brandishing their weapons above their heads or in front of themselves. 

“Stop!”  the ruler bellowed as he tightened the reins sharply.     

The French cavalrymen all reined in their stallions, as if they were under some spell of a sorcerer.  With a fluid movement, hundreds of archers ran ahead of their comrades: each of them drew an arrow and sent the flaming arrows towards the shocked enemy.   

Annebault’s voice was carried clearly by the crisp, cold air.   “Artillery!  Now!” 

A moment later, the French artillery fired.  Screams of the wounded and dying resounded pitifully.  The Spanish horses toppled, men somersaulted, their momentum carrying their bodies into the fray.  Another swarm of flaming arrows passed over the Imperial troops.   

“Fire!”  Annebault shrieked again.  “Help our cavalry!”  

Barrages of gunfire were launched on the Spanish warriors, many of whom were unhorsed and slid to the ground with a thump.  The entirety of the Imperial party seemed simultaneously perplexed and frightened, for they had not anticipated such crafty tricks from their foe, whom they had defeated in Provence.  Their befuddlement and the lack of action on their part resulted in more casualties, as the French archers and artillery promptly renewed their attacks. 

As the fire started spreading in the Imperial ranks, someone shouted, “Contain it!” 

“Attack!”  shouted the Valois monarch while adjusting his burgonet.  “For France!”

“For France!”  repeated the French warriors.    

“For King François!”  roared Cardinal de Tournon, and others echoed him. 

The whole formation charged into battle like men possessed by the deities of war.  As both parties moved in bacchic mortality dances, the French steel met the Spanish and Italian steel with a deafening clang.  The fight was very ferocious, but the French warriors did not perform any deadly slaughter, even though blood gushed in all directions, like fountains of wine.  The battle din was so horrifying and loud that one would not have heard God thundering.  

“Germans!”  Emperor Carlos exclaimed in Spanish.  “How is that possible?” 

The terrible rumble of the horses pounding the ground crossed the field.  A multitude of warriors, bearing the standards of Philip I, Landgrave of Hesse, and John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony, arrived at the field in accordance with the Valois ruler’s stratagem. 

Plunging his sword into his opponent, King François apprised, “The emperor is here!”  He would never have mistaken his mortal foe for anyone else.  “Find him!” 

I want to capture Carlos.  The French king strained his eyesight, swiveling his head back and forth.  He wielded his weapon in a flurry of blows, feasting wounds on his opponents.  His blood heated with an unquenchable fire of his hatred for Carlos, as François finally spotted the emperor, disguised as one of Spanish generals for the sake of concealing his identity. 

The king’s destrier was forcing its way through the crowd.  The powerful thrusts of his sword made those who stood in his path fall dead or scatter.  François noticed that Carlos was panicking, his fighting style becoming more chaotic and his movements more strained. 

“Now!”  yelled Philippe de Chabot while retracing his sovereign’s path. 

The Imperial cavalry withdrew to the other side of the field.  With startling suddenness and unexpectedness, their lines hit the traps.  At first, only a few stallions stumbled, but that was enough to wreak havoc in their ranks.  As more horses lost their footing and fell, shrieks of panic pierced the air, which was intensified by the French gunfire. 

“Retreat!”  Carlos screamed in a high-pitched voice.  “Retreat to the woods!”  

François’ boisterous laughter echoed over the battlefield.  “Carlos, I have a surprise for you!”  he addressed his rival in Spanish.   “Your exposed flank must already be destroyed!”  

“No!”  the Habsburg ruler deflected blows of the many opponents, who wanted to reach him.  His bodyguards dispatched all of those men, keeping him safe.  “That cannot be true!”   

“We have outwitted you, Carlos!”  taunted his Valois rival in a high voice.  

For a split second, all seemed to quieten down, as if the universe had gone still to listen to the exchange of the two rulers.  Then the field resounded with noise, swords colliding and men shouting.  The cries of the wounded were muffled by the bursts of artillery fire.  During the battle, the Spanish artillery had not been used because of Montmorency’s assault on their other wing.  

Delivering killing blows here and there, the emperor instructed, “To the camp!”  

Now being in full retreat, the Imperial forces were compelled to ride far closer to each other than they normally did.  As they entered the adjacent pastures, some horses staggered, and others quickly followed.  As the bulk of the surviving Imperial cavalry hit more traps, man after man tumbled out of their saddles, and the sickening sound of bones breaking rang out. 

The French king’s jeering voice boomed.  “Dearest Spaniards, urge your horses into the illusory terrains, only to have them drop one leg into a hole.”   He guffawed.  “That is so romantic!  Don’t you think so, Carlos?  Do you like our French eccentricity, my friend?”      

To the scared foe, everything seemed surreal, as if an invisible wall had been thrown on various parts of the battlefield to paralyze them.  Nobody had considered the surrounding terrains perilous until it was too late.   Everyone was now escaping, like birds from the snares of fowlers.  

“Charge after them!”  Chabot ordered.  He murdered a few Italian mercenaries, who got dangerously close to his liege lord.  “Kill or capture them!”  

“Protect the king!”  Bellay dispatched a Spaniard who could stab his sovereign.  He then commanded, “Take those who are entrapped prisoners!”  

“Capture Carlos!”  shouted King François, who neared his bitter adversary.  His sword slashed, sliced, and parried with amazing precision.  “I want him unharmed!”  

A panicked murmuring broke out among the Imperial men.  An incensed Emperor Carlos admitted in French, “François, you should watch over your whore of a wife!”  

A colossal shock sprang through the Valois ruler.  “Philippe, assume the command!”   His mind set on finding Anne, he commenced making his way out of the fighting mass.   

§§§

 

Oblivious to everything around him, King François flew on his horse across the fields, as if he were on a steeple-chase.  Anne’s fate and their future depended upon his speed.  As he entered the French camp, he hopped down from the saddle, leaving his destrier riderless.  

“Anne!”   vociferated François.  There was a desperate edge to his voice.  “Anne!”  

Several soldiers appeared, their faces abashed to see their liege lord here.  

“Where is my queen?”  demanded François as he neared them.  

A lad stuttered, “Monsieur d’Annebault escorted the queen to Your Majesty’s tent.”  

The monarch rushed through the camp, like a strong gush of gale.  His heart thumped, as if endeavoring to pump thick oil of baleful presentiment through his veins.  It seemed to him that the pillars of his reign rested upon his marriage to the very woman who did not want to be his wife.  Anne might despise me as a king and a man, but I want her alive more than any of my men

As he stormed into his own tent, a breathless François looked around.  As his gaze found her, a scream clogged in his throat, awful and too big to choke down, yet too horrible to release.  

His wife lay on the bed, her eyes wide, her visage tinctured with consternation.   Three knights, wearing morions on their heads, froze near the bed, like menacing shadows.  One of them lifted his sword, poised for the finishing strike, his lips stretching in an evil grin. 

“The heretical Boleyn whore,” hissed the queen’s would-be murderer in Spanish. 

“No!”  cried the queen, her arms wrapped around her abdomen.  

A horrified Anne cowered, expecting the penetration of steel into her body and then fatal oblivion, but no blow followed.  The warrior, who had insulted and threatened her moments earlier, gurgled with blood and lay slain, a crimson lake pooling out of him onto the ground. 

Her husband’s figure in armor came into view.   “Anne, get out of here!”  

The King of France battled with the two other assassins.  He spun his sword in his hand a couple of times, and then rained it down vehemently on one of his opponents.  The man nearly sidestepped, but the ruler’s blade sliced his shoulder and sent him careening backwards.  As the other rival lunged at him, François moved to the right and feigned a movement to the left.  The assassin swung his blade to deflect the blow when the monarch decapitated him.  

Suddenly, the second assassin emerged next to the king, as if out of nowhere.  Blood was flowing out of the wound on his shoulder, but he assembled the strength to ram his fist into the ruler’s midsection.  With a groan, a disoriented François staggered backwards. 

The man unsheathed his dagger.   “I’ll murder you, French parvenu, and then your harlot.”  

The small weapon flashed silver as the Spaniard raised it for the kill.  Before he could swing it downward, a poniard murmured across his back.  With a howl of pain, the knight swooped forward.  A stream of blood trickled out of his mouth, and then he turned still. 

Sprawled on the floor, the king looked up at his wife.   “Anne!  You have saved me!”  

His queen was so pallid that she looked almost luminous in the tent’s gloom.  Her spouse’s poniard, its hilt encrusted with the royal emblem of a salamander, was clasped in her hand.  She had not complied with his order to escape, watching him fight against her almost murderers, and then the ruler seemed to have been on the brink of death, she had just acted on impulse.  

“And so have you.”   She didn’t recognize her own voice.  

Having removed his burgonet, he climbed to his feet.  “It is over.  We are both alive.”  

Anne stared at the bloodied poniard with glassy eyes.  A spear of terror cut through her to the bone.   “I’ve never… taken a human life before…”  She trailed off.  

“It is all right.”  He took the dagger from her and put it on a nearby table. 

Tears splashed onto her cheeks, and François hugged Anne tenderly.  She went willingly into his hug, melting against him with a soft cry.  He still wore his armor, but she didn’t care, allowing him to support her fragile weight and letting the tears flow unchecked.   

“Anne,” he murmured, rocking her in his arms. 

All of a sudden, his spouse went limp in the sanctuary of his embrace.  Her eyes fluttered shut, and her chin sank to her chest, indicating that she had fainted.  He carried her to the bed and gently laid her down, determined to go find his physician so as to examine her.  

François observed Anne’s chest rise and fall smoothly with every breath.  His emotions were tangled and knotted, until torrents of relief inundated his whole being.  A sense of something larger-than-life engulfed him, refreshing and enigmatic.  I feel as if I were Orpheus who reached Eurydice in the underworld, but, in contrast to him, I succeeded in bringing her back to life.  

Anne de Montmorency's urgent shout invaded into his musings. "Victory! The emperor has retreated with his surviving men! His unprotected wing has been crushed!"

“Victory!”  The scream of the Bailiff of Orléans, who owned Château de Chamerolles, proved that.  The triumphant cries of the royal soldiers echoed all around like a mullion bells. 

“Thanks be to God,” whispered the ruler to himself with a cheerful smile. 

Cardinal de Tournon slipped into the king’s tent.  As he saw the unconscious queen, he asked worriedly, “What happened, Your Majesty?  Are you and your wife unscratched?” 

The monarch turned to him.  “Yes, we are.  Take care of Anne until my doctor comes.” 

“Of course.”  Tournon eased himself into a chair near the bed. 

Casting a warm glance at Anne, François walked out of the tent, for now she was safe.  Although he had defeated the Imperial troops today, he had not vanquished them utterly.  The ancient instinct of a warrior called to the monarch to brace himself for new confrontations.  

Chapter Text

Chapter 9: A Spiritual Backbone

October 27, 1536, Château de Chamerolles, near Orléans, Loire Valley, France

Covered with green silk sheets, Queen Anne rested on a canopied bed, whose headboard was inlaid with carvings of tournaments.  Sunlight danced across the glass casement windows which lined the king’s bedchamber, intensifying the gleam of the gilded furniture.  Two walls were draped in emerald silk, and the other two in paintings of the romance ‘Lancelot du Lac’

“Ah,” tumbled from Anne’s lips as she turned to her side, her eyes closed. 

King François stood near the bed.  Two days had elapsed since the battle, during which his spouse had been sleeping, as if cradled in the hands of Hypnos’.  He was transfixed by her lithe figure, concealed from him by the bedcovers, by her exotic features, with her dark eyes and long, sweeping lashes, her clearly penciled brows, and her rosy lips, parted slightly as she breathed. 

“Anne,” he murmured, his heart beating faster.  “Why didn’t you tell me about the baby?”   

As the day progressed, the monarch returned to his rooms three times.  Jean Fernel, the best royal physician at court, had said that the queen was so utterly exhausted from the constant worry and fear that she would sleep for a couple of days.  When Anne awoke, the sunset tinted the palace’s roof and towers in shades of mauve, giving her an inkling about the time of day. 

Stretching her body across the sheets, a befuddled Anne surveyed her surroundings.  As she noticed a doublet on a nearby coach, a sense of unease crept down her spine. 

“Where am I?”  she asked aloud, as though expecting someone to answer her. 

A sound, as if a barely perceived whisper, sighed in the depths of the chamber.  Light footsteps resounded in stillness, and then the King of France came into view. 

“In my bedroom,” answered François as he took a seat in a gilded chair by the bed. 

Anne dragged a fortifying breath before speaking composedly, “Why am I here, Your Majesty?  The last thing I remember is that we were in your camp.”

“You fainted, and I carried you to the palace and then to my apartments.  My physician examined you.”  He did not add that the doctor had apprised him of her condition. 

His declaration let loose a deluge of terrifying remembrances with a force and freshness which could only be known to someone who had been on the brink of death but evaded it.  Anne had been waiting in the royal tent, where she had been escorted by Claude d’Annebault.  Despite her cold attitude to François, she had been worried about the very man whom she still refused to call her husband in her mind.  The queen had prayed for France and her king during the battle. 

Staying true to his word to safeguard her, Annebault had come to the queen several times during the battle.  He had put a squad of guards near the king’s tent, but the Imperial assassins had somehow sneaked in.  Frightening visions whirled in Anne’s head: several Spaniards anxious not to miss a single instant of what they had anticipated being her final agony, the mortal dread she had experienced not for herself but for her baby, and, finally, her salvation by the French ruler. 

Gratitude inundated Anne, and now she beheld her husband with the gaze of a long-lost friend.  “Your Majesty saved me, and I thank you for that.  I owe you my life.” 

Her spouse was relieved to see the warmth in her expression.  “You owe me nothing.  As soon as I realized that you could be in danger, I left the battlefield and went to ensure that you were safe.  I thank the Lord that I arrived in time before the worst could happen.” 

The king was shaken by the memory of that attempted regicide on his wife.  The same unutterable despair that he had felt in those moments petrified him for a split second.   His mental machinery ceased operating, if he imagined that the worm of ruin could break into the circle of his marital life.  I would have been absolutely bereft if Anne and our baby had died on that day. 

She quizzed, “What is the outcome of the confrontation?” 

A triumphant François stated, “We won the Battle of Chamerolles!  The Imperial troops withdrew from the Loire Valley to Auvergne and southern provinces.  Many of the emperor’s men were not slaughtered but trapped or injured, eventually becoming our prisoners.  However, about four thousand of our troops died in battle, but Carlos lost more than ten thousand men in total.” 

“That is a great result!  Congratulations, Your Majesty!” 

“Now I’m sure we will expel the enemy soon.” 

His wife crossed herself.  “Let it be so, sire.” 

His confidence and joy were palpable.  “In several months, the war will be over.” 

Her mind floated to their meeting in the tent.  “Did you leave your army to check on me?” 

The ruler smiled.  “Yes, I did.  Philippe de Chabot assumed the leadership.” 

A sense of incredulity enveloped her.  “Really?” 

“Yes, Anne.  I do treasure your life.” 

“It is so unexpected that Your Majesty acted so.” 

Disbelief shadowed his visage.  “Do you really think that I would have allowed someone to kill you?  Do you really have such a low opinion of me?” 

The queen had the decency to look ashamed.  “No, I don’t, sire.  It is just that we are in a political marriage, so I did not expect any chivalry towards me on your part.” 

Injured by her candor, he impulsively spoke in a breathless rush.  “I’ve been called the Knight-King for years.  Everyone knows that I’ve always tried to avoid doing things which could be unworthy of one who aspires to be the best knight in Christendom.” 

François had spoken the truth, but his overweening manner blew away her apologetic mood.  “It is not a sword, but a chivalrous heart that makes a true knight.  Your Majesty is a valiant man on the battlefield, but you are not always gallant in interpersonal relations.  As we are almost strangers to each other, I do not demand that you sacrifice yourself or anyone else for me.” 

Anne saw a wince of hurt flash across his face.  It is necessary to make the reality of our situation clear to him again, she decided.  Yet, guilt was eating away at her like gall, corroding her insides.  She felt herself like the most ungrateful creature, but she would not apologize to him.  

His countenance evolved into the impenetrable wall, separating him from her chilliness.  “I am not Henry Tudor.  I do not have the habit of getting rid of my wives when I’m bored with them and desire to marry someone else.  No woman has ever been imprisoned at my behest.” 

A twinge of regret went through her.  “I should not have said that.” 

A sharp edge to his voice, the ruler castigated, “Actually, I cannot wrap my head around the truth which I know now.  You returned to the camp, where you put yourself and the life of our child in jeopardy.  I must admit that it was too reckless of you to act so.” 

In silence full of trepidation, their gazes of steel intersected like hostile swords.  His eyes gleamed with harsh disapproval, while she contemplated him with ire mingled with umbrage.  

At last, the queen turned her head away to the window.  The fading sunset split the gray clouds and lit the sky red for a moment before dying, coloring her whole world in blackness.  The comprehension that her secret had already been divulged to the king was overwhelming in its solid force.  François knows that I’m expecting his baby, and he has power over me, Anne panicked.     

The monarch emitted a grievous sigh.  “You resolved to stay in Chamerolles to prove to everyone that you are my warrior queen who is aiding the Knight-King to save France.”  Another sigh followed.  “You kept silent about your condition for weeks not to give me power over you.  However, you are mistaken that I want to cause you any harm.” 

Her mouth was hanging open.  “How have you guessed that, sire?” 

“Perhaps I understand women better than other men do.” 

The dark eyes morphed into two pools of indignation that a woman feels for an unfaithful husband.  “Of course, a philanderer is capable of predicting a woman’s behavior pretty well.” 

His laughter reverberated throughout the room like a cry of a six-winged seraph.  François climbed to his feet and settled on the bed next to his wife, who did not pull away this time. 

The king issued a joke in a serious undertone.  “It would have been perfect if these words were spoken out of jealousy.  If a wife happens to be jealous in a marriage of convenience, it is like having all the happiness in the universe, but still being infelicitous.” 

An exasperated Anne parried, “I am feeling nothing of that sort!” 

“True,” he uttered with some harnessed emotion which he couldn’t define.  “I heard from my ambassador how you behaved when being jealous of Henry in public.  I do not delude myself into thinking that you care for me.”  His wounded ego goaded him into adding, “I am not envious of Henry, and I am not eager to emulate his doubtful attainments in marital life.” 

The mention of Henry discomfited her.  “I do not want to talk.”   

Her categorical statement cut through his heart like a hundred knives.  “At the same time, Anne, I have to confess that a large part of me desires to increase my knowledge about your unique personality.  No woman in the world is as sophisticated as you are, and if a man ever manages to peel away the layers of your character, he will become the cleverest scholar.” 

Abashed by his sincerity, the queen felt contrite for her earlier impoliteness towards him.  “Your Majesty, I meant that I did not wish to discuss the King of England.”  She referred to her former husband in a formal way, for it helped her increase a distance between them. 

A spark of joy flickered across his countenance.  “I do not want to think about him either.” 

A sensation of protectiveness swept over him, and the monarch pulled his consort to himself.  She surprised him by putting her head onto his shoulder, and he looped his arms around her.  One of his hands slid to her stomach beneath the covers, stroking it tenderly. 

Kissing the top of her head, the ruler whispered, “Anne, I’ll always come to your rescue.  You are my wife, so I am responsible for your life and wellbeing.  Regardless of what happens to France and my throne, you have to live, especially now.”  

Anne blinked at him, as if he had just suggested doing an in-depth study of life origins on earth.  “Your Majesty does not have any obligations towards me.”  

“You are wrong,” protested François vehemently, his hand fondling her abdomen.  “I’ve married three women out of necessity.  I do not expect from you any affection.  But I have a duty to you as your husband and the father of our child, and I shall never try to weasel out of it.”  

The marital restrictions were the very last thing she wished to hear.  As she endeavored to extricate herself from his grasp, the king pressed her to himself tighter, yet gently.  Still rubbing her belly, he buried his head into her hair, as though he were a weary warrior, whose life had been in upheaval for so long that now he was glad to have a moment of repose with his lady love. 

Frozen in this position, François murmured, “When my physician told me about the baby, I felt as if I were flying without wings.”  A sigh spilled from his lips.  “This year, I lost my eldest son, which nearly destroyed me.  The tidings of your condition had a healing effect on me.” 

As he parted from her, Anne discerned vivid traces of profound grief, which were etched into his features.  “I do commensurate with Your Majesty’s loss.” 

His smile was sad.  “Thank you, Anne.” 

Nodding at him, she voiced her concerns.  “I swear that I want this child.  But I’m afraid I will not be able to carry it to full term, given my history of unsuccessful pregnancies.” 

The monarch cupped her face and gazed into her eyes reverently.  “Anne, I beg you not to think about the past that poisons you with fear and desolation.  Do this for our baby, if not for me.  I shall take care of you and the child, my best physicians will watch over you.” 

“One of the most painful things a woman can go through is a miscarriage.  I promise to be careful to avoid it, providing the best self-care to help welcome a healthy baby.”  The thought that this child in her womb could die sent jolts of heartache through her bosom. 

His thumbs caressed her cheeks.  “Everything will be all right.” 

“What if it is a girl?”  Words fled her mouth like scared deer. 

His arms encircled her waist like the outer walls of a stronghold.  “Anne, I know where your fears come from.  I am not obsessed with sons, and I shall love any child you bear.” 

His wife measured him with a skeptical glance.  “I just want it to be healthy.” 

“You are afraid to believe me.  But, over time, you will see that I am not lying.” 

The queen’s soul rejoiced like a gospel choir singing the praises to the Almighty.  The revelation of her spouse’s innermost thoughts about his departed son had revealed the arcane layers of his complex personality.  His suffering indicated that his outward lordly raiment masked his deep, rich inner world.  His affectionate attitude to her and their baby elated Anne, pulling her to François by invisible cords.  What does this all mean for me?  He is not like Henry, is he?     

To diffuse the tension, François jested, “You cannot be the pregnant Goddess Minerva on the battlefield.  Thus, you will join my court in Villers-Cotterêts as soon as possible.” 

His joke did not offend her.  “It was foolhardy and foolish of me to return to Chamerolles.  But I strove to continue being the symbol of our victory over the invaders.” 

He deposited a kiss on her forehead.  “I admire your bravery, but I want you to be safe.”  

“You are of course right, sire.” 

The King of France removed his arms from her and rose from the bed.  Therewithal, the queen felt empty and chill, yearning to be entangled in his embrace once more. 

The depth of his scrutiny directed at the queen was immeasurable.  “We are the most illustrious couple, Anne.  We stand against the Habsburg Empire together.  We wrestled against Hades and came to one another’s rescue in time.  Poets will compose ballads about our chivalry!” 

Her fluted laughter exuded excitement and novelty, which François had not heard from his wife yet.  It steamed to him like a marvelous fantasy discovered in a dream, bound to last for only a handful of precious moments before perishing in the troubled waters of reality.  He laughed back, as if their current lives were as smooth as the surface of an ocean on a serene day. 

“We will win!”  cried an exhilarated Anne with a touch of pride.  “Legends are like deep-rooted trees.  They live on forever and flourish with every new generation.  So, the legend of our victory over the mighty Holy Roman Emperor will be glorified in centuries to come.” 

“Smile more often and feel more confident, Anne.”  His mouth stretching in an exuberant grin, he affirmed, “I’m delighted that you conceived on our wedding night, and that my prediction came true.  Pregnancy suits you: you are glowing like an exotic flower, and so is my heart.” 

Before she could chastise him for his conceited tendencies, the Valois monarch sauntered out of the chamber.  The sound of his footsteps mimicked the drumbeat of Anne’s heart.  

The queen smiled slightly, staring at the closed door.  Her eyes were dreamy with a vague, undefined happiness, for the ruler’s astounding care for her melted her heart.  His indifference to the baby’s gender produced in her chest something like an actual flame, as if Anne had entered some profound transformation, and a new personality had perhaps been created in the process. 

Anne looked out the window and noticed that nightfall was descending quickly.  It was an ideal day for improving her marital relationship.  However, she could not allow her guard down and her hopes up too high.  Matrimony, even if it is based on love by a miracle, is by no means joy, but agony.  There can be no contentment in a royal marriage.  She hoped that François would spend all his time with his lovers after his return to court, leaving her without his attention.      


November 15, 1539, Château de Villers-Cotterêts, Villers-Cotterêts, Picardie, France

The gallery, which formed the principal ornament of the ground floor, was thronged with richly attired courtiers.  Chief among them, not merely in rank, but for her magnificent stature and deportment, was Queen Anne of France, who had arrived at the court’s current residence a week earlier and made her first public appearance after spending the first few days in seclusion. 

“I’m glad to see all of you here,” declared Anne in flawless French, with a brilliant smile.  “You all know that our sovereign won the Battle of Chamerolles.  We must all pray for him so that the omnipotent Lord helps him in his most sacred mission of France’s salvation.” 

A murmur of approval rippled through the group.  Regardless of their conflicted feelings over the queen, the nobles perused the lovely planes of Anne’s swarthy face, their gazes lingering on her enigmatic dark eyes, with her night-kissed hair, cascading down her back to the waist.  

Pivoting in unison with several ladies, the queen slowly glided through the corridor, as if she were a swan moving across the smooth surface of a pond.  Anne admired the grand gallery, where walls were adorned with figures of goddesses and nymphs carved in oak, as well as several rows of caissons.  The ceiling was decorated with salamanders, foliage, flowers, and fleurs-de-lis. 

Anne, who looked particularly feminine these days, was in the full éclat of her exotic beauty.  Her sumptuous habiliments – a grand gown of purple brocade, wrought with gold, with open, pendent sleeves and sable trimming on the low-cut square neckline – tastefully accentuated her royal status and bearing.  Her stomacher of black silk was studded with diamonds, sapphires, and amethysts.  The girdle, which consisted of precious stones, encircled her waist.  Her oval-cut, diamond necklace and matching earrings created a shimmering halo of elegance about her. 

As the queen and her ladies disappeared in the corridor, the crowd broke into whisperings. 

“Anne Boleyn really became the Queen of France.” 

“She managed to wrap King François around her finger.” 

“That woman forced our sovereign to wed her.” 

“No, you are mistaken!  His Majesty was not coerced into this marriage.” 

 “Obviously, our liege lord made her his wife out of duty to France.”   

“We formed a useful Protestant alliance thanks to this union.” 

Most of the courtiers still struggled with the idea of having Anne on the French throne, even though they had grudgingly accepted it.  Everyone was bewildered that the king had permitted his wife to worship her heresy in private, which had scandalized the Valois court. 

The assemblage repeated what they had learned about the confrontation near Orléans. 

“We have to thank Queen Anne for saving King François!” 

“She was very courageous during the battle.” 

“They saved each other’s lives like true heroes of France!” 

“Her Majesty aided His Majesty to capture the emperor’s brother.” 

A moment later, Clément Marot, a poet highly favored by the Valois siblings, appeared in the corridor.  “I’ll compose a multitude of poems about King François and Queen Anne.  Their bravery must be immortalized through words and remembered by succeeding generations.” 

Duke Claude de Guise was one of the nobles in attendance.  “Monsieur Marot, you are too sympathetic to heresy.  I recommend that you curb your artistic interest in the blasphemous teachings of Luther and Calvin, or one day, the holy Inquisition will knock on your doors.”  

Marot threw a fulminating glance towards the duke.  “Although I belong to the Catholic Church, I am also a poet and a humanist, Monsieur de Guise.  A humanist without the knowledge of mankind’s history, origin, culture, and new tendencies in the world is like a tree without roots.” 

Before the Duke of Guise could retort, Cardinal François de Tournon entered the gallery.  As he approached the assemblage, everyone fell silent in anticipation, for they all knew that he supported the king’s marriage to Queen Anne.  Many had seen the cardinal smile cordially at the queen when they had disembarked from the litter upon their arrival at the palace.   

In harsh accents, Cardinal de Tournon addressed Guise, “I must remind Your Grace that our country follows the course of religious tolerance.  Intellectual works, where artists don’t spread ideas of religious reform in our Church, are not interpreted as heresy.” 

Claude de Guise glared between the poet and the cardinal.  “Of course, Your Eminence.” 

Sweeping his eyes over the throng, Tournon proclaimed, “You are all aware that I’ve worked hard to fight against all kinds of heresy at court and in France.  Our nation will always be a Catholic one, but there are cases when His Majesty may make an exception for someone, just as he did in the queen’s case.  None of you has any right to question the king’s decisions.” 

After the prelate’s departure, a grave silence reigned in the gallery for quite some time.  Then the courtiers began dispersing, their countenances strained and pensive. 

Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly, Duchess d’Étampes, stood at the far end of the gallery.  Her sworn foe, the Queen of France, had just passed her, not sparing her a single glance.  Her sister, Péronne de Pisseleu, was at her side, observing the grumpy royal paramour. 

“This headache is awful,” complained the king’s mistress, as she touched her throbbing temples.  “Since that whore’s arrival, I cannot sleep at night, so I feel so bad.” 

A scared Péronne glanced around.  “Be careful, sister.” 

Anne de Pisseleu ushered her into a nearby alcove, where they could converse quietly. 

Balling her fists, the Duchess d’Étampes spluttered, “The mere sound of her name makes me feel sick.  It also awakens in my breast a fresh agony of pain, for I fear so much that I might lose my beloved François.  Especially if what my spy – one of her ladies – told me, is true.”   

Péronne connected the dots.  “Do you mean the queen’s rumored pregnancy?” 

Her sister hissed, “Don’t call that harlot a queen.” 

The other woman pointed out, “Anne, you must accept the reality.” 

Ignoring her insinuation, the duchess gritted out, “I was informed that François sent Anne Boleyn away from the Loire Valley to protect her and their child.  Nothing has been announced yet, and she has been secretive regarding her condition, but her morning sickness proves it.”   

Péronne’s penetrating gaze assessed her sister.  “Are you really going to make shipwreck of Her Majesty’s life for the sake of your obsession with our ruler?” 

The heat of wrath creeping up to her cheeks, Anne de Pisseleu vowed, “I shall never allow that Boleyn witch to take my François from me.  If she is with child, revenge will be part of my agenda, for I do not want her to be connected with him by such solid bonds.” 

Her sister spoke sagely.  “Retaliation perpetuates the cycle of ire and fear.  At the same time, the only way out of the labyrinth of suffering from jealousy is to let it go.” 

“I cannot,” the duchess got out, her teeth clenched.  “That English slattern humiliated me during my audience with her, and I shall never condone it.  She cannot imagine what a dangerous enemy her sharp tongue earned for her.  I shall make her regret that she came to France.”     

Péronne whitened as a terrible suspicion crept into her consciousness.  “Anne, it would be high treason to do something against the baby.” 

“That is not what I’m planning.  Fear not, sister: I know what I am doing.” 

“Don’t dig your own grave,” sighed Péronne.

Affronted, Anne de Pisseleu responded, “I will not act against her child, for it is fathered by François.  I love him so wholeheartedly to ever harm anyone through whose veins the Valois blood is coursing.  In the meantime, it does not mean that the babe’s mother will be content.”

“It is hopeless, I judge, from your speeches, to try and dissuade you from leaving Their Majesties alone and accepting the place which the king will choose for you in his life.” 

“Péronne, have you ever loved as deeply as I love François?  I think not, or you would not have used such hackneyed words to describe what I should do in my situation.” 

“I’m sorry, but I do not think that your feelings for our liege lord are that strong.” 

The incensed duchess exploded, “I love François with all my soul and mind!” 

Her sister groaned, “Why do you betray him with other men, then?” 

Anne de Pisseleu narrowed her eyes.  “Will you not keep my secrets?” 

“I shall,” the other lady assured with a sigh.  “I love you, sister, and I do not want you to suffer.”  She sighed.  “But I think it would have been better, if Louise de Savoy had never placed you in the king’s path so that you could catch his eye.  Our sovereign’s mother despised Françoise de Foix so much that she resorted to many tricks so as to move her out of her son’s life.” 

“Don’t you dare say that!”  the duchess riposted severely.  “François is my greatest love and happiness!  The passion we share will always thrive in our bodies and hearts!” 

Swiveling, Anne de Pisseleu stared through a window out into the courtyard.  As her gaze fell on the King of France’s portrait that hung above a stunning loggia, a torrent of loathing for the rival surge through her.  These days, her whole being was overwhelmed with the most pernicious sentiments towards the English slut, who had become the bane of her previously merry existence. 

“François is only mine,” the duchess swore.  “Forever and ever.” 

The royal mistress hastened to retire to her quarters.  Her sister followed her, praying that the envious woman would not commit some grave mistake that would shatter her life.

§§§

Queen Anne stood by a window in her apartments.  Her art-loving soul was overflowing with sentimentality and awe at the sight of the sheer magnificence around her.   

With an enlightened air about her, the monarch’s wife articulated, “The main distinctions between styles of architecture depend on the methods of roofing a space such as a window, a door, or a space between pillars.  The Greek and Roman architecture is distinguished by round arches, while the Gothic one is linked with pointed arches or gables.” 

Anne examined the courtyard that was framed by the palace’s two long wings.  She had never visited this château before, for it had been erected in 1527-1529.  She admired the stunning façade, surmounted by a colonnade of Corinthian columns.  The Ionic pillars supported a series of foliated consoles and a grand loggia, whose niches housed mythological statues.  Above the loggia hung the portrait of King François, who wore the necklace of the Order of St. Michael. 

Her gaze veered to the ruler’s portrait.  These days, François was heading south from the Loire Valley, pursuing the retreating foe.  She nonetheless felt his powerful presence everywhere. 

Anne eyed the grand ensemble with an artistic eye.  “His Majesty brought to France the Italian style which was masterfully merged with the great French constructions.  In all the palaces which were built or renovated after the king’s accession all those years ago, the emphasis is made on symmetry, geometry, and proportion.  The antiquity combines a timeless classic feeling with picturesqueness of expression, creating a link to the ancient architecture.” 

 Françoise de Chabot approached her.  “The French feeling is obvious in our architecture.  Yet, the modern style is breathtaking, together with its orderly arrangements of columns, pilasters, lintels, and arches – it is more elegant than irregular profiles of old buildings.” 

The queen turned to the woman, whom she had appointed her première dame d’honneur.  Ladies, representing the highest French nobility, were traditionally selected for this office.  Anne liked the young Françoise de Longwy de Chabot, Dame de Pagny and de Mirebeau, who was Countess de Charny and Buzançois through her marriage to Philippe de Chabot, Admiral de Brion. 

“Indeed, Madame de Chabot,” concurred Anne. 

The other woman exclaimed, “His Majesty has achieved perfection!”   

Gazing out, the queen dived into the discussion about the arts.  “What we see in France is like spring before summer.  The artists, whom His Majesty invited from Italy, mingled the best Italian traditions with the French spirit.  Those who are employed at court work hard to create the national style, ushering the country into the summer of French culture.” 

The royal wife pivoted to face her ladies-in-waiting, who had all ceased embroidering to listen to their mistress.  Now they were impressed by the queen’s famed intelligence.   

Anne regarded them with interest.  They had all arrived at the palace from Fontainebleau after the court’s relocation to the town of Villers-Cotterêts.  Marguerite had written her about who she could take into her service, so Anne had followed her sister-in-law’s advice. 

In addition to Françoise de Longwy, her ladies included Jeanne d’Angoulême, Countess de Bar-sur-Seine, who was François and Marguerite’s illegitimate half-sister.  Marguerite insisted that Louise, Anne de Montmorency’s sister, should serve the queen.  Anne could not ignore the Guises and the House of Bourbon in order to keep potential adversaries close.  As a result, Marie and Louise de Lorraine, offspring of Claude de Lorraine, Duke de Guise, and Marie de Bourbon, a daughter of Charles de Bourbon, Duke de Vendôme, were part of the queen’s household. 

Many of Anne’s former English maids-of-honor had given false testimonies against her, and a shiver of alarm raced through her.  Her French ladies seemed friendly and eager to please their queen, but naïveté was no longer her weakness.  When will one of them betray me?  I must always watch my back lest someone serves my Catholic enemies or Anne de Pisseleu, she resolved.     

Queen Anne dismissed them.  “I’m tired and must rest for a while.” 

Curtseying to her, the women all climbed to their feet and quitted the room.  Françoise de Foix, Countess de Châteaubriant, bobbed a curtsey, but halted near the door. 

The queen issued a strict reprimand.  “Madame, you have to obey your queen.” 

Françoise inquired, “Does Your Majesty need something?”  

“No, thank you.  You may leave.”   

Anne crossed to a gilded armchair, adorned with the Valois device.  As she settled into it, she stretched out her hands to the fire that danced jocundly in the marble fireplace, decorated with salamanders.  A tension-filled silence ensued, as if by mutual arrangement. 

The countess broke the uncomfortable pause.  “Our sovereign asked me to become your lady-in-waiting so as to keep you informed of all the undercurrent trends at court.” 

Grinning acrimoniously, Anne jeered, “The king is immensely generous to his queen, and I heartily thank him for that.  I do not object to being served by his famous former mistress.” 

The queen behaved exactly as François had warned the countess in his summons.  “With all due respect to Your Majesty, I have to say that you are obviously not indifferent to the matter.  The stiffening of your shoulders and your barbs prove it.”   

This came too close to the mark.  “A man is known by his deeds and conquests; a woman by her wit and manners.  Your indecorous conduct might sully your courteous reputation.” 

The older woman replied levelly, “I am His Majesty’s friend, although he terminated our relationship years ago.  As I’ve always served him well and loyally, I have nothing to fear.  As he wishes me to take care of you, I’ll gladly comply with his order.” 

The woman’s boldness was rather impressive, but anger with her husband overrode all of Anne’s other feelings.  “His distrust is offensive to me, and I’ll not tolerate it.”  

Her tone suasive, Françoise explained everything at length.  “My queen, I am not your enemy.  Your husband’s true intentions are far from being dishonorable.”  She stilled, letting the words sink in.  “The king strives to keep you out of harm’s way, for you have many enviers and foes at court.  We do not even know what your ladies have on their minds.” 

Anne eyed the Countess de Châteaubriant, as if she were a rare painting.  Françoise was a celebrated beauty in France, who had been at the very center of the court’s brilliant life when teenaged Anne had lived in France with her father and her elder sister, Mary.  Anne remembered how the monarch had paraded Françoise around his court, much to Queen Claude’s chagrin. 

The former maîtresse-en-titre had aged, but she remained exceedingly attractive.  A tall and exquisitely proportioned creature, Françoise wore a fashionable gown of azure damask worked with silver, with loose hanging sleeves.  From her marble neck, dangled a cordeliere – a necklace imitated from the cord worn by Franciscan friars, which displayed the Foix coat of arms.  Her countenance was luxuriously delicate, her large eyes of a tender blue.  Her long, blonde locks were contained by a French hood studded with gems.  Her noble features are so lovely that I cannot understand why François chose the depraved Anne de Pisseleu over her, wondered the queen. 

She seemed to be sincere, so Anne quizzed, “Does the king really care about me?” 

Françoise smiled at her heartily.  “Of course, he does.  You are his wife, whom he wants to be hale and hearty.  He also wishes to ensure the child’s safety.” 

The queen released a sigh.  “Ah, any ruler wants another male heir.”   

The countess attempted to illuminate the flaw in the queen’s reasoning.  “Please, pardon me for speaking out of turn.  Years ago, I had the privilege of being our liege lord’s lady, and he made me extremely happy.  I can attest to the fact that he has never been unkind to me, although in early youth, his hot blood prompted him to break many hearts.”  

“What are you telling me this, Madame?” 

Françoise took a direct, but polite, approach.  “You seem to have the wrong understanding of your spouse.  François de Valois is incapable of perpetuating atrocities towards women.  He has a mellow temper, although he might be deadly in politics.”  After a pause, she continued, “He has never been obsessed with male heirs.  You might remember that he was happy when Queen Claude gave him two daughters before his first son, the late Dauphin François, was born.  Unfortunately, both girls died in childhood, while his eldest son passed away several months earlier.”   

Both women crossed themselves before chorusing, “God rest their souls.” 

Suddenly, Mary Boleyn’s cries after her abandonment by the Valois monarch resounded through Anne’s consciousness, like claps of thunder.  The pitiless reality reinforced itself, burning away the fantasies of the honorable King François.  The soul of a ruler nests itself in the realm of petty conceits, underhanded deceits, and covert meannesses, and François is not an exception.  

“His Majesty cares for his loved ones.”  With a sibylline smile, the countess ended with, “In adolescence, he dreamed of marrying his true love, but he has not found her yet.”   

An agitated Anne failed to decode the other woman’s hint, then switched to another topic.  “Can you organize my meeting with the king’s children?” 

“Of course, Your Majesty.  When do you wish it to take place?” 

“In a few days, Madame.  Just not today, for I’m too tired.” 

Françoise read her mind like an open book.  There was one more thing she needed to say on the matter.  “Your husband is a good man, and I pray that one day you will see it.” 

The queen did not berate the lady.  “Thank you for your consideration.” 

After the older woman had vacated the room, Anne sat in silence.  Her gaze traversed the bedroom, dominated by a spacious bed, whose canopy of cloth of gold was supported by massive pillars of mahogany.  Pieces of gilded furniture were all ornamented with leaves of acanthus and flowers.   A cassone, which stood near the bed, added to the elegant Italian interior.  The stunning ceiling and the walls were frescoed with scenes from the life of the Goddess Aphrodite. 

All at once, in the feverish dreaming that ruled her thoughts, the King of France seemed the God Hephaestus, emerging from a vision of mists and destined to rescue her from death and misery.  Anne reminisced about how her husband had held her in his arms on their wedding night.  I did not believe that we would create this baby, but it happened, she mused with a smile.   

The queen cut the thread of these pleasant memories by wielding a hatchet of reality towards them.  Despite all his assurances, one day, the King of France would probably no longer need her, and then Anne would have to fight against him to save her marriage not for herself, but for her baby with François, for the tiny soul in her belly was a Valois prince or princess.  However, Anne could not forget her recent conversation with the Countess de Châteaubriant.  Part of her longed to believe the woman, but the other one leered at her fantasies that her second husband may be very different from the narcissistic and tyrannical Henry.  At present, only love for the queen’s unborn child and for her dear Elizabeth was real, sustaining Anne like her only spiritual backbone. 

Chapter Text

Chapter 10: Unwelcome News

December 2, 1536, Greenwich Palace, Greenwich, near London,  England

“Fetch the French ambassador!”  shouted King Henry, his expression strained.  His voice was so loud that the ceiling of the great hall could shake.  “I must hear news from France!”  

The assemblage of the nobles quieted down, as if they had suddenly fallen asleep.  One of the grooms raced out of the room to comply with the royal order.  

Attired in a red satin doublet ornamented with rubies, as well as matching hose and toque, the King of England was seated upon a massive, ornately carved throne beneath a canopy of crimson velvet, embroidered with the Tudor arms.  Queen Jane occupied the place to his left.  The Seymour family clustered a small distance from the thrones.  The ruler’s eldest daughter, Lady Mary Tudor, stood together with the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk, close to the Seymours. 

Many English courtiers, including Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and Sir Francis Bryan, were not present.  The royal court had relocated from Whitehall to Greenwich only a couple of days ago; some nobles would arrive here right before Christmastide. 

The herald cried, “Antoine de Castelnau, the French ambassador to England.” 

All the heads turned towards the entrance to the chamber. 

Antoine de Castelnau, Bishop of Tarbes, was an experienced diplomat.  Nevertheless, he often failed to control his fear when facing the English monarch, whose temper could flare like a tinder from a candle.  Since the news of King François’ marriage to Anne Boleyn had reached English soil, the Tudor temper was volcanic almost every day, and Castelnau was afraid that one day, the ruler would send him to the block, in spite of him being a foreign diplomat. 

His expression impenetrable, Castelnau sauntered across with a confident gait.  Stopping in front of the thrones, he swept a deep bow, displaying his French gallantry. 

“Monsieur de Castelnau,” commenced King Henry in accented French.  “I trust that you regularly communicate with François.  What tidings do you bring?” 

Castelnau dithered as to in which language to respond.  During their latest audiences, Henry had compelled the French ambassador to speak English, perhaps to demonstrate his lack of respect to France.  The English nobility were taught Latin, Greek, and French if not other European languages, so the ruler could not wish to hide their talk from the courtiers. 

The monarch gauged the man’s thoughts.  “Let’s speak in French.” 

“As Your Majesty wishes.”  Castelnau narrated the story that everyone was already aware of.  “King François won the Battle of Chamerolles.  The invaders suffered heavy casualties, and many were taken prisoner, but Emperor Carlos escaped.  Archduke Ferdinand, King of Hungary and Bohemia and the emperor’s younger brother, is my master’s captive.” 

Henry supplemented, “And the Turks invaded the Holy Roman Empire.” 

“Indeed, sire,” confirmed the ambassador. 

There was something ominous in the silence that now prevailed. 

Most courtiers comprehended the discourse and looked tense with curious anticipation.  Those who did not know the language were confused; whisperings arose among them. 

Henry eyed the ambassador from the country ruled by his worst enemy.  A middle-aged man with green eyes and head full of grizzled hair, Antoine de Castelnau was not handsome, but he had a strong and smart countenance.  Yet, something like a shadow lay upon the man’s face, as if he were working hard to suppress his fright, which gladdened the ruler.   

The king bombarded the other man with questions.  “Has the emperor started negotiating his brother’s release?  Where are the Imperial armies now?  What are the French troops doing?” 

“I apologize, but these things are known only to my sovereign’s inner circle.”

“Will François win the next battle?”  The ruler’s voice was harsh. 

Castelnau saw that the Tudor monarch wanted France to be conquered by the Habsburgs.  “The entire French nation is praying that the invaders are expelled.  My liege lord, King François, is correct that God is upon our side, and we all support him.” 

Henry smiled ambiguously.  “Perhaps you are making a mistake, Your Excellency.” 

The other man blinked.  “What does Your Majesty mean?”   

Spiteful words slipped out of the ruler’s mouth.  “France will be more prosperous under Carlos von Habsburg’s rule than under that of François de Valois.  My hope is that a day will come when the emperor’s name will be as much honored in France as it is now execrated.” 

Those who knew the French tongue gasped in startlement; others also felt the palpable tension in the air.  The king’s declaration displayed his outright loathing of both the Valois dynasty and France, bordering on the open proclamation of his enmity towards François. 

A man of amicable disposition, Castelnau could not suppress his rage.  “The emperor will not subjugate my homeland!” 

The King of England was barely holding onto his temper.  “You may believe that François is the best choice to rule your country.  However, his reign has been besmirched by his captivity at Pavia and the current Spanish invasion of France.  The above makes him the most incompetent Valois king, as Spaniards and their allies rightly assess his weak personality.” 

With an air of the utmost superiority about him, King Henry further defamed his French counterpart.  “François has long been labeled the most gallant and most eccentric personage of the most gallant and eccentric court in Christendom.  My opinion is that your sovereign’s prodigality is too excessive, and his audacity in affairs unparalleled.”  He guffawed vehemently.  “I wonder what would befall the French realm if François continued exhausting his treasury by the immense sums he has always lavished upon his numerous mistresses and favorites.” 

Castelnau gritted out, “I’ll avouch to the contrary, Your Majesty.  King François is loved by his subjects who trust him to lead them to triumph.  The Valois court is rightly considered the most magnificent and enlightened one in the entirety of Christendom.”  His baritone rose to a crescendo of indignation.  “Almost every monarch has mistresses.  And my king is not the one who resorted to the most extraordinary stratagems so as to conduct his amours.” 

Henry bounced to his feet.  “What did you say?”  he snarled, this time in English. 

Switching to English, the diplomat counterattacked politely.  “If Your Majesty wants me to repeat it in your native tongue, your request will be my command.” 

“How dare you confront me?!”  The ruler’s voice was a hissing whisper that nevertheless carried throughout the chamber.  “I’ll punish you for speaking out of turn.” 

Castelnau blanched.   “I’m a foreign ambassador.” 

“Lord Hertford!”  called the king.  “I made you an earl, so serve me well now!”  

Jane’s troubled gaze darted between her brother and husband. 

Edward Seymour approached and bowed. "I shall do anything for Your Majesty."

“Silence!”  barked Henry as he stepped forward to him. 

Unexpectedly, the enraged monarch ripped Hertford’s sword from the scabbard and then nearly pounced at the hapless ambassador.  Grabbing Castelnau’s shoulder, Henry brought the blade to the man’s throat while glaring into his eyes.  In these moments, Henry exuded murderous hatred, and his countenance contorted into an expression of abhorrence. 

This drew gasps of consternation all around.  Then stunned silence ensued, every pair of eyes fixed upon the king and the mistreated diplomat.  A horrified Jane shot to her feet, but Edward put a restrictive hand onto her shoulder before she could walk to her spouse. 

“You are a blasted Frenchman,” pronounced the ruler between set teeth.  “I’m dreaming that your master will lose his throne to the House of Habsburg.” 

“My liege lord will win the war!”  Calmness veiled the ambassador’s face, as if no sword were pressed to his neck.  “Every adversary will be captured, killed, or expelled.  My countrymen will never surrender to any invader, whether they are Spanish, English, or Italian.” 

Henry hissed, “François should not be the King of France.  In 1328, Charles IV of France died without any male issue, so the throne should have passed to Edward III of England, Isabella of France’s eldest son.  Thus, I have the valid claim for the French throne.” 

The squabble was now happening in English.  Everyone listened to the flagrant exchange. 

A surge of patriotism went through Castelnau, making him bolder.  “No, sire!  France is our land, and no one will take it from us!  King François is our only rightful sovereign!” 

Through slitted eyes, Henry ground out, “In the future, I’ll lead my army into battle.”  Then François and his Boleyn whore will burn in hell together with the whole Valois family.”   

The blade scratched the diplomat’s skin, and droplets of blood smeared his white collar.  With the intention to land a blow to the English king’s inflated ego, he exclaimed, “My master’s family will become bigger soon!  Queen Anne will give birth to a little Valois!” 

Castelnau spoke so loudly that everyone heard it.  This elicited murmurings and sighs of astonishment from the courtiers.  Their gazes oscillated between Henry and his consort, for they all suspected that the monarch was growing weary of his wife’s failure to conceive. 

“What?”  muttered the king’s pallid wife, her eyes wide.  Her shaking legs gave way, and she slumped back into her throne, averting her eyes from her relatives’ glares. 

King Henry was still threatening Antoine de Castelnau with Edward’s sword.  A shaft of shock rendered him speechless and motionless, and his grip on the blade loosened. 

A sense of wonder enveloped Henry.  “That is not possible!” 

Castelnau audaciously reiterated, “King François’ spouse is with child.”   

A grave silence reigned, breathing with unspoken amazement and tense anticipation.   

The ruler blanched, and then telltale crimson color suffused his visage.  His brain was laboring to process the ghastly information, but his mind was frozen, blocking anything from the now to enter.  Once awareness set in, his universe flipped in a fraction of a second, and his blood turned exceedingly thick with the deadly poison of his jealousy, like oil of vitriol in vapor. 

Thomas Cromwell, who stood next to Richard Rich, was paler than the monarch.  It was not in his interests if Anne gave birth to a healthy son by the French king. 

“You are lying to me, you French earthworm!”  bellowed the king, simultaneously shaken and bemused, his lordly bearing somewhat diminished.   

Castelnau enjoyed the king’s torments.  “It is the truth, sire.” 

Slowly, King Henry released the ambassador.  Staggering backwards, he dragged himself towards the exit and then stormed out, as though his whole life had just been ruined. 

A hush in the great hall deepened.  At this moment, it was a different silence, like the one which usually preceded the most tragic acts in the history of mankind. 

Antoine de Castelnau scurried out of the chamber.  He had never been fond of the brutal English ruler, but during their confrontation, his dislike for the man had grown in line with Henry’s disdain for his sovereign.  If only King François recalled me back homeIt is becoming more and more dreadful and too risky to navigate the perils at the Tudor court. 

§§§

Swooning in relief, the French ambassador hastened through the hallways towards his quarters.  He was approached by Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador to England. 

Antoine de Castelnau paused reluctantly.  “How can I assist you?” 

Chapuys forced a smile.  “If you have a moment.” 

They spoke in French that was the language of diplomats at the time. 

Castelnau’s gaze gleamed with a hostile light, like the spears of foes in sunlight.  Since the French occupation and annexation of Duchy of Savoy in 1536, Chapuys’ aversion towards the House of Valois and everything French had magnified to an extreme degree, for he was a Savoyard by birth.  The two men avoided each other like a pestilence.  If they met by accident in a corridor or during official receptions, the French ambassador greeted the other man stiffly, with shallow bows, and spoke to him in an arctic tone, while Chapuys kept a thin veneer of politeness.    

“What do you want?”  Castelnau no longer addressed Chapuys as ‘Your Eminence”. 

The Imperial ambassador jeered, “Where is your famed French courtesy?  Your king is famous for his majestic deportment, and so are the gallants of his court.  Perhaps the magnificence of the French court is exaggerated, which might explain your lapse of manners.” 

A look of disdain splashed across Castelnau’s features.  “Your country has invaded mine.  Your bellicose master killed thousands of my countrymen.  I hate every Spaniard!” 

“It was not my decision to attack France.”  

“It matters not,” snapped Antoine de Castelnau before pivoting to leave. 

“Your king married that Boleyn slut,” growled Eustace Chapuys. 

Spinning around, his French colleague spewed with abject contempt, “Every sane person in the world knows that Queen Anne is not guilty of adultery, incest, and high treason.  She has been falsely accused by Thomas Cromwell and her other enemies, just as your master has leveled false allegation of Queen Eleanor’s murder towards my sovereign.”  

Chapuys’ eyes grew wide with astonishment.  “You are a devout Catholic, Castelnau!  Do you mean to say that you acknowledge the Concubine as the King of France’s wife?” 

“Yes,” Castelnau collaborated.  “Chapuys, you are an ostentatiously religious man.  You must know that sacramental marriage is indissoluble.  Queen Anne and King François were wed over three months ago, so every Catholic must consider their marriage valid and legitimate.” 

A sense of inextinguishable hatred rushed through the Imperial ambassador.  “The harlot bewitched King Henry and drove him from the Bishop of Rome.  She poisoned the sainted Queen Catherine and persecuted the poor Princess Mary.  The whore also betrayed His Majesty with many men, even her own brother; perhaps the brat, Elizabeth, is not the king’s.” 

The French diplomat refuted all the allegations.  “These are nothing but rumors spread by villains such as yourself.  We are both aware that Queen Anne is innocent, and that she has never betrayed King Henry.”  He made a special emphasis on the word ‘queen’, although he referred not to Anne’s queenship in England, but to her undoubted royal status in France. 

Instinctive rage reared in Chapuys.  “I see that the Concubine put a spell on all the French who now call her the savior of France and King François.  Unfortunately, Satan must have spared her, and she lured another monarch into matrimony through witchcraft.”      

“If someone has so much hatred in their heart, they cannot enjoy life to the fullest.  You are just a superstitious idiot, if you believe in sorcery, but I think you are pretending.” 

Antoine de Castelnau spun on his heels and stomped away towards his apartments. 

“Damn your king,” cursed Eustace Chapuys, clenching and unclenching his fists.  “Damn the Concubine and the French!  I wish my master could destroy them all.” 

On the way to his quarters, the Imperial ambassador was overwhelmed with the burning desire to get his claws on the Boleyn demoness.  Due to Catherine of Aragon’s dethronement by Anne, his hatred for her was so deep and so intense that he sought her demise on every occasion.  Gracious Lord, help His Imperial Majesty crush the French forces.  Aid him to bring down his Valois archenemy and let the Boleyn whore die at the stake, where she belongs as a heretic. 

§§§

In the meantime, Queen Jane knelt at her prie dieu in her bedroom.  After dismissing her ladies, including her kind younger sister, Dorothy, only Mary Tudor remained in the room. 

Jane requested, “We need more light, Lady Mary.” 

The bleak winter sun was setting above the River Thames, and in the east, the shadows of twilight were advancing.  The queen’s quarters were nearly dark, and only a huge bed, draped in dazzling white silk, glowed like a white halo.  The floor, walls, and ceiling were a dark colored wood that matched the massive, dark mahogany furniture and the overall austere decor. 

“Of course, Your Majesty.”  Her stepdaughter lit several silver candelabra.    

“Pray with me,” requested the queen. 

Nodding her affirmative, Mary knelt at another prie dieu beside JaneAfter her return to court, the two women had befriended each other.  Mary was grateful to her stepmother for Jane’s role in her reconciliation with her previously estranged father.  They often spent time together, sewing clothes for the poor and praying in Latin, just as good Catholics should do. 

Each of them was in rather a precarious situation.  Jane’s relatives, save Dorothy, blamed her for the inability to conceive.  Mary witnessed it on a regular basis, which irked her a lot, so she supported her stepmother, who in turn worked hard to further heal the still existing rift between the king and his eldest daughter.  Together with Dorothy, they frequently discussed the monotony, sordidness, and inadequacy of typical aristocratic marriages, wondering why most spouses did not enjoy not only harmony, but even basic understanding in their relationships. 

At this moment, Jane and Mary sought relief from troubles of life in prayer.  Their heads bowed low, they chanted several psalms and then the Pater Noster in Latin. 

Jane’s prayers shifted to her personal situation, her soft voice flowing through the room, like a gentle waterfall.  She was so full of sorrow and fright that she had difficulty pronouncing the prayers she knew well.  A tremble of pain cascaded down her back at the thought of being set aside by the king, who already neglected her, lest she failed to give him a son. 

Blessed Virgin Mary, you were graced by the Almighty with the privilege of bearing our Divine Savior.  God acted upon you in the first moment of the baby’s conception, keeping you immaculate.  Your life was blessed with conceiving Jesus and seeing him grow from infancy into his adult years of preaching the true religion.  Please intercede before the Lord, that I, His loyal child Jane, may conceive a son for England – a son who will prevent civil war and bloodshed.

Crossing herself, Jane sprang to her feet, pale with emotion.  “God, I beseech you to help me!”  She plodded over to her bed and seated herself on the edge.  “Only He can save me.” 

Mary climbed to her feet and crossed to the bed.  She settled herself in a chair, where her mother had often sat by the hearth while sewing clothes for the downtrodden or shirts for the monarch.  The armrests were decorated with the Tudor rose and an ornately worked pomegranate – Catherine of Aragon’s symbol, while the chair’s back was adorned with the profile portrait of Queen Isabella of Castile.  A week earlier, many things had been delivered from Kimbolton Castle, where the disgraced former queen had breathed her last, and now Mary owned them.  

Assurances poured out of Mary’s mouth.  “Your Majesty, after my mother’s death, you are the king’s true wife.  Soon God will bless your marriage with a son.” 

As soon as the words left her lips, Mary felt a stab of guilt in her chest.  She did not wish her father to have more children with any woman, for they would all become her rival claimants for the English throne.  Although she had signed the Oath of Supremacy and acknowledged her illegitimacy, she still viewed herself the rightful heir to the crown.  My father can proclaim Elizabeth his heir, but the people of England love me and consider her a bastard. 

Despair was etched into her countenance as Jane supplied, “Every day, I beseech the Lord to give me a child.  I do not know why I have not conceived yet.” 

“Calm down,” soothed Mary, her voice compassionate.  “You have been married only for six months.  You need to wait for some time and continue praying.” 

The queen’s train of thought meandered to Castelnau’s announcement.  “Anne Boleyn has been married to King François only for four months.  She is already with child!” 

A surge of hatred deeper than a bottomless abyss rushed through Mary Tudor.  The fervor of her scorching desire to see Anne dead squeezed her hands into tight fists.  “That Boleyn harlot deserves the most gruesome end possible.  I rejoiced when she was arrested, stood a fair trial, and was condemned to die for her crimes.  I would gladly have brought a torch to her pyre myself.”  She raised her hands in frustration.  “But she escaped her death.” 

Jane winced at the metallic sound of her voice, laced with visceral loathing.  “Lady Mary, I understand your feelings towards the very woman who usurped your mother’s throne and place in your father’s heart.  Yet, I want to give you my advice, if you wish to accept it.” 

Mary let out a small smile.  “I’m always eager to talk to you.” 

The queen verbalized her thoughts.  “If you truly want to improve your life, you have to travel lightly.  That is, you must learn to let go of detrimental emotions such as rage and hatred.  It is going to be difficult for you, if not impossible.  But otherwise, you will not find peace.” 

As arrows of truth shot through her, Mary felt deafened by the agitated rush of her own blood.  With the utterance of her stepmother’s verdict, a terrible comprehension dawned upon her.  She had been entrapped into the most horrible fate: she was gradually being strangled by the chains of her bastard status that was fixed by the laws enacted by the king and Parliament at the royal behest, and there was nothing she could do to liberate herself from them. 

Jumping to her feet like a tigress, Catherine of Aragon’s daughter paced to and fro.  Her feelings alternated between deep anguish, unutterable despair, and impotent fury.  But above all of her destructive emotions was the sense of ignominy and of intense hatred towards the villainess who had caused her departed mother and her so much harm.  That unholy feeling welled up like a stream of fire in the young woman’s breast, extinguishing all other emotions but thirst for revenge.  I should not blame the king for my current predicament – only the whore is at fault. 

Her features disfigured with anger, Mary bared her heart.  “It must be immoral of me to say such things, for I am a devout Catholic.  But I want the Boleyn whore a head shorter or burned.  Her viciousness wrecked my country and my beloved mother’s life, and it also caused irreparable damage to me.  It is no wonder that I crave her punished, is it?” 

Queen Jane eyed Mary Tudor with admiration and sympathy.  A graceful, yet not tall, woman, just as her mother had been in youth, Mary had high cheekbones, aquiline nose, and hazel eyes, smart and doleful.  It was a beautiful face, but there was a halo of dejection about it, which was seldom found in so youthful a countenance.  Her gown of black and bronze velvet, trimmed with gold, stressed her feminine curves in an appealing way, despite being modestly cut.  Mary’s long, red-gold Tudor hair was confined by a Spanish hood, studded with diamonds.   

Jane empathized with her sufferings.  “I understand you, Lady Mary.” 

Her stepdaughter stomped from the door to the bed, then crossed the chamber once more.  “The harlot is no longer with my father, who cast her out of the English realm.  Yet, the country remains a heretic land, and we are forced to worship the king as the spiritual leader of the nation.”  A desperate edge to her voice, she spluttered, “The witch’s spell has not been removed from His Majesty completely.  My father is unwilling to restore England to the flock of Rome, not caring that his subjects will be kept away from Holy Father’s table in the afterlife.”  

Being a Catholic herself, Jane concurred.  “For a short time after our wedding, I hoped to guide His Majesty back to Catholicism, but I’ve failed.  Every time I mention the religious matters or anything political in his presence, he becomes so incensed that all I want is to run away from him.  He says that my only duty is to birth a Tudor prince who will carry on his legacy.” 

Mary stopped near the chair, which she had occupied before, and tumbled into it.  “At least, you have tried.  God bless you for your wish to win the kingdom back for Rome.” 

The queen murmured, “I fear we cannot stop the reformation in England.” 

Once more, the bastardized princess exuded sheer contempt, causing Jane to flinch.  “It is the fault of the Boleyn sorceress!  Her spell over my father is too strong, but I shall pray harder that God leads England back to the true faith.  A few months earlier, the harlot used her witchcraft again, and her marriage to the King of France and her new baby are the result of it.” 

Jane saw that antagonism billowed up inside of Mary Tudor, threatening to crush all other good sentiments.  Despite her affection for the girl, Mary’s religious fervor and her fanatical scorn for Anne sometimes left her discomfited.  Queen Catherine would have been upset to see her only child so bitter.  Maybe I should attempt to persuade the king to find a husband for Mary. 

Unable to contain her nervousness, Mary rose to her feet and resumed pacing.  “My sister, Elizabeth, is considered the king’s heir, according to the current English law.  It is unbelievable that my father overlooked her mother’s sins and had my half-sister declared legitimate by Letters Patent, which was how his illegitimate ancestors were legitimized.  This proves that the harlot bewitched him into doing her bidding before her departure to France.” 

The queen did not concur, but she didn’t voice it.  “I spoke to my husband about your reinstatement to the line of succession.  However, he always turns berserk with rage.” 

Stopping near a window, Mary looked out.  In the courtyard, the buildings lay so white and silent in the snow of the first December day.  Yesterday, the first snow had fallen from the steel-gray sky, and now everything was enveloped in an icy mantle.   The royal gardens were knee deep with snow, and the tree branches bent to the earth with their heavy white burden. 

“There is eternal winter in my soul,” confessed Mary, her cheeks moist with tears.  “I’m so miserable at times that it seems to me I may die.  Now I want to cry hard, and to scream, and to beat my head against something hard.”  A sigh from the deepest recesses of her scarred soul fled her lips.  “However, I must bow to the king, as well as his sycophants and heretics.  I must always remember that I’m supposed to be the king’s complaisant natural daughter.  If I behave differently, my father can prosecute me for treason, as Francis Bryan told me once.” 

A distressed Jane stood up and approached her distraught stepdaughter.  “I know that your tender, young heart is sore.  It will take more than the superficial reconciliation with His Majesty to heal it.  I swear that I’ll aid you in any way I can, Your Highness.” 

For the first time, the Queen of England addressed Mary as royalty, which increased her respect to the king’s wife.  Mary spontaneously hugged Jane, who responded in kind. 

Disentangling from their embrace, Mary broached the subject that always made the other woman uncomfortable.  “I know that one day, the witch will face the holy vengeance for the evil she perpetrated in England, and for the one she is currently heaping upon France.” 

These words pierced Jane’s heart like a knife-thrust.  “Let the Lord judge Anne Boleyn.” 

“I’m certain that God will have her end up at the pyre, sooner or later.” 

The queen wanted to gift something to her stepdaughter in order to distract her from self-destructive thoughts.  “Lady Mary, this chair once belonged to Queen Catherine.   At my behest, some of her things were brought here from Kimbolton Castle so that I could give them to you.” 

Mary’s visage was imbued with gratitude.  “You are as sainted as my mother was!”  

Jane continued, “You deserve to have these things in memory of the true queen.”    

Tears stung Mary’s eyes.  “I don’t know how to thank you for this.”

“Just find some solace in them,” answered her stepmother. 

Queen Jane strode to a chest of drawers in the corner and opened the top drawer.  She retrieved Catherine’s jewelry box and strolled back to the bed.  Jane settled herself onto the bed, while Mary returned to her chair.  Then the queen handed the box to her companion. 

A radiant smile graced Jane’s features.  “You must recognize it, Lady Mary.” 

“I do!”  exclaimed Mary, her heart overflowing with joy.  She opened the box and saw a multitude of expensive jewels and her mother’s rosary inside.  “Thank you!” 

As the girl touched the rosary reverently, Jane prayed that fate would instill into Mary some salutary warmth that would eject the bitterness.  She would endeavour to find a good husband for her – a man who would not make her life as flat, narrow, and drab as her own marital landscape had become.  However, if the king does not listen to me, I’ll be powerless to save Mary.   

§§§

In the meantime, King Henry paced his bedchamber, as if he were an incensed Minotaur.  His countenance was like that of Julius Caesar betrayed even by his friend, Brutus.  It seemed that the infamous words ‘Even you, Brutus?' would tumble from his lips.  Nonetheless, he was silent, his expression imbued with some sinister emotion, the veins in his neck stuck out in ire. 

Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, stood near the door.  As he observed his sovereign stalk from one wall to another, he wondered whether only Henry’s pride had been injured by the unwelcome news.  But he could also see a trace of furious envy in the king, which fired through him with every step, for the ruler’s whole being emanated destruction and death.  Henry is jealous of Anne, and he cannot accept that she carries his rival’s child, inferred Suffolk. 

Finally, the monarch stopped in the middle of the room.  “That whore will shame François and the French royal family!  She cannot behave like a dignified queen!” 

His subject inclined his head.  “Most definitely, she cannot.” 

The king resumed his agitated pacing.  “Before I had the harlot arrested, she spent her energy in fits of rage and tantrums of jealousy.  She must have concentrated on her only duty – producing my male progeny – but she did not.  Her family and she are hated in England!  Anne created countless enemies for herself, and she alienated those who were sympathetic to her.”  His fists balled, he ended with, “The damned adulteress betrayed me with all those men in an attempt to sire a son, and for the sake of carnal pleasure.  Eventually, she went further and married my French sworn foe.  Now the entirety of Christendom laughs at me!” 

“Your Majesty is exaggerating,” soothed Charles. 

“No!”  shrilled the ruler.  “I look like an utter fool!  Anne betrayed me and wed François!  At present, everyone in England knows that she became the Queen of France!” 

The duke’s mind formulated the speech to disparage Anne.  He could not say that almost nobody believed in the charges against her.   “The whole world is aware of her abominable crimes.  Now the French king looks like a wicked man who married the worst Jezebel in history.  Your Majesty is not blameworthy for her actions, and your subjects support you.” 

Henry halted near the desk loaded with papers.  He grabbed a bronze sand-glass, adorned with diamonds, and hurtled it towards the fireplace.  “That bitch has almost damned England and me!  But now I’m free of her spell!  She shall make François and France suffer!” 

The Duke of Suffolk sighed: his liege lord still cared for the woman on some level.  So, he strove to cement the king’s abhorrence towards her.  “The whore must be charged with high treason against Your Majesty.  She has merited to be burned for sorcery, for it is obvious that she has bewitched you and the King of France.  She is the worst kind of witch.” 

However, Henry did not listen to the duke.  Under the influence of the most excruciating emotions, he paced, sometimes stopping and throwing things around.  The images of the Valois ruler making love to Anne ripped through his consciousness, like poisoned barbed wire.  François must already have taken Anne many times, Henry fumed.  These thoughts filled him with such unbearable pain that he could scarcely endure the stress and strain of the daily grind. 

“François de Valois and his Boleyn courtesan!”  roared Henry.  He stopped near the wall, tapestried with the scene of the Great Fire of Rome, which had been instigated by Emperor Nero to later build an elaborate series of palaces without the senate’s consent.  “I’d love to see them tied to the pyre and writhe in the flames.  I would have watched every moment of their agony.” 

Suffolk nodded.  “Their viciousness is notorious.” 

Henry snarled, “Anne’s new pregnancy is her ultimate betrayal of England and me.”  He then sprinted to a table, grabbed a vase, and tossed it towards the opposite wall. 

Shards of glass coursed through the air.  Charles Brandon ducked to avoid being injured. 

“If it is François’ child,” remarked the Duke of Suffolk.  He knew that Anne had always been faithful to Henry, and he had no doubt that François was the father of her new baby.  But he had to ensure that the king’s sentiments towards her would remain hostile. 

As if he hadn’t heard him, the king choked out, “She might bear a son for another king.”  His countenance evolved into abject misery.  “This child in her womb should have been mine!” 

King Henry fell into a frenzy of berserk rage.  Within the next few minutes, the luxurious interior was destroyed, like a town pillaged by a victorious army.  The room became a total mess of broken vases, chairs, and tables, as well as tapestries which he had ripped from the walls.  Cushions, books, parchments, and candelabra were scattered across the floor in chaotic patterns.  His temper was leaking out of him, like a torrent of water from an upturned cauldron. 

“I want Anne dead!”  The king threw the last whole chair towards the door.   

Brandon sidestepped in the last instant.  “She may miscarry this baby, just as it happened to her twice in the past.  She seems to be incapable of bearing sons.”   

With a howl, the monarch stomped across and skidded to a halt near the wall, swathed with the tapestry of the Great Fire of Rome.  “If the emperor fails to conquer Paris, I’ll accomplish this feat in due time.  I’ll torch the French capital and watch it burn while playing on the lute, just as Nero observed the conflagration of Rome while merrily playing on the lyre.”  

His face like that of a wild beast, Henry shrieked like a stallion in a gelding stall.  He then peeled this tapestry away from the wall, threw it away, and tramped it down with his feet. 

Finally, the exhausted monarch fell onto a huge bed, canopied with masses of gorgeous white and beige velvet.  The royal apartments in this palace had also been refurbished after Anne’s arrest, and the broken interior was entirely in white and pastel colors. 

“Leave me,” moaned Henry, his voice fractured like everything around him. 

After his subject had vacated the room, the King of England lay in ghastly stillness for a while.  After the many months of denial, he admitted to himself that part of him still craved the empyreal fire of Anne.  While being with her, he had touched something divine, as if he would set his spirit free to soar, until it returned to his body endlessly happy, regenerated, and strong. 

Anne had awakened something incredible in Henry, but now he was hollow, like the gaping mouth of a monster.  He longed for her as much as he had coveted the throne when Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, had been alive and he had envied him because of his brother’s first place in the succession.  But even if she were innocent – which was not true in Henry’s mind – it was too late to rescue his life’s joy, for Anne was married to François and carried his child. 

Being riven with these contradictions, Henry resorted to self-pity, blaming Anne for all of his afflictions.  His dear Jane would bear him the finest prince on earth.  The whore cannot have a son with another man.  Charles is correct that she must be as barren as the desert land, he labored to convince himself.  Yet, he famished for her and dreamed of having children with Anne, begotten and reared in love, of enjoying the glory of parenthood together with her. 

The knock on the door jolted the king out of his reverie.  “Who is there?” 

Pushing the door open, Charles Brandon peered inside timidly.  “Your Majesty, I’m sorry for disturbing you.  The urgent affairs of state require your immediate attention.” 

“Come in,” Henry permitted grudgingly.  “Say what you want, and get out.” 

After a moment’s hesitation, the Duke of Suffolk garnered his courage and delivered a blow to his sovereign.  “There is a large uprising in Yorkshire, and it is rapidly spreading to other parts of the country’s north.  They call themselves the Pilgrimage of Grace.” 

At this, Henry jumped from his feet, as if he had been fired from a cannon.  “Convene the Privy Council.  Dispatch a page to His Grace of Norfolk’s estates, for I need him here.” 

Bowing, Charles assured, “All will be done, Your Majesty.” 

Left in the accursed solitude of his bedchamber, King Henry examined his surroundings.  It seemed that his life was destroyed, just as the interior in the room was.  His current existence was a shallow, empty mockery, which he would eagerly have repudiated if he only could.  Then he reminded himself of his kingly duties to his country.  The riots in the north against me and Anne’s pregnancy are the most dreadful news.  I cannot change anything in Anne’s case, but the rebels will pay with blood and tears for their opposition to my supremacy, he resolved. 

§§§

At the same time, Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex and the royal chief minister, sat at his mahogany desk, reading through the papers which informed him about the upheaval in Yorkshire.  His face shone with a sheen of sweat, and wrinkles of strain burrowed into his forehead.  His austere attire of raven velvet, padded with wool, stressed his excessive pallor that was an indication of his inner perturbation. 

His son, young Gregory, studied him before opining, “Father, those Catholic insurgents will be arrested soon.  Our sovereign just needs to send his armies to the north.” 

“You are mistaken, son,” his father’s grave voice resonated.  “The forces of the rebels far exceed the numbers of the king’s men.  I’m afraid the country’s future is at stake.” 

“Do you think… they will make His Majesty restore the Catholic faith?” 

“No,” assured Cromwell as he stood up.  “Henry is too proud to bow to the Pope.” 

The royal chief minister paced back and forth.  Due to his high status, his quarters were one of the most spacious at the palace.  Yet, the oak furniture, polished to perfection, was limited to a cabinet, two chests, his work desk, wooden chairs with spiral turned legs, and the massive, ebony wardrobe.  As he had been rising in the social hierarchy, Cromwell had begun to love luxury and pomp, but he still strove to stress his simple tastes when he lived at court.  At the same time, his home at Austin Friars in the City was grand enough to receive a monarch.  

“Father, please stop!”  Gregory begged.  “It is grating on my nerves.” 

Nodding, Cromwell strode back to his high-back, carved chair upholstered with leather.  This piece of furniture stressed his authority as he sat there, talking to those lower in rank.  

The minister sighed.  “His Majesty has just elevated me to Earl of Essex.  In honor of my friendship with the king, a celebration was to be arranged at our home at Austin Friars.  Now we will have to cancel it, so please have all the food in stock given to the poor, Gregory.” 

“I shall,” complied his son.  “Anyway, we cannot eat all those victuals.”   

Thomas characterized their sovereign.  “King Henry loves luxury.  He enjoys his jester’s performances; he loves opulent feasts and masques; he plays tennis, chess, and cards, gambling regularly and aggressively.  He buys a great deal of magnificent clothes and jewels, although he will never wear all of them in his lifetime.  He squandered his frugal father’s inheritance long ago.  This year, the meager taxes we have collected barely cover the royal expenses.  The sheer diversity of our liege lord’s needs meant that I had to find alternative sources to finance them.”  

 “And you filled the royal coffers with the monies from the corrupt monastic houses.” 

“The dissolution of the monasteries…”  At this moment, Cromwell wore an incongruous expression of anxiety and dejection.  “I sought to abolish the entire religious system so as to put its riches at the king’s disposal, and to break opposition to royal supremacy.”  He stilled for a split second.  “You and I are follow the teachings of Luther and Calvin, so we understand how important it is to lead the king away from the tenets of the Catholic faith, which he refuses to give up despite the ongoing reform.  The mood of Englishmen is far more conservative than that of the continental Protestants, whose revolutionary zeal is well known, but they have long been prejudiced against the wealthy clergy.  And I’ve worked so hard to eradicate the old faith from our land!”  

Years ago, Cromwell had learned a lot about the business of appropriating ecclesiastical property from his former master – Cardinal Wolsey, who had dissolved about thirty religious houses.  In 1535, the chief minister had introduced the ‘Valor Ecclesiasticus’ in order to determine how much property the Church owned, so he had sent out his commissioners to all the religious houses in England, Wales, and Ireland.  The Act of Suppression in 1536 guaranteed that even the small monasteries would be shut down, while their riches and land would be confiscated by the Crown.  Thanks to Cromwell, the state treasury had gained millions of pounds.  I did not expect that there would be a rebellion, but Anne Boleyn warned me about it, recalled Cromwell.  

Gregory came to his parent.  Cromwell lifted his eyes to him, asking, “What?” 

His son’s expression was not gloomy.  “You are high in the royal favor.  After the uprising is squashed, everything will go back to normal, and you may become Lord Chancellor.” 

“His Majesty might order my arrest today.  Pray tell, are you really such a dreamer, son?” 

“Father, you and I are both determined optimists.  Of all men, you know for a certainty that optimism is the faith in yourself, which leads to achievement.  Nothing can be done without hope and confidence, and, of course, without cunning.”  Gregory smiled at his last words. 

Thomas climbed to his feet and hugged his son.  “Optimism is the ultimate definition of a leader.  But now the insurrection poses a threat to our family that cannot be underestimated.”  

Gregory smiled.  “God will protect us and help you finish the reforms in England.” 

The minister clasped the young man’s hands in his hands.   “Son, your presence at court at this tumultuous time is not a good idea.  You should relocate to our home with your wife.” 

A shadow crossed Gregory’s visage.  “Elizabeth will prefer to stay with Queen Jane.  I’m the heir to your new title and your estates.  At first, my marriage seemed to me an obvious duty, but I thought we were a good match.  Although she has two children by her first deceased husband, Elizabeth is young, pretty, intelligent, rich, and, best of all, related to the Queen of England.” 

“She is also sharp and practical,” Cromwell voiced his observation.  “Women like her have not a particle of reverence or respect for young lads, unless they are sons of someone who has power – and this is your case.  So, all is in your favor, Gregory.” 

Gregory chuckled bitterly.  “My wife has amassed countless items of expensive clothes of the utmost elegance.  They are the envy of other maids employed at the queen’s household.” 

“Extravagance is a question of degree, so you need to control your wife.” 

“It is impossible, Father.  She always reminds me that she is the queen’s sister.” 

Cromwell drew a long breath.  “Your mother and I loved each other, but it didn’t happen immediately after the wedding.  Once we realized our feelings, our happiness was enormous.”  He sucked in his breath.  “Her death devastated me, as long as the deaths of our daughters.”  

Tears brimmed in his son’s eyes.  “She must be in heaven now.” 

They crossed themselves, giving silent tribute to the minister’s dearly departed wife. 

Thomas eyed his son.  Tall and lean, Gregory was handsome in a gentle way, like a poet, with honest, often dreamy, gray eyes and candid expression, a fusion of shyness and intelligence.  His hair was blonde, his complexion ruddy – features he had inherited from his mother.  An avid reader, he enjoyed literature and history.  The young man had received the best possible education at Cambridge to prepare him for adult life.  Unlike Cromwell, Gregory was not an intriguer – he was a man of great kindness and concern for others, and with a wonderful sense of humor. 

Before dismissing his son, Thomas told him in a poignant voice, “I shall pray that your spouse will realize that marital happiness is more precious than her ambitions.”  

Hours later, Thomas Cromwell still sat at his desk, with his hands behind his head, leaning back in his chair.  In whatever direction his thoughts turned, he was faced with possibilities that were too disconcerting.  The uprising might cost him his life, but he would fight tooth and nail for everything he had accomplished after the many difficult years of hard work.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11: The Valois Children 

December 5, 1536, Château de Villers-Cotterêts, Villers-Cotterêts, Picardie, France

In the queen’s apartments, the light from Venetian candelabra shone down softly upon gilded, red cedar furniture, carved with images of Hera and Zeus.  Queen Anne and Dauphin Henri were playing piquet, sitting beneath a canopy of state of white and blue silk with fleur-de-lis. 

“Will you win, Madame?”  asked Henri, his scrutiny focused on the cards.   

Anne released a deep sigh.  He resisted calling his stepmother by the rightful title, despite spending time with her.  “As we are both skilled in piquet, it is difficult to predict the outcome.” 

His intense gaze was directed at her.  “If I win, will you permit me to ask you a question?” 

A silence, full of trepidatious apprehension, ensued.  The queen set her goblet onto the table that stood between them, and the clink on the marble surface sounded loud in stillness.  

The queen viewed the Dauphin of France from top to toe.  In 1519, she had served Queen Claude as her lady-in-waiting and, thus, remembered the prince’s birth.  Somewhat lean and athletic in stature, he was a handsome youth with upturned, brown eyes and stony countenance.  Unlike his royal father and his younger brother, he didn’t have the Valois long patrician nose.  His handsome face, imbued with a hint of youthful naiveté, was framed by short-cut, brown hair. 

Having already seen all of the royal children, she thought that Henri’s appearance was different to that of Prince Charles and King François.  There was no aura of magnificence about the dauphin, who lacked the lordly bearing of royalty.  Not being charismatic and mischievous, his frigid demeanor was like an unassailable fortress, in which he stored his emotions and guarded them.  The years he and his brother, the late Dauphin François, had spent in the Spanish captivity had impacted him to a substantial degree, but, fortunately, they had not broken his spirit. 

Dauphin Henri preferred unostentatious outfits, which recalled Spanish fashion with their rich, yet gloomy, splendor.  He frequently wore heavy black velvet that was a hallmark of wealth and influence in Spain.  Today, Henri was accoutered in a doublet of black velvet, worked with gold and adorned with onyxes, as well as in matching toque and hose of the same material. 

Her calmness belied the fear coursing through Anne.  “Your Highness can ask me any questions.  Don’t be shy; we can talk about anything, and I’ll answer truthfully.” 

His gaze was piercing her soul.  “Very well, Madame.  Let’s start, then.” 

“Agreed,” Anne echoed as she picked up a card deck from the table. 

The dauphin began shuffling the cards.  “England has a game like this.” 

The queen watched him cut the deck.  “During my tenure as Henry’s consort, I introduced piquet at the English court.  But I’m not sure that it is still played by courtiers.”

As he cut the higher score, it was his turn to deal.  As the dealer, he would have the choice of cards at the commencement of each partie that consisted of six deals. 

He commented, “Jane Seymour is said to be a virtuous English lady.” 

She suppressed a grimace of distaste.  “Perhaps you can characterize her in this way.  But most English gentlewomen are better educated than her; she can barely write her own name.” 

An astounded Henri quizzed, “How did she attract the English king, then?” 

“She is my opposite,” answered Anne. 

He studied her closely for a long moment, and she returned his penetrating stare.

She was awash with relief when Henri started dealing twelve cards to her.  The remaining eight cards, which formed the talon, were placed face down between them.  They exchanged cards then: he took five cards from her and placed them face down, and an equal number of cards was then drawn from the talon.  Then Anne took three cards from him and three from the talon. 

After the deal, the queen and the dauphin sorted their cards in their hands.  As the game went on, Anne found it difficult to concentrate, being rankled by her fright that her stepson would mention her religion.  They did six deals, and, eventually, Anne lost the partie. 

“I’ve beaten you, Madame.”  His voice was like a cold wind sweeping through the room. 

His stepmother grinned.  “You have convinced me of your prowess at the card table.” 

Henri’s countenance was shadowed by an unutterable melancholy.  “Unfortunately, not my prowess in state affairs.  Nothing will ever be enough to please my father.” 

A sigh broke from Anne.  Such a young man should be vivacious and joyful, but he is not.  Sadness is seeping from Henri like blood from a wound.  Was the impact of the Spanish captivity on him really so profound that memories still poison him?  Obviously, discordance existed between the dauphin and the ruler, but she had no clue as to their disagreements.  She would have to observe the king’s relationship with his heir apparent once François returned to court. 

She interrupted a short silence.  “You have won, so I’m at your disposal.” 

His clever, sharp eyes spoke more eloquently than his tongue.  They could communicate more than his lips, and now Anne saw that Henri was a man who yielded to no one, not even to his father.  She sensed an inner strength in him, which no other youth of his age possessed.  In the years ahead he could become a capable state administrator and a strong leader. 

“The King of England,” commenced the Dauphin of France.  “Did you betray him with those men who were executed on his orders, one of them being your own brother?” 

The question struck her in the chest like a dart.  Nonetheless, Anne masked her umbrage and pain, articulating, “Never, not even in my wildest dreams, has the wicked thought of betraying Henry crossed my mind.”  She stilled for a split second, as her hand flew to her enlarged stomach.  “I swear on all I hold dear – on the life of my daughter, Elizabeth, and that of my unborn child – that every word I speak is the truth.  Moreover, I’m a good Christian, and I’m aware that such a terrible sin would have condemned my immortal soul to the eternal fires of hell.” 

Henri was quiet for a long moment, his eyes locked with hers.  He discerned only sincerity in her features with their exotic boniness that was shadowed by weariness and hardness.  She did not betray Henry of England with anyone, I have no doubt of it, the dauphin inferred.  Now she has confirmed it, and that is enough for me.  But many other things might make us enemies forever. 

Queen Anne was unlike other women the dauphin had ever met.  She was an enigma to him, with both positive and negative facets of her character.  Ladies at the French court were beautiful coquettes attired in eccentric fashions, many of whom were frivolous and too eager to slide under the sheets of their sovereign at the first invitation.  Unlike them and in contrast to what Henri had heard about Anne’s far-famed flirtatiousness, his father’s new spouse seemed reticent and nevertheless bold in speech, her bearing majestic, as if she had been born into royalty. 

Looking her straight in the eye, Henri broached the most sensitive subject.  “Hasn’t your role in England’s break with Rome condemned your soul to hell?” 

A discomfited Anne confronted him like a warrior.  “In the eyes of the Catholic Church, heretics are all those who separate themselves from the so-called true faith, and who reject dogmas or add new doctrines to it.”  Her voice took a higher octave.  “Your Highness is a Catholic, but you are also a Renaissance prince, enlightened and impeccably educated.  Have you ever admitted a thought that some things that the Vatican does are incongruent with Christian principles?” 

He furrowed his brows.  “What do you mean, Madame?” 

Her expression was tinged with wisdom.  “Canon law is a set of rules which are made by prelates.  Some of them are distinct from those found in the Bible, like the Ten Commandments.  The reason is that rules are created by human beings, who force others to abide by them.  Perhaps many people do not know what God wanted His children to do in different settings.  Moreover, you cannot find in the Bible a dogma that there is only one correct way to worship the Almighty.”   

He shook his head.  “It is clear from verses in Scripture that all of the Apostles were swift and severe when it came to heresy in the Christian Church.  The same severity can be found in the teaching of the Catholic Church in the centuries thereafter.  It is essential that all Catholics examine how they practice their faith and do not do anything that is not approved by the Pope.” 

Grim nervousness palpitated in Anne’s bosom, for one wrong word or move could break the carefully wrought tension between them.  At the same time, an agitated Henri had bouts of anger which he fought to control so that they could maintain a veneer of politeness. 

The queen brought the pope’s most controversial deed to his attention.  “Nowadays, the Catholic Church is selling lots of indulgences.  From what I know, the proceeds help the Pope pay for the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  These funds must also fill the Pope's coffers."

“And what?”  the prince prompted. 

Her heart thumped with repugnance towards the corrupt popery.  “An indulgence is the remission of all or part of the temporal punishment due to sins which have already been forgiven.  Do you think that one’s sins can be forgiven just because they pay for some paper issued by priests?  Do you not think that abuses of indulgences have become rampant in the Church?” 

“Yes, if the Pope says so,” Henri answered unhesitatingly.  “You are a staunch supporter of Martin Luther.  I’ve read all of his books, and I’ve found them the most horrible heresy.  In his critique of the Catholic Church, Luther dared drop his belief in purgatory, and he also denied that a person’s actions play an important role in salvation, saying faith alone is what counts.” 

“That is true.”  Now she itched to finish this discourse as soon as possible. 

At this moment, Anne was sad beyond all imaginings of melancholy.  Henri is a radical Catholic, who will never accept that there can be at least some grain of truth in teachings of Luther and Calvin.  Most likely, the prince did not support his parent’s policy of religious tolerance, and if he ever ascended the throne, he would work hard to reverse the current situation in France. 

His voice jolted the queen out of her reverie.  “As for indulgences, if their sale is abolished by the Pope, then I’ll consider it right and valid.”  Leaning forward, he glared at her across the table.  “Jesus Christ founded the Papacy in the 1st century, when he chose St. Peter, the leader of the apostles, to be his earthly representative, from whom His Holiness is directly descended.” 

“Your Highness, I respect your opinion and will never argue with you again.” 

At this, the prince’s façade of civility cracked, and his temper spiked.  “Damn the heretics to hell!”  His fists clenched as a tide of sizzling, scarlet rage assaulted him.  “I wish my father well, and I love him dearly.  But when I become King of France, I shall burn as many Protestants as I need to eradicate the seeds of heresy from the French land once and for all.” 

The queen ventured intrepidly, “In my opinion, Catholics and Protestants need to find common ground as brothers, for now they are a divided family of Christians.  They should ask themselves which commonalities they have, for there is only one God above all of us.” 

“I do disagree!”  His glare was piercing and condemning.  “You drove King Henry from the flock of Rome.  England has been wandering through the labyrinth of heresy, and it will never cease until the country is restored to Rome.  But here, in France, you must hide your preferences.” 

She emphasized, “Your father permitted me to worship my faith in private.” 

“I’ll speak to him about it as soon as he returns.” 

Against her will, an acerbic smile manifested upon her visage.  “If Your Highness is so set on burning Protestants, I must be prepared to meet my maker at the pyre.” 

His ire fully abated, now Henri regretted his outburst.  “Your Majesty is my father’s wife and my sibling’s mother, so you are safe.  None of Valois is like that Tudor monster.” 

A wave of exhilaration swept over Anne.  Henri has acknowledged me as the Queen of France!  It is the first time he has addressed me by my title.  The guilt in his eyes bespoke that now he was silently reproaching himself, because he had not wanted to distress her in her condition.  Maybe over time, their hostilities would cease.  However, she did not hold her hopes high, for their religious differences separated them from each other like an insurmountable wall. 

The Queen of France smiled at her stepson.  “Of course, Your Highness is not capable of committing such an atrocity.  But I grieve that you do not want us to be friends.” 

The affability and sincerity Anne exuded touched a chord in the prince’s heart.  To Henri, Anne was an honest woman of principles, who spoke her mind, stood for what she believed was right, and fully embraced life.  The eagerness and confidence of her manner to converse with him made the utmost impression upon him, hitherto limited by the warnings of Diane de Poitiers, whom he had fallen in love with.  I must be careful around Anne Boleyn, the dauphin cautioned himself.   

Henri’s laughter was biting, without the joyousness of youth in its sound.  “What can make people friends?  Many things!  Yet, the passion of friendship is of such a sweet and enduring nature that it may last a lifetime, unless people have great differences.” 

Anne smiled cordially.  “We count on the Almighty, and not upon ourselves, to give us certainty.  In His Name we practice, and His word directs us to act.” 

He rose to his feet.  “Indeed, Your Majesty.  Now allow me to leave you.” 

“Of course, Your Highness.  The court is awaiting you.” 

Sweeping a bow, Dauphin Henri stalked to the door and vacated the chamber.  Silence reigned, punctured only by the cracking fire in the hearth adorned with salamanders. 

Anne dropped her face into her hands.  “Catholics will always be my adversaries.”   

The turbid flood of reality came crashing down upon her like waves pounding endlessly along a rocky beach.  She needed to create her own faction to counterbalance the powerful Catholic party at court, to avoid all possible pitfalls, and, most importantly, to live sanely and sensibly.   

§§§

Standing near a window, Queen Anne observed snow swirl and leap in gusts of wind.  A faint, crescent moon lit up the dark firmament.  The courtyard, swathed in snow, and the trees, as if clothed in a mantle of thick, white fur, glittered brilliantly in the torchlight. 

“Your Majesty, do you wish to rest?  This is important in your condition.” 

Pivoting, Anne smiled at her guest.  “Madame de Châteaubriant, you were sent here to be the king’s eyes and ears.  Yet, I’ve been granted a friend to whom I can turn.” 

At the Valois court, the queen was lonelier than a caravan crossing the desert.  She was incapable of distinguishing friend from foe among all of her handmaidens.  The Countess de Châteaubriant, whose frankness had impressed Anne weeks earlier, seemed to be a noble-minded and honest person, and, most importantly, King François had sent her to take care of his wife. 

Françoise de Foix crossed to the window and dropped a curtsey.  “I’m honored to be your friend.  Please, let me know if I can be of any help.” 

“Thank you.”  The queen strolled to a coach near the fireplace. 

“There is no need to thank me, Your Majesty.” 

The countess aided the queen to settle comfortably on the couch draped with green velvet. 

Now Anne was about four months along in her pregnancy.  In the daytime, her condition was not yet entirely apparent, for these days, she favored gowns with high waist and ample skirts.  Now she was clad in a robe of steel gray satin, embellished with images of naiads, the soft material enveloped her tightly enough to see the swell of her growing stomach. 

Anne gestured towards an armchair next to the couch, and Françoise seated herself there. 

The queen confessed, “I first looked upon you with profound dislike.  That was bad of me to have any unsavory thoughts of you, for you have never wronged me in any way.” 

“You simply remember the past,” inferred Françoise.  “I mean the years of my tenure as His Majesty’s chief mistress.”  She smiled mistily, as if her dreams had materialized before her.  “I resisted him at first, as I loved my husband and wanted to be faithful to him back then.  However, soon the monarch charmed me with his remarkable personal accomplishments and graces.” 

Anne regarded her with a perceptive look.  “You are still not over His Majesty.” 

The Countess de Châteaubriant blushed like a maiden who felt awkward in her skin.  “I think it is impossible to forget a wonderful man such as your husband.  In spite of the fact that he discarded me years ago, we have remained friends.  Sometimes, I even hoped that our attraction would be rekindled, but to no avail.  Then I realized that I’ve never been his true love.  Yet, there are moments when I cannot tear myself loose from my fascination of him.” 

Françoise’ candor was her major weapon in winning Anne’s friendship.  As her arrival had looked suspicious, she had resolved to act in the most refreshing manner for the Valois court, full of politics, intrigues, deceits, and betrayals.  My frankness is the only reason why now Queen Anne is talking to me.  She may be the king’s true love!  Françoise prayed that one day, they two would discover the natural pulse of devotion to and a healthy flow of trust between each other.

Queen Anne fended off the impulse to snap at her companion.  Unexpectedly, a tide of petty jealousy washed over her at the thought that her spouse had bedded Françoise on numerous occasions in the past.  There was no love in this sensation, but it was still burning in her bosom.  In spite of her recent close brush with death, Anne saw herself as an accomplished noblewoman who had conquered the throne of England, albeit she had made some fatal mistakes which had aided her enemies to destroy her; a unique temptress who could make any man eat from her palm.  And even though Anne did not harbor any romantic feelings for King François, the selfish part of her did not like the thought of him having many paramours.  No one will ever accuse me of jealousy towards the flamboyant King of France.  Nobody and never!  This was what Anne resolved. 

Anne’s voice was as bland as it could be.  “It might seem rather anticlimactic to a woman when her husband sends his former paramour to serve and spy on her.  Do you understand me?”  This sounded very reasonable and moderate, and above all, not suspicious.    

“I do,” the countess confirmed.  “Now you know that the king’s purposes were different.” 

The queen would have expressed her contempt towards men, if they were not discussing their sovereign.  “The truth is that we never know what is happening in the heads of men.” 

“That is extraordinary,” commented Françoise, her voice dripping in amusement.  “To hear this from the woman whose feat was the Crown of England!”

“Actually, that is usual,” objected the ruler’s wife.  “Feminine charms and wiles may be strong, but they do not make us invincible.  The male mind is certainly a devious one.” 

The countess heaved a sigh.  She had observed the queen slip into a painful apathy, in which one day was much like another, but Françoise wanted Anne to be on good terms with the king.  She would need to persuade Anne not to dwell on her abhorrent first matrimony. 

Anne stretched out her hands to the fire.  “Dauphin Henri spent today’s evening with me.  Every time he comes, I dream that the ice of his antagonism may disappear as if by magic, and warmth will then burst out in full bloom in its stead.  But it has not happened yet.” 

Françoise comprehended her concerns.  “Give the youth more time to get accustomed to his new surroundings.  Not raised to be king, he became the dauphin mere months ago.” 

“And the Spanish captivity…”  Anne’s voice broke off. 

“Henri has been affected by that ghastly experience to an extreme degree.  His eldest brother, François, was prone to sickness since their return from Madrid; he never fully recovered his heath, which resulted in his untimely death and a great tragedy for France.” 

The queen sighed mournfully.  “I was in England when the awful rumors reached me.  I was told that he had died of consumption, although nothing was mentioned of his long illness.” 

In a hushed tone, Françoise opined, “Although the late dauphin was rather frail, he did not exhibit any symptoms of consumption before his sudden passing.”  She lowered her voice.  “The king suspected poisoning, but there is no proof, so no one was arrested.”

Anne’s visage morphed into horror.  “Poisoning?  How is that possible?” 

It occurred to the countess that she should not have said that.  “It is not known for sure, Your Majesty.  Most likely, these are the fantasies of my overactive imagination.” 

Her nervous pallor was noticed by the queen.  “Perhaps, Madame.” 

Françoise switched to their previous topic.  “You will get on well with Dauphin Henri.  In all of his relationships, he is about to do something that will test his own nerve and resources, something that, if successful, will allow him to acquire his own belief in himself.” 

Anne breathed out a sigh.  “I hope so, Madame.” 

“He is a good and smart lad, Madame.  Everything will be all right.” 

As Françoise chattered about books and plays, Anne could not help but feel a nasty taste in her mouth.  The queen could not divert her mind from the possibility that the late dauphin had been poisoned.  Anne had the cohort of unknown Catholic enemies at court, and a frisson of fear tingled her spine at the thought that her baby could be in peril.  God bless and rest the soul of the hapless dauphin.  Lord save and protect my own child, Anne prayed, her hand on her abdomen. 


 December 12, 1536, Château de Villers-Cotterêts, Villers-Cotterêts, Picardie, France

Queen Anne breathed in the cold air and shivered, but she felt less lonesome and more hopeful.  The winter sun glittered through the windows and bounced off burgundy floral brocade that hung the antechamber’s walls.  The flecks of fresh snow kissed her cheeks with icy lips, the forerunner of a snowstorm that would wrap the earth in a cloak long before the sunset. 

“Is it not cold, Your Majesty?”  inquired Françoise de Longwy, Anne’s principal lady-in-waiting.  “Do you want us to put you to bed, and bring you a cup of warm spiced wine?”  

Anne closed the shutters and spun around to face her.  “No, thank you.  We are safe from the nipping winter blasts.  As December draws to a close, frosts will become harder.” 

Françoise de Foix emerged next to them.  “I guess the frosts in France are not as harsh as they are in England.  The local climate must be milder and more humid.” 

“That is right, Madame de Foix,” replied the queen in a very friendly tone, much to the astonishment of all the others in the room.  This was perceived as a sign of Anne’s favor towards the ruler’s former maîtresse-en-titre.  “Bordered by four seas and by three mountain ranges, France is a country with diverse climatic conditions, resulting in versatile weather patterns.” 

A surprised Françoise let out a tremulous smile.  “I’ve never been to England.  As I studied geography, I assume that the parts of England closest to the Atlantic Ocean experience the mildest temperatures, although these must also be the wettest.  The areas in the east must be drier and less windy, but also colder.  The cold and windy winter lasts from December until February.” 

“Your tutor schooled you most well.”  The queen’s accolade was sincere. 

The door burst open, and young Marie de Bourbon slid inside, crying, “Your Majesty!” 

Jeanne d’Angoulême, Countess de Bar-sur-Seine, left her embroidery and climbed to her feet.  At the sight of her upbraiding countenance, Marie de Bourbon paused in her tracks. 

“What an awful lapse of manners,” grumbled Jeanne.  “Shame on you, Mademoiselle de Bourbon!  You are in the queen’s presence!  How can a genteel maiden from an old and respected family display such ignorance of elementary rules of etiquette?” 

Marie dropped her head.  “I’m sorry.” 

Queen Anne strolled over to them.  “Be at ease, Madame de Bar-sur-Seine.  I prefer you all to be in an elated frame of mind rather than in a sullen one.”  She flicked her gaze to Marie.  “There is no need to apologize.  Tell us why you are so joyful.” 

The young woman lifted her facetious eyes to the queen's face. "The dressmakers have finished Your Majesty's new stunning gown."

A sudden hubbub of laughter and jocund chatter floated through the closed doors.  Then the door opened, and several ladies with the most delightful expressions entered. 

“Your Majesty!”  Louise de Montmorency exclaimed in exhilarated accents.  “Your gown will be delivered by dressmakers in moments!  You will be able to try it on!” 

A chorus of exclamations rose in the air, for Anne’s singular style was well-known. 

“That is awesome!”  cried the euphoric queen.  

Within the matter of minutes, the dressmakers carried inside the queen’s new gown and then departed.  After a gauntlet of smiles and laughs, Anne was assisted by her maids to put it on. 

As Anne froze in the middle of the chamber, her ladies gawked at her in fascination.  The gown was a masterpiece of the tailor’s art, blessed with a great talent in sewing.  At the same time, the queen reminisced, with a twinge of regret that those moments had long elapsed, the first merry months of her marriage to King Henry when her former husband had liked watching her dress in gowns he had bought for her, and when they had awaited a golden Tudor prince, not Elizabeth, while deities of joy had reigned in Anne’s universe.  With a sigh, the queen prohibited herself from thinking about her first marriage and tried not to concentrate on it.  

Her eyes of a soft brown, the Queen of France eyed her ladies with a scintillating smile.  A tastefully low-necked, fabulous gown of dazzling white brocade, wrought with threads of gold, was decorated with diamonds, scattered about the bodice in the design of a military parade.  The gown’s ample skirt had several layers of lace design and a long train of silver taffeta, passmented with gold.  Studded with massive black pearls, the stomacher was of silver velvet, while a girdle of diamonds encircled her waist.  Marie de Lorraine brought a gorgeous headdress of goldsmith’s work, which now confined Anne’s dark tresses, setting off her swarthy countenance. 

Anne twirled around and glanced at a looking glass that was set on a table.  “Ladies, what do you think?  Should I say ‘thank you’ to the dressmakers?” 

“Most definitely, Your Majesty,” Jeanne d’Angoulême concurred with a smile. 

Marie and Louise de Lorraine chorused, “Ah, Your Majesty!  You look like a goddess!”  

“The most wonderful dress I’ve ever seen!”  twittered Marie de Bourbon. 

With a smile, Françoise de Longwy chimed in, “Madame, you are beautiful like the most exotic white rose on earth.  The whiteness of your gown creates an air of innocence about you, and the unusual design symbolizes something from mythology.” 

Françoise de Foix assessed, “The magnificent gown does accentuate how tall, slim, and exquisitely proportioned Your Majesty is.”  She then recollected, “In ancient Rome, the priestesses of the goddess Vesta dressed themselves in white robes, a white shawl, and a white veil.  If we add a white shawl or veil here, you will look like an ancient goodness.” 

Anne liked the idea.  “Order a white gauze veil that can be fastened to the headdress.” 

For a while, the queen walked to and fro, enjoying the feel of the soft material against her skin.  According to the monarch’s advice before their wedding, she had chosen the color white to reassert the truth of her innocence before the whole court on Christmas. 

Anne stopped near the fireplace, where flames were licking over logs.  In the same way, memories of her happiest months were burning her from the inside out.  With tears in her eyes, Anne recalled how she had been trying on her coronation gown of purple velvet, furred with ermine.  At the time, Henry had loved her so much that a verse had been composed by the English playwright Nicholas Udall at his behest, where she and her then unborn child – Elizabeth – had been proclaimed England’s hope, while Anne’s name had been equated with holy grace. 

Momentarily despondent, the queen murmured to herself, “Have I been damned with perennial sadness?  Why did all the good in my life perish in the haze of the past?”  

Unbeknownst to her mistress, Françoise de Foix stood behind her.  Her voice as quiet as a whisper, she uttered, “True love is the condition in which the happiness of your beloved is essential to your own.  Was it present on both sides in your former marriage, Your Majesty?” 

“What do you imply?”  Anne’s startled voice was as gentle as a butterfly’s wing. 

Françoise sank into a deep curtsey.  “Nothing that you cannot fathom out.” 

The herald announced the arrival of Prince Charles, the new Duke d’Orléans after the late dauphin’s passing, and Princess Marguerite de Valois.  They both wore blithesome expressions as they crossed to the hearth and greeted the queen in accordance with the royal protocol.  

“Rise,” Anne purred.  “No formalities with me in private, please.” 

Princess Marguerite examined her stepmother with a keen eye.  “Your Majesty looks fabulous!  You are more beautiful than the mythological Helen of Troy is supposed to be.” 

Prince Charles came to the queen and kissed her hand.  “Madame, let me be your gallant knight at least for tonight.  When you appear at the Christmas festivities in this gown, everyone will be utterly charmed.  Your intense, dark eyes will hook everybody to the soul, the enchanting music of your voice will make them like clay in your hands.  Your appearance of a goddess, who has descended from the Mount Olympus, will move all the spectators all to you, as if they were sailors drawn to the rocky coast of the sirens’ island, which Roman poets called Sirenum scopuli.” 

Charles’ ebullient, romantic, intelligent speech was similar to his father’s tirades, and Anne chortled.  “The courtiers will not voyage to that island.  They do not even know where it is located, for it is as enigmatic as the origins of earth are.” 

The prince jested, “They will not reach you because my father will not allow them to.” 

Marguerite grinned.  “The king will guard his lovely wife as his rarest jewel.” 

Anne eyed her stepchildren.  The prince and princess were easy-going and carefree, unlike their elder brother, Henri.  After their first dinner with her, they had been pleased to discover that all the tales about Anne’s tremendous wit and intelligence had been true.  It began to seem to Anne that in her relationships with young Charles and Marguerite she would grasp one of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship – to understand and to be understood. 

An attractive girl of thirteen, Princess Marguerite was of slender build.  In her amber eyes, Anne could see King François and his sister; her long Valois nose also attested to her royal origins.  Marguerite’s angular, yet delicate, features reminded Anne of Queen Claude, but her complexion was leaning towards the Valois dour one.  The princess did not have the petite figure and fragility of her late mother, and the strength of her will was evident in her clever, stubborn eyes. 

Anne’s gaze traversed the prince, whom she had wished to wed her daughter, Elizabeth.  Apparently, Charles’ appearance had many of the French monarch’s traits: almond-shaped, amber eyes, the Valois nose, high cheekbones, and saturnine handsomeness.  Moreover, he was far taller than an average man of fourteen, and he would tower over the tallest man at court in his early adulthood, just as his father had once done.  Charles’ conceited grin and the mischievous twinkle in his eyes, as well as his wit and eccentricity reminded Anne of her own husband.   

Unlike their elder brother, both Marguerite and Charles were both fond of extravagant fashions.  The prince’s stylish doublet of purple velvet, ornamented with diamonds, sapphires, and rubies, was furred with sable.  His chestnut hair fell over his ears from beneath a toque of black velvet, adorned with a white feather and jeweled with a diamond brooch – an affiquet.  His sister’s tastes were a bit less ostentatious: her nice, lilac silk gown, which had open, pendant sleeves trimmed with white lace, was embossed with a floral motif of embroidery, stressing the freshness of her youth, while her French hood of yellow velvet confined her long, brunette hair.

Anne’s gaze darted between her stepchildren.  “Your Highnesses are both exaggerating.” 

Marguerite contradicted, “No, we are not.  Our father will be enchanted as he sees you.” 

Prince Charles affirmed dramatically, “Good heaves, I’ve forgotten why I’ve come!” 

Marguerite divulged, “We have a letter from the king for Your Majesty.” 

Charles explained, “It was delivered by our most trusted spies.  It was given to me so that I could pass it on to you or the Countess de Châteaubriant.”    

Marguerite was curious as to the letter’s content.  “Father is a marvelous poet!” 

The prince handed a parchment, stamped with the Valois seal, to Queen Anne.  As she took it in her hands, they trembled, as if she were in a fit of argue.  Grinning at her, he interpreted it as the excitement she must have felt at the thought of his illustrious parent.  His guess was correct as Anne’s insides were foaming with a blend of delight and relief that the ruler was alive. 

Notwithstanding the above, Anne showed neither interest nor emotion as she commented, “Finally, after almost two months of silence, the sovereign of France has written to his wife.”   

The queen made her way to the window.  “Fetch the musician!” 

Charles and Marguerite traded glances of incomprehension, as her reaction puzzled them.   

Anne halted near the window.  “Play a Burgundian chanson by Guillaume Dufay!” 

The princess queried, “Maybe something bright and cheerful, Your Majesty?” 

The queen’s question was expected.  “But doesn’t a chanson fit the time of day?” 

As the plangent tune resounded, Anne pivoted to the window, the parchment clasped in her hand.  She gazed out, into the swirling whitish darkness, surrounding the cloud-hidden moon and the palace.  The snow was heaped up in the courtyard to an uncommon height, and a thick, white carpet also blanketed the hills and the valley.  She wondered whether the monarch would be able to return before the Christmastide, provided that he intended to leave his army.   

Her heart thumping like a broken wagon wheel, the queen broke the seal, unrolled the parchment, and then started reading.  The king’s handwriting was calligraphic and handsome, with a touch of flair, and there was nothing pretentious or coy in his expression. 

Dearest Anne,

I believe that you have not thought of me.  After our marriage, you have always avoided me, as if I were the worst pestilence in your life.  Therefore, I decided not to intrude upon your time and privacy, so I have not kept in touch with you.

At present, we are in Toulouse.  As you may have heard, a battle took place in Auvergne, and we won it.  But Carlos is still somewhere around, although he cannot reach Ferdinand, who is being held in the north.  There will be more battles when the weather improves.   

I’ve missed you, although this means nothing to you.  I’ve been keeping your lovely face in my mind.  Perhaps you were my talisman in battles. 

I hope you will like my gifts.  Take care of yourself and our babe. 

François, King of France

As she finished reading, Anne held the letter between her hands, as if not wishing to part with it.  For so long, she had been offended by his ignorance of her, thinking that he had not cared not only about her, but also about their child.  The thought that the barriers she had deliberately erected between them were the reason for his silence was oddly painful for her.  The reality was opposite to her fears: all this time, François remembered Anne, needing her to give him strength.  

“He has missed me,” the queen whispered to herself, clutching the letter to her chest. 

Her lips trembled, and bitter words towards herself were on them.  She should not have been so unfeeling towards a warrior, who could have died on a battlefield while saving his country.  The spectre of deeply ingrained fear for François’ wellbeing and guilt rose up inside of Anne like a shadow to choke her.  Unbidden, tendrils of relief mingled with inexplicable happiness spurted in her inner world.  In spite of all her loathing towards matrimony, she did miss François not as her husband, but as an intelligent conversationalist and as someone to whom she was grateful. 

In mythology, Hephaestus was married to Aphrodite by Zeus to prevent a war of the gods fighting for her hand.  Will my marriage to François stop the war in France?  Will something good follow our victory?  They could be invincible together, and their reign could be long and grand if they defeated the emperor, even though there would be no love between the two of them.  

Still holding the letter, Anne looked out and attempted to distract herself from her spouse.  “His Majesty is fond of the talented figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Giulio Romano, Baldassare Peruzzi, and so forth.  This fondness has heralded a great awakening of architectural energy in France, and I’ll never cease admiring this grand palace.” 

The prince’s voice ceased Anne’s tirade.  “If this letter has failed to improve Your Majesty’s mood, then his gift will most certainly impress you a lot.” 

Anne swiveled and gaped at her ladies, who put a velvet-covered case at a marble table.  Prince Charles approached the table and hefted the lid, revealing an oval-cut, massive necklace of six rows of diamonds, set in spectacular garnets.  The prince took it in his hands, and gasps of wonder erupted from the assemblage, for the necklace’s magnificence was unparalleled. 

The queen and the prince met in the center.  Charles fastened the item about Anne’s neck, and exuberant acclamations broke from the concourse.  The ruler had always been extravagant, and they assumed that this gift was one of the many which would follow soon. 

Anne caressed the “AR” pendant of the necklace, which meant ‘Anna Regina’ and rested over her stomacher.  “It was nice of the king to ask the goldsmith to create my initials on his gift.” 

Marguerite appeared beside the queen.  “Our father shows his adoration for you.” 

Anne ignored her stepdaughter’s statement.  “I’ll heartily thank His Majesty for this gift.”  She still refused to refer to her husband by his first name, despite his request.  

The princess stated, “The gown and jewels make you shine like a sun.”  

This extracted a smile from Charles.  “The magnificence of our father’s court is matched by the brilliance of French literature and architecture during his rule.  French manners, art, and dress are becoming the models of culture and signs of elegance and grace.” 

“At the French court,” continued Anne enthusiastically, “everyone shines in the reflected light, illuminated by the rays of King François, who has brought enlightenment to the nation.”   

The prince stressed, “You shine in your husband’s rays like a huge diamond.” 

His sister nodded.  “Brighter than others.” 

At this moment, Queen Anne felt the erstwhile, sprightful, unworldly spirit of a seductress resurrect.   The greatest gift of life is love, and once I thought that I had been blessed with Henry’s love.  Yet, I was mistaken, and I shall never be deluded into thinking that I can be happy again, especially not with another king.  Her mood tumbling into an endless black hole, she compelled that merry spirit to retreat into her inner self, although its flame was still burning in deep in her.  

Chapter Text

Chapter 12: Political and Amatory Things

December 20, 1536, Palais de Poitiers, Poitiers, county of Poitiers, France

The huge and well-illuminated great hall was thronged with sumptuously attired French courtiers.  Surrounded by his entourage, the King of France strolled across to the massive, carved throne under a canopy of cloth of gold.  Although they all trailed behind him like a robe’s train, there was no noise, for each footfall was silenced by the vastness of the chamber’s space, which was why the room was called the hall of lost footsteps, or salle des pas perdus. 

Outside the chamber, the palace was alive with servants, who, even at such an early hour, were bustling about their duties.  Those who were not admitted to the great hall staggered through the corridors, bleary-eyed from their beds.  The thick walls of the castle could not ward off the winter cold, so in all the rooms and hallways fires danced merrily in the hearths.  

A week earlier, the Valois monarch had come to the city of Poitiers, which had been the seat of the Counts of Poitou and Dukes of Aquitaine centuries ago.  Together with his generals and his advisors, he had arrived in Poitiers from Toulouse to meet with Protestant envoys. 

 “We can start now,” François stated as he seated himself into the throne. 

A groom went to fulfill the order.  A cacophony of voices was bubbling from the nobles. 

“Today is a great day,” said the ruler to his three advisors.   

Anne de Montmorency admitted, “Your Majesty, at first, I did not like the idea of creating an alliance with Protestant nations.  Now I see that my assessment of the situation was incorrect.” 

“Of course, it was wrong,” barked Philippe de Chabot. 

Glowering between his two subjects, François admonished, “In youth, we were all close friends.  However, later you started competing for my affection and for power.”  He heaved a sigh.  “Rivalry between factions at court always plants the seeds of an inevitable conflict.” 

“I apologize,” began Montmorency, “if I displeased you, my liege.” 

“I’m sorry,” Chabot echoed. 

Cardinal de Tournon chimed in, “The rivalry should be not with others but with yourself. I always try to improve myself.  I fight against my own weaknesses, not against others.” 

The king tipped his head.  “The kinder and wiser you are, the better people, situations, and opportunities you will attract into your life.  Small and good things count.” 

Montmorency and Chabot nodded, but the king saw that they had dismissed his words. 

François reminisced, “I’ve always had an amicable relationship with each of you, Philippe and Monty.  Together we played games in the gardens at Amboise, where I grew up.  Together we learned to handle sword, rapier, and other weapons.  We have fought many battles together, and we have also suffered in captivity together.  I shall not allow you to destroy our friendship.”  

The two men had the decency to cast their eyes down, but said nothing. 

The herald announced the arrival of ambassadors.  A hush fell over the room. 

Several men entered and walked to the throne.  They were all dressed in unusual foreign fashions, austere and richly embroidered.  They swept bows to the ruler almost in unison.  

King François greeted, “Welcome to my war court.  It is an honor to see you here.” 

All the diplomats spoke the French language, so no translator was needed. 

The ambassadors examined the vast chamber, which had been created by the illustrious Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 11th century.  The lofty stone ceiling, with its innumerable ornaments and the painted Valois coats-of-arms, invoked admiration in them.  The walls were swathed with tapestries, depicting scenes of life from Eleanor’s merry and chivalrous court. 

Everyone’s eyes were glued to the King of France.  His expression like that of a Roman triumphator, his regality was emphasized by his doublet of purple brocade, embroidered with gold and diamonds.  Upon his head, there was a majestic crown, with a large diamond in the fleur-de-lis at the top of the arches, as well as hundreds of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. 

A Swedish ambassador spoke in a heavily accented French.  “My sovereign, King Gustav of Sweden, is most delighted to sign the treaty with France against the bellicose Habsburgs.  The emperor’s brutal attack on France, under the false pretense of seeking revenge for his sister’s death against Your Majesty, has showed that the Spanish are dangerous for every honest ruler.” 

The monarch displayed his knowledge of the Swedish affairs.  “I’m glad to be Sweden’s ally.  My fellow king, Gustav, liberated his country from the Danes.  Since then, he has worked hard to make the Crown more powerful.  I wish him to have a long and prosperous reign.” 

The man gushed, “King Gustav has the highest opinion of Your Majesty.  He has always been impressed by your country’s glorious culture.  Without a shadow of a doubt, the French court is the most enlightened one in the whole of Christendom.” 

Gesturing towards his courtiers, François boasted, “They all call me a French Zeus, who has brought the light of knowledge into the darkness that once filled medieval France.”   

A hubbub of joyful voices came from the assemblage; they adored their sovereign. 

The ruler moved his gaze to the ambassador who represented the Elector of Saxony.  “I’m most pleased to see the envoy from the leader of the Schmalkaldic League at my court.” 

The diplomat from Saxony affirmed, “Your Majesty, the pleasure is all ours.  My liege lord, His Highness Johann Frederick, has been horrified by the barbaric actions of the Imperial army in Arles and Tours.  Please, accept our sincere condolences on the deaths of so many brave Frenchmen, who served you well and were not spared by the bloodthirsty Habsburgs.” 

A stab of pain ripped through the ruler’s chest.  “Their courageous souls must have found peace in heaven.  I appreciate your master’s sympathy to my subjects.” 

“That damned Carlos von Habsburg is at fault!”  hissed the elector’s ambassador.  “My master is outraged that the emperor has invaded your kingdom.  We are aware that Queen Eleanor died of natural causes.  Her brother has committed a horrendous sin when he has accused Your Majesty of killing her so as to mask his real intension to overthrow you.” 

François tipped his head.  “Carlos and I have been mortal foes since Pavia.” 

Another diplomat asserted in a German-accented French, “I represent Duke Ulrich of Württemberg, who has long been worried by the rising power of Emperor Carlos.  The Spanish invasion of France and the emperor’s lies prove that Carlos is not a good Christian.” 

The ambassador from the Duchy of Cleves entered the conversation.  “His Highness, Duke John of Cleves and Count of Mark, sends his greetings to Your Majesty.  We must combine forces to deal with the emperor’s appetite for conquests.  We will punish him for the immoral lies which he has heaped upon you – the most Christian Catholic monarch, who has demonstrated your benevolence in the decision to follow the course of religious tolerance in France.” 

The Valois ruler was satisfied that his approach to the religious affairs in France allowed him to secure the partnership of the German Protestant States and other countries, which reformed their Church.  France’s tolerance was his strategic, long-term game against the House of Habsburg, which intensified the erosive process of religious nature within the Holy Roman Empire.  The king also understood that it was an effective way to keep his own countrymen in peace. 

Leaning back in his throne, François smiled affably.  “France is grateful for your master’s desire to assist us in punishing the worst pestilence the world has ever seen – the emperor.”  

Accoutered in a doublet and hose of black tylsent, Philip I, Landgrave of Hesse, left his courtiers and approached the throne; his army had participated in the recent battles against the Spaniards.  His presence added to the paramount importance of today’s event. 

Bowing deeply, Hesse addressed the diplomats in French.  “I’m honored to be among the defenders of France.  Years ago, I understood how sly and perilous Carlos von Habsburg is.  The Lutheran reform in my lands has disturbed the peace of the Holy Roman Empire, earning for me the emperor’s enmity; he would gladly charge me with heresy.” 

“But Carlos will not do that,” François asserted. 

Hesse predicted, “We will crush that thug with a protruding lip before he can cause more harm to those rulers who do not wish to depose other dynasties.” 

The French nobles bellowed, “We will destroy the emperor!”   

“Misery to the Habsburgs!”  roared the Protestant envoys.  

With an air of imperious dignity about him, François proclaimed, “Our alliance will create a military, financial, and governance framework that shall ensure our key objective – the defeat of that villainous invader.  Only together we are strong enough to counter a threat from him and the Habsburg family, and to safeguard the freedom and security of its member countries.  We will defend any nation should it be threatened or attacked by any aggressor.” 

The throng exploded with applause, cursing the Spaniards.   

“Let’s make our friendship as solid as stone.”  The king’s words closed the discourse. 

The Norwegian ambassador was fetched.  It had been pre-agreed before the audience that the Norwegian and Swedish diplomats would be together in the same room for as little time as possible.  The deposition of the Danish-Norwegian King Christian II as regent of the Kalmar Union in Sweden by Gustav Vasa, who currently ruled Sweden, was still too fresh in the minds of the two opposing parties, so any misunderstanding or argument could re-open old sores. 

Guillaume Poyet, the recently appointed Chancellor of France, brought a large parchment – the treaty for the Valois monarch and ambassadors to sign.  The concourse assembled near the throne, where King François signed the document and stamped it with the Valois seal. 

This was welcomed with acclamations and murmurings of joyful relief.  Jocund strains proceeded from sackbut and psaltery.   Caps and toques were flung into the air, for the French had just been reassured that they would be able to eject the Imperial forces from their country.  A new historical alliance, called the Grand Anti-Habsburg Coalition, was formed. 

The King of France promulgated, “We shall wage war together and together make peace in the greatest confidence that we act only in our mutual interests.”   

The envoy from Norway affirmed in his barely understandable French, “Nothing will tear the fabric of our great alliance to pieces, regardless of our religious beliefs.” 

Hesse opined, “This alliance makes any further attack on France unthinkable.”  

Sadness flickered in the king’s eyes.  “Our land has been battered enough by the Spanish.” 

The diplomat from Saxony touched upon the topic that was sensational in Europe.  “Your Majesty married Anne of England, who is a devout reformer.  Will you permit freedom of religion in France so that people can practice their faith without government intervention?”  

King François vocalized the only answer he could give.  “France has always been one of the principal Catholic countries in Christendom.  In spite of the interest of my enlightened subjects in new teachings, Catholicism has remained our predominant religion.”  He stilled for a moment to let it sink in.  “I’ve allowed my wife, Queen Anne of France, to worship her faith in private.  However, she must attend Masses and some other ecclesiastical rites as my queen.” 

The Saxonian man persevered, “Will you let Protestantism spread?” 

The ruler shook his head.  “I’ve made an exception only for my spouse.” 

Montmorency, Tournon, and other French advisors breathed a collective sigh of relief. 

Hesse quizzed, “Will there be harsh persecutions of non-Catholics in France?” 

“No,” the monarch answered.  “I punished the Protestants only once – after the Affair of the Placards.  I’ve no intention to inflict suffering on those who are interested in reform.”  

François recollected the Affair of the Placards.  In October 1534, anti-Catholic posters appeared in public places in Paris and several other cities.  The placards had been posted on the door of the ruler’s bedroom at Château d’Amboise, where François had resided at the time.  The king had ordered a search for culprits.  Antoine Marcourt, the author of the placards, had escaped to Switzerland, while many heretics had been either imprisoned or executed.  Afterwards, the monarch continued the policy of religious tolerance.   At present, there was no organized Protestant movement in France, and there were no signs that it would take shape in the near future. 

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Hesse muttered.  

It was the only answer they could get, and it was enough for now. 

“My friends!”  The ruler’s voice brought all conversations to a halt.  “We have received marvelous news: the Turks have attacked Spanish ports and the Republic of Genoa.  The Ottoman Empire has declared war upon the Holy Roman Empire.  This will lead us to our victory!” 

This elicited murmurings of delight and discontent from everyone.  The establishment of France’s diplomatic relations with the Ottoman Empire had caused quite a scandal in the Christian world.  Every Catholic and reformer considered this alliance controversial, to say the least. 

Stepping forward, the Norwegian man audaciously asked, “Will Your Majesty support the heathens if they attempt to conquer Vienna and the whole of Europe?” 

“Never,” ascertained the king.  “They will be stopped, but so far they are helping.” 

Satisfied, the envoys smiled at the monarch’s slyness.  With mannered slowness, François rose from his throne, and everyone dropped into bows.  The monarch strolled over to the exit.  

Before the king exited, the congregation chorused, “Long Live King François!”  

§§§

Mon amour,” the Duchess d’Étampes addressed her royal lover, stretching her body on the bed.  “I’ve been waiting for you so impatiently that I cannot describe it.”  

Frowning at her, François divested himself of his doublet.  A servant took it from him and was then dismissed, hurrying to leave his liege lord with the mistress.  

As he froze in the middle of his bedroom, the King of France eyed his paramour.  Clothed in a robe of golden taffeta lined with ermine, Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly rested on a wide, canopied bed, draped in the Oriental style with black and emerald brocade and topped with ostrich feathers.  She locked her salacious gaze with the monarch’s, beckoning him with a curl of her fingers. 

Her melodious voice ebbed and flowed, a pulsing mass of prurient energy.  “Come to me, my sovereign.  Start a fire, and I shall be your amorous light, burning bright and forever.”  

At first, the king didn’t move.  “Anne, why did you come to Poitiers today?”  

I do want Anne de Pisseleu, but she is only one of the many women whom I’ve bedded.  Such were the monarch’s thoughts as he beheld the temptress, who still made his blood boil with lust, but whose personality nevertheless no longer attracted him.  At times, the duchess’ annoyance and her demanding nature irritated him like a burr under the saddle of a cavalry horse. 

Confusion colored her countenance.  “François, are you not happy to see me?”  

He settled himself into a nearby armchair, decorated with leaves of acanthus.  “I do not have enough time to write even to my family.  My primary concern is the safety of my country.”  

Out of curiosity, she queried, “How is your wife faring?”  

The ruler measured her with a suspicious glance.  “Queen Anne is doing well.  I pray that she and our child will be fine.  Her health is being monitored by my best doctors.”  

“I heard that the queen had lost two babies.  With her sad history, she must be extremely careful.”  Although the royal paramour would never have done anything to trigger her namesake’s miscarriage, part of her hoped that her rival would suffer another similar setback.  

“I’m aware of what happened to my Anne during her… erm… life with Henry.  I consulted with my physician, who told me that miscarriages are common, and that they might occur early in pregnancy or a bit later.   My first wife, Claude, miscarried once, but she nonetheless birthed me many children.  With God’s blessing, Anne will carry our babe to term.”  

His response irked Madame de Pisseleu.  The king had not only mentioned his pregnant consort, but had also referred to her as ‘Queen Anne’ and ‘my Anne’.  It did not sit well with the mistress that he was so worried about his spouse and their unborn child.   Is François developing affection for that English slattern?  For many years, he was so smitten with me that he gladly made me his queen and wife in all but name, despite not being faithful to me.   Is my power over François waning?  The duchess gritted her teeth in an attempt to swallow her terror. 

Anne climbed out of bed and walked to the ruler, swaying her hips.  The carnal aura about her was like that about Messalina, the third wife of the Roman emperor Claudius, who had led such a lewd life that she had besmirched herself with the seed of her numberless lovers.  Anne de Pisseleu was a stunning seductress, whose one glance or smile made a man crave to pump himself into her with the desperation of a dying warrior yearning to have his last rites. 

“My most magnificent king,” his chief mistress called him with absolute adoration.  “The Almighty will bless your new marriage with many sons and daughters.” 

He sighed.  “If it is God’s will, then it will happen.” 

Anne tilted her head to one side.  “Mon amour, if a woman loves a man deeply, she is jealous of him.”  She smiled enticingly.  “And you are the sense of my whole life!” 

“Are you really so devoted to me?”  A flicker of guilt was prominent in his gaze. 

“Of course, I am, François.  How can you doubt that?” 

Now he was flirting with her.  “Do you worship me as much as Venus did her lovers?” 

“You are the only man in my life, mon amour!  You are my soulmate!  I’ve always been faithful to you since you made me yours!”  Lies slipped out of her mouth with ease.  

He believed her, but said as if warning her, “If I learned that you slept with someone else since I first bedded you all those years ago, you would have felt my wrath.” 

The ardent enthusiasm of Anne de Pisseleu’s confession went out of her features, blown by a sudden gust of fright.   No!  François cannot know anything about my affairs…  He does not suspect that one of his councilors is still my lover.  And he cannot know that his own relative knew me carnally.  Then the duchess stifled these fears, though with effort.  Her sister, Péronne, loved her dearly and promised to hide her indiscretions, so her secrets would not be unveiled.  

Adrenaline rushed through the Duchess d’Étampes, mingled with her determination to paint herself in the ruler’s eyes whiter than the color immaculate white.  Taking a step to him, she placed a hand over her heart.  “I do love you, François.  You can never marry me, but I am content to be your maîtresse-en-titre.  You are my God and my sovereign, and I would sacrifice my own life just to let you live and breathe for another moment so that you can kiss me again.” 

Desire inundated his loins, making the ruler pleasurably and painfully alert.  He grabbed his paramour and kissed her hard on the mouth.  His actions banished all of her previous fears, and Anne kissed him back with an insane eagerness that propelled her to tear the collar of her magenta rose gown, trimmed with multicolored lace.  She groaned like a petted cat as his lips moved to her neck and then down to her breast, which he liberated from her gown and then sucked at it. 

François did the same to the other breast.  “Anne… lovely Anne…”  

Cupping his face, the harlot provoked him with a frivolous talk.   “My king, claim me as yours until you are so tired that you cannot submerge yourself into my depths anymore.”  

“You are mine!”  The ruler pushed her towards the bed. 

His paramour clambered onto the mattress and stood on her fours, swaying her bottom.  Installing himself behind her, he lifted her robe.  She moaned and wriggled as his fingers caressed her opening and stroked her slim hips before drawing to the laces of his hose.   

“I like satisfying all your whims, François.”  

“Do it now, then,” the king muttered, letting his hose drop to the carpet.  

As he slid into her from the back, Anne arched herself to meet the invasion.  In the grip of his overpowering need for release, François could barely get close enough or deep enough as he pumped into his lover again and again, his every thrust harder than the one before.  

He fell next to her on the bed, interlinking his hand with hers.  Her own hips fell, spent, to the mattress, and she let out a long, heated breath, satisfied that he was so passionate with her tonight.  For a short time, the lovers rested in silence, until Anne jerked him to her, tore apart his shirt, and feasted kisses upon his bare chest.  Then their carnal dance started again, passion sparking and igniting like a raging inferno, then ebbing away until their senses recovered.  

François kissed her nose.  “You possess a talent in pleasing me, Anne.”  

His chief mistress licked his throat.  “My dearest Majesty!”  

The Duchess d’Étampes indulged his appetites for hours.  She was one of the few of his lovers with whom François acted as an absolute libertine in bed, and with whom he tried each and every caress, intimate pose, and way of lovemaking.  In his ardor, he had been somewhat restrained in bed with the gentle Queen Claude and most of his other paramours, and he would not have offered them to do some totally indecent things, which he frequently enjoyed with Madame de Pisseleu.  The duchess was the king’s Messalina who, François believed, belonged only to him.  

§§§

With first rays of light, the ruler left his mistress asleep.  He went to his private chambers, where he worked and received his councilors and diplomats for unofficial audiences.  Its walls swathed in silk-threaded tapestries depicting scenes from Eleanor of Aquitaine’s life, the room had a high, domed ceiling; a fire crackled in the hearth, banishing the December chill. 

As François observed sunrise above the ice-covered Clain River, the mental image of Queen Anne Boleyn resurfaced, and with it a recollection of their wedding night.  Anne was heart-stoppingly beautiful, as she lay naked on the bed, afraid of the consummation.  I would have given anything for a second in my wife’s arms, but not in my mistress’.  Words were of no use to explain his consort’s odd presence in his inner realm, for he was puzzled with his feelings.  

Since their parting, the monarch’s heart was shrouded in a melancholic light, as though he were living in gray twilight.  His adventures in bed with Anne de Pisseleu had not improved his mood.   Yet, every time he thought of his queen, the waters of his life’s river surged through his veins at a rapid pace, swelling and cresting into a vortex of inner tumult, which he masterfully concealed.  It was a storm driven by the winds of his fears – would his matrimony with Anne ever find a safe harbor in the calm waters of their camaraderie, if not affection?

At the knock on the door, François uttered his permission to enter.  Anne de Montmorency slipped inside, his expression sleepy; he was holding a candle in his hand. 

“What, Monty?”  enquired the king absently. 

Bowing, Montmorency saw that his sovereign still wore the nightclothes.  “Your Majesty, Madame Adrienne d’Estouteville, Countess de Saint-Pol and de Chaumont, is here.” 

The king gaped at him.  “What?  She must be in Normandy.” 

“She arrived an hour earlier; she has an urgent matter to discuss with you.” 

“Have my grooms bring my garments.  Then show her in.” 

In the next thirty minutes, the royal servants aided François to get dressed in an Italianate attire of blue velvet, richly laced with gold and trimmed with ermine.  After a morning washing and dressing routine, the monarch invited his unexpected guest to his private chambers. 

Adrienne d’Estouteville arrived shortly and curtsied.  “Good morning, Your Majesty.”

“You may leave,” the king dismissed Montmorency, who swept a bow and obeyed. 

As the door closed, François commenced, “Rise, Madame.  What did you leave your estates and risked your life traveling through France during the invasion?”    

Adrienne informed forthrightly, “Your child is in my womb.”  

His brow shot up.  “I beg your pardon?” 

Her visage whitened in either fear or indignation.  “Your Majesty voyaged through the French provinces, including Normandy, in order to recruit men into the royal army.   Do you not remember the five nights you spent with me two months earlier in my castle in Estouteville?  My husband was away, so we both did not object to succumb to our passions.”   

François perused the young lady, who froze in the center.  Her countenance shy, Adrienne was quite short in stature, with auburn hair, narrow forehead, and small, gray eyes.  Attired in a yellow riding habit trimmed with black lace on the sleeves, she was not a beauty, but she held herself with awesome dignity and grace.  In some aspects, Adrienne reminded him of the young Françoise de Foix, who nonetheless was far more beautiful.   Adrienne d’Estouteville has class!  My wife, Anne, possesses style and class as well, just as Françoise de Foix does.  This woman also has her own charm.  When I look at such women, I think that Anne de Pisseleu lacks class.  

“I remember our short, consensual liaison.  But I’m aware that your spouse returned home sometime after my departure, so I have to ask: are you certain that it is my child?”  

Tears filled her eyes, for he had hurt her by asking her about the paternity of their child.  “I swear by all I hold dear that it is your baby,” she panted every word out, her cheeks red with embarrassment.  “My husband did not touch me for more than six months.” 

“I believe you, and don’t be afraid.”  The king’s voice was silky. 

She blinked away the tears.  “Thank you.  You are very kind, my liege.” 

“Let me help you, Madame.”  He walked her to a coach draped in green satin. 

As he aided her to settle herself comfortably, Adrienne admired the monarch’s handsome features and his perfect attire.  “I’m sorry for disturbing Your Majesty.” 

I’ve missed even the sight of our king, Adrienne remarked to herself.   François de Valois is a magnificent man!  In 1534, she had entered into matrimony with François de Bourbon, Count de Saint-Pol and de Chaumont, but in a month or so, she had discovered that she could never love the count.  Adrienne tolerated him in bed only because it was her conjugal duty to be his in all senses.   She had agreed to become the monarch’s paramour because François was the first man whose sight caused her heart to leap with longing for a merry life.  Adrienne did not love the ruler, but she was attracted to his physical prowess and his chivalry, not to his kingly power.  

François kissed her hand.  “There is no reason for you to apologize.” 

She regretted that it was just a courteous kiss.  “I… I feel so… ashamed of myself.”  

A startling kindness was etched into his countenance.  “It is so rare that I see someone at my court or any of my subjects embarrassed with what they feel or do.”  He smiled at her in that charismatic and charming way that caused women to be besotted with him.  “You are carrying a little Valois, and there is no shame in this.  Any baby is God’s blessing.”  

She found herself smiling.  “I want this child.”  Her hand flew to her stomach. 

“Good,” the monarch said with evident relief.  “I can easily guess what is tormenting you, Madame.  Your husband, Monsieur de Saint-Pol, will accept the child as his – I shall make sure of that.  He will treat both you and the baby with respect, and he will take care of you both.” 

Adrienne assumed that the French sovereign could have many bastards, but he had never acknowledged any of them, and now she comprehend why it was so.  “As you command.”  

Later, King François accompanied Adrienne to Montmorency, who pledged to safely escort her back to Estouteville.  As the husband of his former paramour governed the province of Dauphiné since 1527, Saint-Pol rarely visited his wife in Normandy, and his union was not a happy one.  The monarch resolved to keep the man far from his spouse, but he would need to speak to his subject so as to issue all the necessary orders for him regarding Adrienne and the baby.  

The ruler’s mind drifted to his pregnant consort.  Like Anne, now another of the numerous women, with whom he had slept occasionally, was pregnant with his baby.  In the past, the king had two wives and many mistresses, having been unfaithful to all of them.  Yet, never before had François been stabbed with guilt as if by daggers at the thought of the result of his amours – his illegitimate issue.  The ruler hoped that his wife would never ask him about his bastards.  


 December 25, 1536, Château de Villers-Cotterêts, Villers-Cotterêts, Picardie, France

The black fingers of night were reaching out across the winter firmament, engulfing the last rays of sun and deepening the chill in the air.  Stars and a crescent moon illuminated the snow-blanketed gardens and town streets with pale light; the same stars which years earlier had shone above teenaged Anne Boleyn who had enjoyed the splendors of the French court. 

As the moon disappeared behind a bank of clouds, the sky’s darkness became akin to the one that reigned in Queen Anne’s universe.  Tonight, her soul wept like that of a bereaved person, and a sinking sensation of despair in the pit of her stomach was creeping over her. 

“Oh, God,” gasped Anne as she snuggled under the silk covers.  “This babe cannot die like its brothers…”  Her voice was thin, like a woodwind instrument with an old reed. 

Although it was Christmas, the Queen of France was bedridden, after the heavy bleeding she had sustained two hours earlier.  The festivities had been cancelled due to the frightening events with Anne.  The king’s children all waited outside in the antechamber.  In the meantime, many courtiers crowded in the hallway near the entrance to the royal apartments. 

Doctor Jean Fernel stood near the queen’s bed.  Anne was so pallid that her skin seemed nearly translucent, like milk that had been watered down.  Even her lips were as colorless as the carved alabaster chest pieces, which she often used while playing chess with her ladies.   

“The baby lives,” the physician declared.  “But there is still a possibility of miscarriage.” 

“Thanks be to the Almighty!”   Queen Marguerite of Navarre cried in heartfelt tones.

Standing next to the bed, the king’s sister beheld her sister-in-law, her heart palpitating with terror.  She had arrived at court yesterday to attend the Christmas banquet.  As her brother could not leave his army and, hence, remained in Poitiers, the task to deliver this news to his spouse had fallen to her.  However, Anne’s incident precluded everyone from celebrating. 

“Amen,” Françoise de Foix seconded the sentiment.  Reaching towards the bowl of warm water, which one of the ladies had brought, she dipped a cloth in it, dabbing at her mistress’ brow. 

“God save the queen and the baby,” others intoned, crossing themselves. 

Marguerite sent away the Countess de Châteaubriant and the others. 

Anne bemoaned, “The Lord cannot be so cruel…  He cannot take my child from me.” 

Her sister-in-law allayed, “Anne, your ordeal is over.” 

The physician pledged, “We will take the best care of Your Majesty.” 

§§§

Marguerite of Navarre and Doctor Fernel walked out of the bedroom to the antechamber, where the royal family and the queen’s ladies awaited news.  Marguerite wanted to talk to the medic in the presence of her brother’s children, who all rushed to their aunt. 

“Tell me the truth,” demanded the monarch’s sister.  “Only the truth!” 

Dauphin Henri looked as frigid as always.  Yet, his voice was laced with notes of worry as he asked, “What is your prognosis for Her Majesty and the child?” 

“Does the baby live?”  chorused Prince Charles and Princess Marguerite. 

Doctor Fernel dithered for a handful of moments before answering, “Her Majesty has almost suffered a miscarriage.   I would be guilty of a falsehood if I had assured you that she would carry a child to term.  Nevertheless, if we take necessary precautions and if she stays in bed until her labor, she will have a good chance to deliver a healthy child.”  

“Poor Queen Anne,” young Marguerite murmured. 

Charles promised, “I’ll pray for the queen and the baby every day.” 

A sigh wafted from Henri’s lips.  “I do not want my sibling dead.” 

As she regarded her brother’s offspring, the Navarrese queen smiled at them in turn.  She was especially pleased that the Dauphin of France, who had the most conflicted feelings over her brother’s matrimony with Anne, was so concerned about his stepmother’s condition. 

Marguerite nodded.  “No exertion, distress, and excitement for Anne.”  

The physician inclined his head.  “Exactly.  The queen needs a good diet and as much rest as possible.  Even if she is bored, she cannot leave the bed for her and the child’s safety.”  

Charles questioned, “Can the queen miscarry later?”    

“How do you assess this probability?”  inquired the dauphin. 

Fernel shrugged apologetically.  “I’m afraid I do not know.  It is in God’s hands.”  

Marguerite wondered, “Everything was fine yesterday and today in the morning.  Three hours earlier, Anne suddenly felt pains, and her skirts were stained with blood.”  

The medic speculated, “I’ve watched Her Majesty’s pregnancy for several months.  She did not have any complications until today, but stress could have caused them.”  

Something serious must have happened today, deduced Marguerite.  She had last seen her sister-in-law four hours earlier, when they had played cards and dice, and Anne had emptied Marguerite’s personal treasury after winning most of the games.  Anne had been in an elated frame of mind until she had been given her newly arrived correspondence.  Maybe some bad tidbits had caused her sister-in-law to experience the despair that had cleaved her chest in two.  

“I’d like to visit Her Majesty tomorrow,” Princess Marguerite verbalized her wish. 

“And so do I,” Charles joined. 

Henri proposed, “I can come to her, too, and we can play cards.” 

The medic nodded.  “Her Majesty will need someone to keep her company and her spirits up in months to come.  But I reiterate that she must be guarded from strong emotions.” 

“We will take care of her,” Marguerite vowed.  Everyone nodded their agreement. 

§§§

In the matter of minutes, the Queen of Navarre returned to the bedchamber.  She found her sister-in-law asleep, and tiptoed over to a rosewood chest of drawers in the corner.  She pulled out the upper drawer, where, she knew, Anne kept her letters.  After sifting through the documents, her attention was captured by the folded parchment stamped with the Tudor seal. 

Marguerite unrolled the paper and began reading.  As her eyes skimmed through the text, her features paled and then purpled, as a kernel of ire simmered in her breast.  

The Boleyn harlot,

I’ve long realized that you feigned your love for me and bewitched me.  Your marriage to that French bastard proved that you have never cared for me even in the slightest.    

I should not have spared your worthless life.  A whorish bitch such as yourself has merited the most gruesome end and eternal damnation in the afterlife. 

Elizabeth will curse you once she grows up and understands that her mother betrayed her father with numerous lovers.  I’ll ensure that she will know the truth about her mother’s past so that when she becomes queen of a foreign kingdom, she will not shame her husband.  Jane will be the role model of a dignified, pious, and noble-minded queen for Elizabeth. 

Henry Rex

An incensed Marguerite tore the parchment into ribbons and flung them up into the air.  As they landed onto the floor in a heap, she trampled them with her feet. 

The French ruler’s sister had never believed that Catherine of Aragon had consummated her first marriage to the long-departed Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales.  Thus, Marguerite had loathed Henry of England since the Great Matter.   Repudiations of queens and casual lovemakings with hundreds of women – these seemed to be Henry Tudor’s main activities.  After what the man had done to Anne, Marguerite’s contempt for Henry was as thick in her veins as her blood. 

Fury reared up within Marguerite.  “Damn that iron-hearted Tudor beast to hell!” 

“My baby…”  Anne’s voice was no more than a whisper, scarcely to be heard. 

The ruler’s sister flicked her gaze to the queen’s face tinged with all-absorbing terror. 

Marguerite’s vision went red around the edges at the thought that Henry was again the reason for her misery.  “You should be resting, my dear.  What keeps you awake into the night?”  

“I just cannot sleep…”  Anne swallowed a rising sob.  

The Queen of Navarre strode across, lit more candles, and set them over the fireplace.  Then she crossed the room and seated herself on the bed.  “I’ve learned what has happened, Anne.”   

Fat tears trickled down Anne’s face, like drops of water from the petals of a lotus.  “He hates me so much that he will poison Elizabeth against me.”  

Soon after Anne’s arrival in France, Marguerite had suggested that they drop formalities, and Anne had supported her initiative.  They had known each other for years, and the young Anne had once been Marguerite’s favorite in the Queen of Navarre’s literary circle.  

Marguerite emanated black anger.  “That accursed man contacted you to hurt you.  He is raving with rage because you married his archrival.  The fact that you are carrying another king’s child drives him to the point where he would gladly kill both François and you.”  

Anne’s heart swooped like a sparrow winging from a branch.  “That does not make it easier for me.  I cannot bear a thought that Elizabeth will abhor me in the future.” 

Her sister-in-law squeezed her hand that felt clammy to her touch.  “That mongrel’s letter is the bravado of a jealous man.  Your wedding drove him to the brink of insanity, because he lost the very woman with whom he has been obsessed for years to his bitter rival.” 

The Queen of France didn’t share her opinion.  “That obsession faded a while ago, and now he loathes me.  In his eyes, I must be held accountable for all his misfortunes.” 

Marguerite snarled, “Henry is the worst bastard who has ever stepped upon the earth.”  

A shower of tears deluged Anne’s cheeks.  “He will teach my daughter to despise me.” 

The monarch’s sister shifted on the bed and embraced a distraught Anne. 

Anne buried her face into her sister-in-law’s shoulder.  “I did love Henry more than life itself, but he betrayed me in the worst possible way and deprived me of my George.  He separated me from my Elizabeth.  Now he strives to break my spirit, for I’m untouchable in all other ways.” 

The lamentations bubbled out of the French queen in a rush, for there was too much grief in her.  I loved Henry more than life itself, but he betrayed me in the worst possible way…  Usually, she was reserved, but now, nothing could stop her confessions.  She had lost her footing in the world and could not regain it, for everything appeared dreadful, while faith had deserted her. 

Stroking her hair, Marguerite murmured, “It is a mystery to me why some women are so eager to be with intemperate and fickle men.  They know that such men might be terrible for them.  Yet, they do it anyway, because they are thrilled at the thought that they may be the one to tame such a man and become his greatest love.  But even if he treats you like gold at first, his true colors will eventually show, and your heart will be broken into countless pieces.” 

“Yes.”  A choking sob erupted from François’ spouse.   

“Marriage to a tyrant such as Henry Tudor is a barely unendurable existence.” 

Anne’s sobs were gradually subsiding.  “After our wedding, I was certain that I was the queen of Henry’s heart.  I intruded where the average woman would not have ventured.  I thought that he appreciated my character and valued my intelligence, but I was mistaken.  Nonetheless, I stood my ground courageously, intent upon having the way of what I felt was right and just.” 

“That was one of the reasons why Henry got rid of you.” 

More tears spilled down the Queen of France’s cheeks.  “Precisely.  That is why he was attracted to that Seymour strumpet, who is nothing compared to Catherine and me.” 

Marguerite was startled that Anne fairly assessed the strengths of her dead Spanish rival.  “Set your mind at rest.  Think of the child and the harm you might cause it.”   

Anne pulled herself together.  “Thank you for talking sense into me.  I must give a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord for preserving my baby’s life.” 

Marguerite was awash with relief that she had calmed down.  “Henry’s inability to treat women well is explained by his lack of chivalry.  My brother is Henry’s opposite.  A rich intellect and a fine soul are necessary attributes of a beautiful personality, like François’ and yours.” 

“I do not know.”  Caught in a whirl of memories, Anne lapsed into silence.     

Neither François de Valois nor Henry Tudor was the epitome of Anne Boleyn’s maidenly reveries, which had long evaporated in the haze of Lethe.  Years ago, Henry Percy had caused her youthful heart to flutter with amatory dreams like a garden of butterflies.  Much to her chagrin, both men whom she had once loved had betrayed her: Percy had voted her guilty at her trial, while her former husband had nearly destroyed her and killed her brother.  At present, no man had power over Anne, and there was no room for love in her life – only for ambition and vengeance. 

Yet, to her surprise, Anne had a feeling of longing to meet a congenial male companion, who would see in her not only a trophy with attractive appearance, like she had once been for Henry, but also the human being, the friend, the comrade, and the strong personality.  Against her will, her mind floated to François, and no talk, tune, or poem could convey her tangled emotions.  Words are useless when it comes to my second marriage.  Even worse – they are misleading. 

Even though she attempted to block it out, Marguerite sensed her anguish.  “You and your child will be fine.  Our benevolent Holy Father will protect you both.” 

“It is all my fault.  I should not have been so nervous.” 

“Shhh,” Marguerite hushed her.  “I’ll ask François to come as soon as possible.  Maybe he can leave the French troops under Montmorency’s command for some time.”   

In a few minutes, the Queen of Navarre invited Doctor Fernel, who concocted a drink of calming herbs for the French queen to reduce her deep-seated anxiety.  

I loved Henry more than life itself, but he betrayed me in the worst possible way. 

Those words seeped into the lonely chambers of Anne’s soul, filling them with arctic chill and a heartache beyond bearing.  But as Marguerite’s fingers soothingly danced through her mane, vision of François blazed through Anne’s consciousness, bringing with it serenity.   

After falling asleep, Anne alternated between dreams of meeting her beloved Elizabeth again and those of her future baby.  She saw herself pass an affectionate thumb over her future baby’s cheek, and in such moments, the world seemed right and just.  Yet, as a nightmare gripped her, and the all-too-familiar darkness and despondency returned to her universe.  An unsatisfied craving for a full life intensified in Anne’s entire being, her inner unrest resulting from the lack of it.  Perhaps her soul was too complex to adjust itself to the slimy woof of harsh reality. 

§§§

On the same night, torrents of rain with hail began to pelt the palace.  In a small room on the ground floor, a young woman stood close to a man, their complexion swarthy, their hair dark brown, their skin light olive, and their hazel eyes brisk; they looked like Italians. 

“Sebastiano, you are so stupid,” the lady started in a voice tinctured with scorn. 

Her companion was Sebastiano, Count de Montecuccoli.  In his maroon satin doublet, garnished with gold to an excessive degree, he resembled an upstart who had made a fortune and was now showing off his riches.  His unattractive countenance, with wide-set eyes and pudgy nose, bespoke his guilt at his failure.  Montecuccoli had come to France together with Catherine de’ Medici, and then he had been appointed secretary to the late Dauphin François. 

She hissed, “That slut has not lost her child.  You must have used too little poison.”  

“I…  I can try… again,” he stammered. 

Condemnation flickered across her face.  “You are a damned idiot!  In the previous case, you used a sufficient dose to kill our dear prince, but today you failed.  We need her baby dead because if it is a boy, our position will weaken.  Now we cannot make a new attempt.” 

Another woman walked inside.  Arrogance, boredom, and superiority seemed to have carved themselves into her perfect features, making her stunning beauty cold and distant – the beauty of a star.  Her blonde tresses were smoothly coiled to form an elegant chignon that was secured with sapphire hairpins.  In contrast to her, the first lady with bulging eyes did not possess eye-catching prettiness.         

“Now we can only pray that the child will be a girl,” the blonde woman interjected after shutting the door.  “Whether we succeed or not, I cannot imagine a good outcome for us.  If we are caught or someone starts to suspect us, they might also uncover our other conspiracy.”  

“Forgive me,” implored the Count de Montecuccoli.

“Pleading does not suit you,” the newly arrived lady uttered acridly. 

The second lady gushed, “Our previous success proves our mission’s power in the face of hardship which France experiences now due to the king’s unholy religious tolerance.” 

A hot wave of color burned in his cheeks.  “I shall act in accordance with your will.” 

The two women stormed out.  Night had long befallen, wrapping the town in its opaque blanket, so the corridors were lit by both pendant oil lamps and torches.  Outside, lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, and the snow was falling from the heavens like silvery tears.  There were no people in the hallways, but they were so cautious that in silence, they tiptoed towards a long, wide corridor connected with the great hall, and before reaching it, they parted their ways.  

Chapter Text

Chapter 13: A Show of Affection

January 16, 1537, Greenwich Palace, London, England

“A messenger has arrived from York,” apprised Thomas Cromwell tonelessly. 

The royal chief minister shuffled his feet in discomfort.  At first, his sovereign did not pay any heed to him, as if he were not in the king’s private chamber.  Instead, Henry sat at his desk, laden with books and parchments, holding a quill and a sheet of paper in his hand. 

As his liege lord flicked his gaze to him, Cromwell shivered in mortal dread.  Vehement fury flashed across the royal aquamarine glare that was now nearly opaque, like the minister’s black robes.  Cromwell felt as if he were looking death in the eye, wondering whether the king had exuded such indescribable enmity when he had last met with Anne Boleyn in the Tower. 

Henry inquired, “What do you know about the uprising?” 

Cromwell emitted a sigh before voicing the tidbits about the unfortunate turn of events.  “The discontent of the Catholics with our religious and fiscal policies has spread throughout the north of the country like wildfire.  Thousands of people in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire are involved in the rebellion.  The royal forces under the Dukes of Norfolk’s command were defeated a week earlier.  Our soldiers lack weapons and the desire to fight against their countrymen.  Moreover, many insurgents are experienced in battle, having fought the Scots in the past.”  

“What do they want in order to disperse?”  Henry bounced to his feet so swiftly that his stool and cushion both overturned.  He commenced pacing and hand wringing. 

“Their temerity is absolutely shameless.”  Gathering his courage, Cromwell listed their demands.  “The cancellation of the Ten Articles.  The end to the Dissolution of the monastic houses.  The change of the taxation policy.  The repeal of the Statute of Uses.” 

Ceasing to move in the middle of the room, the ruler was holding onto his temper by a tiny thread.  “Cromwell, you assured me that most of my subjects are delighted to have escaped the Pope’s clutches.  You convinced me that they would be receptive to our novelties.” 

His inner realm tinged with consternation, Cromwell defended himself to the best of his ability.  “They all signed the Oath of Supremacy, and by doing so, acknowledged Your Majesty as Supreme Head of the Church and Clergy of England.  Even if some do not support our policies, they must comply with their king’s decisions, just as most of the nobles have done.” 

“Thousands have risen against me!  Only craft can put an end to their treasonous actions!” 

Grasping the lifeline his sovereign had tossed him, the other man offered, “Robert Aske’s call to arms is not as perilous as it might seem at first glance.  Let’s pretend that we have accepted their terms, and later, we will crush all of them like bugs underfoot.” 

In a heartbeat, the monarch grabbed Cromwell’s collar and shook him violently.  “See to it that it is done.  If we do not quash the riot, I’ll have your head.”  He then stormed out. 

With hindsight, Cromwell thought that he had gone too far in his religious zeal and rushed the dissolution of the religious houses.  As a result, at present, he needed to stave off the threat of his execution, looming over him like an axe.  He must circumvent the rebels, and an evil plan had formed in his head.  It was vital for him to remain composed, for panicking would be compounding the already great folly he had committed by acting too ruthlessly and precipitately when he had sent his loyal commissioners to shut down nearly all of the abbeys and convents. 

His mind drifted to his last confrontation with the Lady Anne.  She had spluttered outrage when she had castigated him for giving his luxurious rooms to the Seymours.  She had said: “You have placed yourself in very great danger.  I still possess the power to crush you.  Although she was no longer the Queen of England, her words echoed through the minister’s head like a prophecy of his demise.  After all, during one of their arguments over the disbandment of the monasteries, Anne had predicted that one day, Cromwell would have an ignominious end on the block. 

Cromwell crossed himself.  “God help me deal with this nightmare.”

§§§

“No!”  cried the Princess Elizabeth.  Her mood was foul from the moment she had opened her eyes half an hour earlier.  “I’ll not wear this dress!  You cannot make me!” 

Lady Margaret Bryan, the girl’s governess, heaved a sigh.  This reminded her of the scene that had taken place months ago.  At the time of Queen Anne’s arrest, Elizabeth had been at court, but the Tudor monarch had enjoined to keep the child away from him and the public eye.  The girl had struggled as her attendant had attempted to dress her in a cloak and hat.  They had all thought that Elizabeth would be declared a bastard, so they had been too strict with her at the time. 

Much to everyone’s astonishment, Elizabeth had remained legitimate under English law.  Personally, Lady Bryan was overjoyed that the girl had not lost her royal status.  Yet, this also meant that her charge must be treated with the utmost respect, while at the same time ensuring that she was taught to behave like a princess.  However, since her mother’s exile, Elizabeth had become so intemperate and so irritable that her ladies did not know how to handle her. 

Margaret coaxed, “Her Majesty Queen Jane gave you this lovely gown as a sign of her benevolent intentions.  It will be awfully disrespectful to her if you do not wear it today.” 

Elizabeth shook her head vigorously.  “I hate the queen and her gifts!” 

Terrified, her governess veered her gaze to the door that, to their luck, was closed.  “Your Highness, please do not say that!  Her Majesty is a good woman!  She is your queen!” 

The girl persevered, “Lady Jane made my mama go away.” 

“She is your father’s wife!”  stressed Margaret.  “You have to address her properly.” 

“I will not!”  Elizabeth threw the gown to the floor.    

Now they were in the antechamber to the princess’ bedroom.  After Elizabeth’s arrival at court yesterday, they had been lodged at the apartments close to the monarch’s. 

A bewildered Elizabeth looked past the heavy mahogany furniture, which had replaced the gilded items she remembered from the time when her beloved mother had been the Queen of England.  The walls were swathed with tapestries depicting the history of the Tudor court, and the girl could recognize her own father on some of them.  Yet, the whole room seemed unfamiliar to her, because the palace had been renovated and refurbished after Anne’s arrest. 

Elizabeth approached a window, climbed a chair, and stared out.  Snowfall was increasing every moment, so the ground and the gardens were all white.  She liked the color white, but these days, her black mood contrasted too sharply with it.  Her gaze dashed to the firmament that was a leaden gray, and she begged the Lord to let her feel her mother’s arms around her once more. 

Usually, her visits to court had meant feeling happy and loved, for she was always agog to be reunited with her parents.  The king – her papa, as she had referred to him in the past – would lift Elizabeth in his arms and twirl her around, until squeals of laughter rolled out of her and she was dizzy with joy.  This time, everything was different: Elizabeth did not want to see her father, who had taken her mother away from her.  All I wish is to be with my mama, the girl mused. 

The old woman went to the girl and stopped behind her.  “I beseech you to listen to me.  Your mother had to leave England, but it is not Queen Jane’s fault.  You must accept that Her Majesty is your stepmother, and you should befriend her.” 

Elizabeth jumped down from the chair.  “I cannot.” 

Margaret insisted, “You must!  You are so fortunate to still be a princess.” 

Elizabeth’s control slithered.  “I want my mama!  The king has separated us!” 

Her heart breaking for her distraught charge, Lady Bryan stepped forward and pulled her into a comforting hug.  Elizabeth dissolved into sobs and struggled against her, for she did not wish anyone to touch her, unless the person was Anne.  Yet, her governess held her tight, pressing her to the chest, as if this embrace could protect Elizabeth from the savageries of the world. 

“I need my mama!”  wailed the princess as she buried her face into Margaret’s chest.  

A sense of helplessness enveloped the old woman.  “My poor girl…” 

Elizabeth wept in Margaret’s embrace until there were no tears left, until her nose stuffed up and her eyelids swelled, until her breath came in short, staccato hiccups.  Her small heart was broken into countless fragments, which only Anne could put back together.  

Her sobs subsiding, the princess muttered, “Why is the king so cruel to me and mama?” 

As Lady Bryan released her, Princess Elizabeth stepped back and surveyed her governess.  The girl was surprised that the woman looked as though she was on the verge of a breakdown.  Her governess always told her that a highborn lady, all the more a princess of the blood, must always be in control of her emotions, especially at court and in the presence of others.  

Lady Bryan dabbed at her eyes with her sleeve.  “I’m sorry, but you cannot meet with the Lady Anne.  Life is not fair to women who are powerless to change their fates.”  Her expression turned apologetic.  “Your mother is gone from England for the rest of her life.  No amount of crying, throwing tantrums, or begging the king to permit you to see her will bring her back.” 

Seeing fresh tears spill from Elizabeth’s dark eyes, Margaret Bryan was contrite that she had explained the whole matter to the girl with a bluntness that was bordering on brusqueness.  At the same time, she believed that being as straightforward as she could afford to be was the best approach in this case.  The woman thought that Anne was innocent of all the allegations Cromwell had leveled against her, but the Tudor ruler was unlikely to ever change his mind.  

Making her voice as gentle as she could, the governess continued, “You must comprehend that you must never speak of your mama again, especially in front of your father.  Stop rejecting his love and saying something that might displease him.  You must also respect your stepmother.”  A sigh fled from her.  “Do this for your own good, Your Highness.” 

King Henry had already visited his youngest daughter at Hatfield several times since the girl’s birthday in September.  Every time Princess Elizabeth had refused to see him, and Margaret Bryan, together with the girl’s ladies, had failed to convince her to be polite towards the monarch.  The child had never been afraid to blame the ruler for her separation from Anne, and once her defiance had irked Henry to the point where he had been inclined to strike his daughter. 

Elizabeth scrubbed the tears away from her cheeks.  “I heard that His Majesty wanted to behead my mother.  Will he want to cut off my head, too?” 

Staring into the girl’s clever eyes, Margaret found herself terrified.  Elizabeth was still such a young child, not yet three, but she was old enough to know what being beheaded or executed meant.  Normally, her phenomenal precociousness was a wonder in itself, but today it was not amusing: if she had ever said to the king something like that, he would be furious beyond measure.   

“Your Highness!”  Lady Bryan labored to hush her.  “His Majesty would never do such a terrible thing to you, regardless of what your mother has or has not done.  You are his flesh and blood, and he loves you so dearly that he would punish anyone who might harm you.” 

Having collected herself, Princess Elizabeth however assumed her bellicose demeanor towards her parent.  “The king hurt me when he sent my mother away!” 

Her governess attempted to talk sense into her again.  “You might land in trouble if you continue defying His Majesty.  Queen Anne does not wish you to suffer.”  She lowered her voice.  “She wants you to be in your father’s good graces so that you remain his heir.” 

This sobered the girl.  “I’ll do anything to please my mama.” 

Margaret let out a smile of relief.  “Then you must do as I said.” 

“I shall.”  Elizabeth’s firm voice was laced with resilience and strength, which were both atypical for a toddler.  “I’ll pretend that I love my father and his new… wife.” 

“You must do this, or the consequences will be severe for you and perhaps your mother.  Promise me that you will behave well while meeting with Queen Jane and King Henry.” 

The girl muttered, “It is difficult.” 

Her governess stroke her red-gold hair.  “I know, Your Highness.”  A sigh tumbled from her lips.  “It would have been better if your mother had not been a queen and had not interfered with the course of history.  She could have married some rich nobleman, one who would have worshiped the ground she walked upon and appreciated her intelligence.” 

A female voice interrupted their conversation.  “Your Highness!” 

They swiveled in unison to face Lady Margery Horseman, who walked in.  

With a regal air about her, Princess Elizabeth slowly walked over to the visitor.  As the woman stopped beside her, she sank into a deep curtsey before her beloved mistress’ daughter. 

“Rise,” permitted Elizabeth.  “Is it time to meet with Their Majesties?” 

Lady Margaret Bryan, who stood behind the girl, was relieved.  For the first time since the ruler’s wedding to Jane Seymour, Elizabeth referred to the woman by her title.  She prayed that the audience with the girl’s mercurial father and her stepmother would go smoothly. 

Straightening, Margery nodded.  “Yes.”  In her hand, she had something wrapped in cloth of silver.  “At first, I’ll give you your mother’s gift, which she sent you from France.” 

Elizabeth jumped in unalloyed exaltation.  “My mama has been thinking of me!” 

The women were both glad to see the child’s mood brighten, like the sun escaping a cloud. 

I’ll keep my word I gave to Anne, thought Margery Horseman.  I’ll take excellent care of Elizabeth.  She treasured her friendship with Anne, her loyalty to the current Queen of France being as fierce and unwavering as that of the most chivalrous knight in the entirety of Christendom.  Although many of Anne’s former ladies-in-waiting had given false testimonies against the former English queen, Margery had not betrayed her mistress.  Soon after Anne’s release from the Tower, Margery had managed to become Elizabeth’s lady, just as she had promised to Anne. 

Margery handed the gift to the toddler.  “Take it, Your Highness.”      

Elizabeth unwrapped the object.  A scintillating smile lit up her visage as a stunning, small sapphire necklace with a gold “ET” pendant, hanging from the center, came into view. 

Smiling, Lady Bryan watched Margery fasten the necklace on her charge’s neck.  As soon as Lady Horseman had appeared in the princess’ household, she had implored Margaret to allow her to take care of the girl.  Being one of Anne’s aunts, Margaret had eagerly agreed, and she had also supported Margery’s initiative to let Anne keep in touch with her daughter. 

Margery enlightened, “I’ve received a letter from your mother today.  She asked me to give you this necklace and all the love she feels for you.  She misses you wholeheartedly!” 

Elizabeth’s fingers caressed the sapphires.  “I’ll treasure it!” 

Margaret Bryan volunteered, “We will tell the king that it is my gift.” 

“That is a good decision,” Margery Horsman concurred.  “His Majesty would not suspect anything, then.  His Highness will be able to wear it without any trouble.” 

Tears of gratitude brimmed in the girl’s eyes.  “Thank you!” 

Margery added, “Your mother wants you to be a good daughter to the king.” 

Elizabeth could not tear her gaze from the necklace.  “I’ll do whatever she wants.” 

Margery and Margaret traded hopeful glances that the girl would not rescind on her word.     

Margaret affirmed, “Your Highness, we must dress you.” 

Elizabeth flicked her eyes to the gown on the floor.  “It is ugly, but I’ll wear it.”    

During the next hour, Elizabeth Tudor completed her ablutions with the assistance of her governess and several maids.  Soon the princess was clad in a gown of beige brocade ornamented with Jane Seymour’s favorite pearls, Anne’s new gift glittering on her breast. 

§§§

“Your Majesty!” Queen Jane cried as her husband entered her quarters. 

King Henry strode past his wife without looking at her.  He did not want to see the woman whom he had adored less than a year earlier.  She was a failure as a wife because she had not conceived in the months which had followed their wedding.  On top of that, now Henry thought that Jane was not pretty enough, or clever enough to hold the attention of a passionate, intelligent man such as himself.  He wondered, how could I marry such a plain and boring woman? 

“Rise, Jane,” permitted the monarch as he stopped next to her. 

His aloof voice stung her in the heart.  “Thank you for your kindness, sire.” 

As the queen straightened, Henry stepped to her.  Lifting her chin, he mock-chided, “You are strained in your spouse’s presence.  Has my presence filled you with trepidation?” 

Uncertainty seized the queen, who had no clue as to why he had told her that.  Had Henry insulted Jane for her lack of pregnancy?  Had he attempted to intimidate her in order to keep her in her place?  Had he taunted her, entertaining himself at her expense?  She had an unsophisticated and ductile mind, so she could be easily influenced, which was why she was frequently browbeaten by the king and her brothers into doing things which she did not like and even hated. 

The ruler’s smile was ambiguous, but it still made a bouquet of hope blossom in her breast.  Pushing her dark thoughts aside, Jane took a tentative step to him.  I should not have such unchaste thoughts of my beloved husband.  Henry is an equitable, benevolent king, and he honored me by marrying me, a country girl of humble origins, she labored to convince herself.  

“Your Majesty!”  she exclaimed in blithesome accents.  “You have come to me!  Thank heavens!  I was beside myself with anxiety!  You were absent since the Christmas banquet.” 

Henry didn’t reply straight away.  His wife hoped that he would patch up their relationship after his return to court, even though she had given him no reason to be content in their matrimony.  Her happiness at seeing him exasperated him like some intentional spitefulness of destiny.  He stomped over to an ornately carved chair near the fireplace and seated himself there. 

Blinking hard, Jane remained standing in the center of the room.  Her heart gave a painful thump at the thought that the monarch had put a distance between them to be as far from her as possible.  The realization struck her that she would not regain his affection until she birthed his long-awaited Prince of Wales, and if something had happened to her before she conceived, the monarch would remarry, quickly and gladly.  Her stomach felt hollow, and she was cognizant of a feeling of lightheadedness.  No, Henry does care for me enough to keep me as his queen. 

At last, the king informed, “I was in the manor of Iron Acton in Gloucestershire.” 

“Alone?”  Her throat constricted in grief. 

In tense silence, Henry discerned the knowing light in his spouse’s eyes.    

The ruler blew out a breath, as a series of remembrances flashed through him, playing carnal havoc in his groin.  After the Christmas festivities which had been everything but merry, Henry had enjoined Lady Anne Bassett to accompany him on the trip away from Greenwich, for he had needed the solitude and the silence of some village to clear his head. 

The monarch and his lover had spent three weeks in the moated manor house, which was owned by the Poyntz family in Iron Acton, South Gloucestershire.  The castle was not grand, but it was welcoming, with its luxuriously furnished chambers and gracefully arched windows.  In winter, an extensive stretch of park was covered with a thick mantle of snow, and from the front veranda, there was an excellent view of the snow-capped forest and fields. 

Every night, Henry had plundered his paramour’s body in the apartments where he had stayed together with Anne over a year ago during the court’s progress.  Against his will, he had imagined that he had slept not with Anne Bassett, but with his former wife.  As he had kissed his mistress hungrily, his hands caressing her, the name ‘Anne’ had been on his lips, husky and low, although she had not known that her lover had dreamed of the exiled woman.  His paramour had felt and tasted far better than warm wine on a winter’s eve, but she was not Anne Boleyn.  

The monarch glowered at his consort.  “Do not follow in the Boleyn whore’s footsteps: do not meddle in my affairs.  I might eject you and your ambitious relatives from court.” 

A shaken Jane gasped.  “Do you want to repudiate me?  But we are husband and wife!”  Her unexpected boldness came out of her deep-seated fear to be cast aside. 

Angered by her audacity, Henry glared at her, as if she had launched a full-scale war to bend him to her will.  “I do as I please because I am the King of England.  And if I do something, I enjoy every bit of it.”  Narrowing his eyes at her, he hissed, “Be careful, sweetheart.  You know what happened to my two previous queens.  We do not want you to fall more swiftly than Anne.” 

A frightened Jane shuddered at the king’s reference to the fates of her two predecessors.  At this moment, her husband seemed to have transformed into an omnipotent monster, who was capable of killing many innocents and enslaving thousands more. 

She staggered to a nearby chair.  “I’ve always been your most humble spouse.” 

“Excellent, Jane.  Do not ever cross a line and remember your place.” 

“I shall.”  She nervously fidgeted with a topaz collar that shimmered on her bosom. 

Henry’s expression softened.  “As you have realized the error of your ways, I’m no longer inclined to castigate you, although that was my initial intention.” 

At this, her usually quiet tempter spiked a notch.  “I know why Your Majesty is angry with me.  I’m not pregnant yet, but it is not my fault.  Every day I pray for a son, and if God has not blessed us with a child, it does not mean that the blame lies only with me.” 

“What are you implying?”  Barely contained rage colored his words. 

“If only my husband had not disappeared with his mistresses for days…  If only he had visited his wife’s bed more often…  Perhaps I would have been pregnant now.” 

His nostrils flared, and his reddish brows lowered forbiddingly.  “You have no right to talk to me in such a disrespectful way.  I am not some worthless peasant.” 

Jane’s breath caught sharply.  “I beg Your Majesty’s pardon.”  

His countenance twisted in abhorrence.  “That was a big mistake of yours, Jane.  Our argument reminds me of that harlot.  To challenge me gave her great pleasure.” 

“I’m sorry,” muttered Jane, her features paler. 

Henry jumped to his feet and stomped over to her.  Stopping beside her chair, he glanced at her with dislike.  “In spite of Catherine’s and Anne’s sins, I’ve never laid hands on a woman in my entire life, save the only time when I met the harlot in the Tower before her release.”  He stilled to observe his wife’s reaction to his confession, as if savoring her obvious fear.  “Considering the provocation, you are damned lucky I’m not going to beat you, although you have merited it.” 

“Henry, do not…  Do not hurt me, I beseech you!” 

The king grabbed Jane by the upper arm and roughly hoisted her to her feet.  “I promised that I would not beat you!  Do not make me repeat myself!  Do not rebel against me!”  

“Forgive me, sire,” Jane implored.  “For the love of heaven!” 

This particularly lovely January morning, the queen had prepared for the meeting with the king, who had returned to the palace yesterday.  Her ladies had aided Jane to dress in a modest gown of azure silk, lavishly ornamented with pearls and sapphires.  Then she had awaited her spouse, humming joyfully to herself.  However, their quarrel had shattered her tranquility. 

His hands tightened painfully on her arms.  “Do you understand me?”  

With a titanic effort, Jane bit back the furious recriminations which sprang to her tongue.  I cannot antagonize the king more than I’ve already done today, she speculated grimly.   It is not the time to take him to task for his affairs.  Once the current crisis was past, she would have to try and find a way back into the monarch’s good graces.  God, how much Jane longed for her mother’s guidance and affection, for she did not know how to salvage her seemingly dying marriage. 

Henry uttered through slitted eyes, “Now I’ll endeavor to put a child in your belly.” 

As he unlaced his hose, Jane entreated, “No, please!  Not like this, Your Majesty!” 

Her protestations fell on deaf ears.  “You owe me a son.” 

Everything happened in a blur.  There was a moment of “Please, no!” as the queen cried once more, and then a falling sensation as the ruler shoved her to the floor.  He pulled up her skirts, parted her legs, and pushed himself inside of her, hard and without hesitation. She yelled at the urgency of his entry as he compelled her reluctant body to allow him admission.  As he pounded into her like a man possessed, she was biting her bottom lip to stifle the groans of discomfort. 

As his punishing exercise in her flesh was over, Henry climbed to his feet and laced his hose.  “If your womb is not barren, you may bear a fruit before the year is out.” 

Not sparing her any glance of sympathy, the English ruler left his consort weeping on the floor.  Her universe was splintered and fragmented between the lingering effects of the forceful intimacy she had just endured and the continuing tributes to the affection she thought she still had for the king.  Her sister, Dorothy, found Jane curled up on the floor in a miserable heap. 

“Do you still love our liege lord, Jane?”  Dorothy assisted Jane to get to her feet. 

The queen rearranged her skirts.  “One day, he will see the error of his ways.” 

“Why are you really so naïve, Janey?  Your husband regularly betrays you not only with that Bassett prostitute, but also with many others.  He does not respect you, and I doubt he loved Catherine of Aragon or Anne Boleyn more than himself.  He is a ruthless and selfish man, one who thinks that he can do whatever he wants because he is God’s representative on earth.”  Hurting her sister was the last thing Dorothy wished to do, but she strove to break her sister’s illusion.   

“It is not your place to criticize His Majesty,” chastised Jane. 

Her sister gave a bitter laugh.  “Well, thank you for the reminder.” 

The queen murmured achingly, “Dorothy, please do not make my life more complicated than it already is.  I cannot discuss Henry and what he has done to me.  I just cannot…” 

Dorothy put out a long finger and brushed away Jane’s tears, gently erasing each one as they slid out from the queen’s eyes.  “Do not torture yourself, Janey.” 

The king’s wife requested, “Help me prepare for the meeting with Elizabeth.” 

§§§

Queen Jane Seymour made her way to the monarch’s private chambers.  Like the queen, Dorothy pretended that everything was all right, although her heart ached at Jane’s tense features, which were pallid from the shock she had recently experienced.  Their other sister, Elizabeth, sensed that something was wrong with the queen, but her questions had been dodged. 

Her expression bland, Jane sat in a throne-like chair at the far end of the room hung with multicolored silks.  While observing King Henry greet Princess Elizabeth, she was fighting against the headache that had been building since the recent awful encounter with her spouse.   

Henry strode over to the red-haired girl, who had just risen from her curtsey.  He lifted her in his arms and kissed her on both cheeks.  After a short hesitation, the princess hugged him. 

“My Elizabeth.”  The king planted a gentle kiss on Elizabeth’s forehead. 

“Papa,” the princess lisped.  Her hostility towards her father had not abated, but despite her tender age, she had realized that she had to feign love for him. 

He twirled with the girl before setting her back on her feet.  He acknowledged Lady Bryan and Lady Horseman with a slight nod, who both curtsied when his gaze landed on them. 

The king beamed at his daughter.  “My dearest Lizzy, I’m marveling at what a lovely girl you are growing into.  The reports of your prettiness have all been true.” 

“Thank you.”  Elizabeth’s faux smile seemed natural even to her father. 

Jane chimed in, “She will be a beautiful woman in adulthood.” 

Although the queen labored to keep her voice devoid of emotion, she failed to do so.  Her husband instantly noticed that her smooth tone lacked the warmth that always colored it when she communicated with his eldest daughter, Mary.  As he frowned at her, his spouse’s skin turned clammy, a shiver running down her spine as a cold sweat broke out on her forehead. 

Henry proclaimed, “The strong Tudor blood is coursing through my daughter’s veins.” 

At this moment, the ruler could almost pretend that Elizabeth was only his daughter.  He could almost forget that she was also a Boleyn.  Almost…  Yet, he could not ignore that the black-eyed child was so alike her mother that the resemblance was nearly uncanny, except for the Tudor red-gold hair that she had inherited from him and her grandmother, Elizabeth of York. 

Elizabeth and Henry peered into each other’s eyes.  An odd silence ensued. 

Neither the king nor the princess could guess that they both recollected the moments when Anne, Henry, and their daughter had last met together.  For the rest of her life, Elizabeth would remember the day when a scared Anne had carried the girl, who had been utterly frightened, but had kept quiet in her arms, while having desperately chased after the enraged monarch.  Until his dying day, Henry would not forget the terrified black pools of his former consort and the identical eyes of his youngest daughter, which had stared at him with plea as Anne had reached him in the garden near a fountain.  These memories were engraved upon their minds forever. 

Henry broke the pause.  “Elizabeth, are you happy to be at court again?” 

“Yes, I am.  Have you prepared a gift for me?”  Her voice did not show her inner tumult. 

He burst out laughing.  “Of course.  Later you will receive a lot of gifts.” 

Elizabeth let out a smile.  “It is nice of you, papa.” 

Her parent laughed.  “Everything for you, my sweet princess!” 

Everything, excluding my mother, Elizabeth fumed inwardly.  Her father’s words irked her, and she fended off the impulse to sputter her indignation.  It took the girl all her strength to keep her calm façade and to smile at the ruler when he lavished her with affection. 

“You must greet your stepmother,” he demanded. 

Nodding, Elizabeth walked to the queen, her posture and deportment royal.  Lady Bryan and Lady Horseman both prayed that the girl would be courteous, as she had promised. 

Jane flinched as she beheld the girl’s curtsey.  If she looked at Henry at this moment, she would have seen him wince.  Elizabeth’s stunning curtsey was so much like Anne’s! 

“I’m delighted to see you, Elizabeth.”  The queen did not address her by her title, which, she believed, rightfully belonged to Mary Tudor.  “It must be lonely at Hatfield.” 

“I’m never alone, Your Majesty,” answered the princess evenly, taking in the woman she loathed wholeheartedly.  “I’m with my ladies.”  The words that memories of her dear mama were always with her hovered over her lips, but they did not come to her tongue. 

Henry emerged behind the child.  “At present, you are with us, Elizabeth.” 

The girl’s eyes flew to her stepmother.  “Thank you for greeting me, Your Majesty.” 

Jane’s smile was genuine.  “You are most welcome.” 

To her amazement, the queen was indeed glad to see the girl, despite her ill parentage on her maternal side.  Perhaps she felt so thanks to the yearning for her own child.  In spite of her loathing for her expelled rival, Jane must stand in a mother’s place to Elizabeth and teach her to be a decent lady.  With God’s help, I’ll make this girl a devout Catholic. 

Henry’s approving smile was scant comfort to Jane, but it emboldened her to add, “I hope that over time, we can become as close as mother and daughter.” 

The king glanced down at the girl.  “Elizabeth, you must respect Jane in the same way as you would treat your own mama.  She will take good care of you, helping me raise you.” 

“As Your Majesty wishes.”  The princess’ tone was cool. 

This let her parent realize that the child did not like his request, despite all her pretense.  “Jane is your stepmother, and nothing, except for my will, will change it.”   

“Of course.”  Elizabeth inclined her head in comprehension.   

The ruler’s statement caused Jane to tremble like the stem of a reed in the wind.  She had figured out her spouse’s veiled hint that her fate was in his hands.  I just need a son!  Only a male child will secure me on the throne and in his heart.  Nonetheless, she could not deny that Henry was fickle and volatile like a tempestuous ocean, and she had already seen that it could take merely one word, misstep, or move for the object of his fixation to fall from grace.  Maybe Dorothy and Elizabeth were correct that his volatile nature was an obstacle Jane would not surmount. 

During the next hour, the queen witnessed the king converse with his child.  It discomfited her that Henry treated Elizabeth so affectionately, for it meant that he could not efface memories of the nefarious adulteress, who had whored herself out.  Henry loved his second daughter more than Mary, whom he had degraded to a royal bastard.  Given the above, Jane wondered whether the king’s feelings for Anne were stronger than those for Catherine of Aragon had once been. 

When Elizabeth’s gaze locked with her stepmother’s, Jane saw the intelligence shining in the girl’s eyes.  Their color was dark and reminded Jane of Anne’s hooking eyes so much that she thought they carried a false innocence, and the queen imagined that the princess’ expression was like that of a hawk about to pounce on her.  What am I doing?  Elizabeth must not be held responsible for her mother’s sins, Jane scolded herself for such ridiculous thoughts. 

Deep down, Jane Seymour admired the girl, who was as extraordinary as her mother.  She had a feeling that Elizabeth was no timid little bird, but some powerful, proud, and independent being, reincarnated for a while within the confines of her strong spirit, for the princess had to obey her parent to avoid any quarrels with him.  Jane hoped that after the initial stiffness between the two females, Elizabeth would grow fond of her, and that she would love her future brother. 

Watching Henry play with Elizabeth, the queen fantasized that she would give birth to a brood of Tudor handsome princes and princesses.  Her and Henry’s red-haired, mischievous, little imps would run around and play noisy games, and their antics would leave their parents uncertain upon occasion whether to smack their bottoms or laugh aloud.  Her dreams were tinctured with light hues of much-desired happiness, which she did not have in real life.  Jane prayed that her love for Henry would unlock all the doors separating them from contentment. 

At the same time, Jane was conscious of a chance that she would stumble exactly where her predecessors had done.  Her worst fear was that she would never have her prince, although Doctor Butts had assured her that she could conceive and carry a babe to full term.  Her boy would take the throne after his father and restore England to the flock of Rome in the future. 

Jane’s hand flew to her abdomen.  “I must give Henry a son,” she murmured to herself.  Yet, the wings of some sinister presentiment fluttered in her chest.   

§§§

“Make way for Lady Mary Tudor!”  At the herald’s cry, the crowd in the hallway, which connected with the Princess Elizabeth’s rooms, parted, clearing a path for Mary. 

Her gait measured, slow, and confident, Mary kept her back straight and her head high, just as a princess should.  Her expression regal, she was bestowing beaming smiles upon courtiers and servants alike as she strolled over to the entrance to her sister’s apartments.  Mary gleamed in her gown of purple and golden satin embroidered in a lavish pattern of diamond flowers, fitting her thin, but quite short, form tightly, save where it swirled around her gold-sandaled feet. 

As she passed the courtiers, Mary heard the approving murmurs and noticed the benign smiles on their faces.  Most of them had loved or at least respected her late mother.  Now they saw in her the only chance for England to join the Catholic Church again.  Apparently, they reckoned that she had the right to the title of princess as Catherine of Aragon’s legitimate daughter. 

Her father’s words, which he had spoken years ago, resurfaced in Mary’s consciousness.  “My Mary, the pearl of my entire world,” King Henry had told his teenaged daughter.  Then he had addressed the courtiers who had watched them with broad grins.  “To all nobles here present, let it be known that Mary is the noblest Princess of England, my most beloved daughter.  Soon she will be given her own court at Ludlow Castle and depart for Wales.” 

My father loved me back then, Mary mused.  He did not make me Princess of Wales, but he considered me his heir.  Everything in her and her late mother’s lives had been fine until the Boleyn whore had bewitched the monarch.  At present, deprived of everything she had loved, she felt as hopeless as a passenger who had fallen overboard while on a ship at sea.  The high waves of her pain threatened to submerge Mary, her soul screaming against the water choking her. 

As she approached the door, she took a fortifying breath.  No one should see her distress, for royals ought not to show their emotions.  Moreover, the ruler’s spies would report to Henry if she allowed herself to look disgusted or frustrated before entering Elizabeth’s chambers.  

Schooling her features into perfect blankness and forcing a smile, Mary slipped inside the room.  Anne Boleyn’s little daughter was half-asleep in the arms of Lady Margery Horseman, who had spent two hours tonight with the princess after the girl’s meeting with the king and queen.  Margery had told Elizabeth bedtime stories and reminded her of a happier time when Anne had come to Hatfield and stayed there, spending the evenings with her dearest daughter. 

“My Lady Mary,” Margery began, her countenance apologetic.  She could not stand up and curtsey to the king’s daughter because the princess was in her arms.  “I’m sorry for–”

“It is fine, Lady Horseman,” Mary uttered before the other woman could finish. 

“Thank you.”  Margery let out a wan smile.  She had always supported Queen Anne and Princess Elizabeth, but she respected Mary.  “Our little princess is almost asleep.” 

Mary approached them.  She bent down to Elizabeth’s level and stroked the child’s hair.  “You may go.  It is quite late, and I shall put my sister to bed.” 

Elizabeth opened her sleepy eyes.  “Mary!  Mary!” 

At the sight of the girl’s delight, Mary smiled cordially.  “Yes, my dear sister!” 

“I’ve missed you,” Elizabeth murmured.  “I want to play with you.” 

Catherine of Aragon’s daughter took Elizabeth into her arms.  “Aren’t you tired?” 

“I am.”  Elizabeth yawned.  “Tomorrow, then?” 

Mary laughed softly.  “Of course, Lizzy.” 

“Thank you for taking care of her, Lady Mary.”  There was a look of genuine gratitude on Margery’s face.  She then curtsied to Mary and vacated the room. 

“Why did you come so late?”  Elizabeth inquired. 

“I spent the whole day reading, sister.  I like solitude.” 

Mary carried Elizabeth to the adjacent room, which served as the princess’ bedchamber.  She placed the girl onto a small, canopied bed swathed in beige silk; only one candle burned on a table.  Tapestries with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary adorned the walls. 

“Sleep well, Lizzy,” Mary uttered as she tucked blankets in around Elizabeth. 

The child yawned and held out a hand.  With a grin, Mary touched her hand for a moment and kissed Elizabeth’s forehead, feeling sentimental tears prick her eyes. 

“Good night, Mary,” whispered Elizabeth.  She quickly fell asleep. 

For a short time, Mary stood near the bed, as if she were guarding her sister’s sleep.  After Elizabeth’s birth, Mary had tried to hate the girl, but it was unfair to blame her for her mother’s sins.  The charming Elizabeth had enchanted Mary, who had grown to care deeply for the child.    Despite all her loathing for the harlot, Mary would never believe her younger sister capable of evil, although she would never acknowledge Elizabeth as the king’s legitimate daughter. 

Nevertheless, Mary’s feelings for Elizabeth were highly conflicted since Anne’s exile.  You are not a princess of the blood, Lizzy.  You are a Boleyn bastard.  Yet, His Majesty has kept you in the line of succession.  Why is he so blind and unfair to me?  Catherine’s daughter ruminated, painfully and enviously.  I pray that you will not follow in your damned mother’s villainous and wanton footsteps.  Mary suspected that the older Elizabeth would become, the less understanding they would have; even now, when Mary looked at her sister, her envy was sometimes so profound that it poured into her usually good sentiments towards the girl, and she could barely conceal it. 

Mary foretold, “Most likely, our relationship will be on a shaky footing when you grow up, Lizzy.”  Immediately, she glanced around, fearing that someone could overhear them. 

The ruler’s eldest daughter berated herself for such thoughts.  For the sake of this innocent child, who did not deserve her disdain unlike her mother, Mary refused to let her attitude towards Anne sway her decision to be a kind and caring sister to Elizabeth.  But, deep down, Mary felt that if one day they were destined to become rivals for the English throne, she would be able to tear her sympathies from her heart so as to fight for what she believed rightfully belonged to her. 

Mary shifted her gaze away from the sleeping girl, as if it could help her distance herself from Anne’s daughter.  She stared into the dying fire in the hearth for a handful of moments, failing to relax.  She kissed Elizabeth again as if to atone for her bad thoughts, and then left. 

Chapter Text

Chapter 14: The Lonely Monotony of Life

January 24, 1537, Château de Villers-Cotterêts, Villers-Cotterêts, Picardie, France

“Make way for the king!”  the herald shouted.  “Make way for His Majesty!” 

Clad in elegant brown traveling attire, King François marched through the corridor, surrounded by guards and watched by the bowing and curtseying courtiers.  The monarch’s arrival was expected since the queen’s almost miscarriage several weeks earlier; he had been delayed in Poitou by the foul weather as the heavy snowfall had made roads nearly impassable. 

The ruler’s expression was impenetrable, as if nothing threatened his spouse’s health.  However, a muscle twitched in his jaw as he neared the queen’s apartments.  There was a sense of urgency in his quick, as always regal, gait that communicated haste and anxiety. 

After entering the antechamber, François paused and looked at his wife’s ladies, who all curtsied to him.  As his gaze rested on Françoise de Foix, he gestured towards an adjacent room.  His former mistress followed him inside, and the king closed the door behind them. 

Stopping in the middle of the room, he fired questions one after another.  “How has Anne been fairing?  What does Doctor Fernel say?  Is there any threat to her life?” 

Françoise surveyed her liege lord curiously.  He had always been an exceptionally gallant man who showed respect to women, whom he referred to as ‘flowers’.  It was well-known that he loved his mother and sister fiercely, lavishing them with affection and relying upon their counsel.  To everyone, his current worry about his spouse would seem usual, but not to the countess. 

Busy with her observation, she didn’t respond straight away.  Her silence caused the king to cover the gap between them before repeating, “Is Anne’s life in danger?” 

“No.”  She discerned an immense relief in his relaxing features. 

“And?”  he prompted, his voice laced with concern.  

“Now the queen is resting.  Thanks be to God, there has been no sign of miscarriage since that unfortunate Christmas evening.  Doctor Fernel thinks that Her Majesty has a good chance to carry the child to term, provided that she remains on bedrest until its birth and follows all of his strict recommendations.  Actually, her condition and mood have both improved.” 

The ruler crossed himself, and a smile lit up his visage.  “The Lord has kept Anne safe!  Her health is more important than anything else.  Even if the child is lost, she must live.” 

Françoise allowed her lips to part in a smile.  “You care more about her than the babe.” 

“That is true.  In spite of Anne’s hostile attitude towards me and all men, I do not care whether she ever gives me a child or not.  She is my wife, and my duty is to keep her safe.” 

At this, she laughed, as if his claim were the most amusing tidbit of information she had ever heard.   “Obligation, Your Majesty?  Or maybe it is your heart’s desire?” 

“Both,” he realized.  “More my heart’s desire than anything else.” 

“That is what I thought.  You cannot live without her.” 

François pondered his sentiments towards his queen.  “Anne is like a good old wine for me: the longer I know her, the more I crave to grasp her enigma.  My state of yearning for her is reminiscent of a drunken swoon, and when she is close to me, I often struggle to think coherently.”  Sadness shadowed his eyes.  “Her rejections do not turn her into water from wine.”    

The countess giggled.  François is quickly falling for his spouse!  For the first time in his life, he may fall in love with a woman because he has found his match and equal in her, she mused with delight.  The countess was still immensely devoted to the King of France, and she always would, but she wanted him to find marital contentment and wished him all the best. 

The Countess de Chateaubriand recalled her personal discourses with the king.  Marriage, François used to say, was a matter of tradition and duty for procreation.  A matter of necessity for royalty to provide a country with heirs.  In most cases, no man married until he was obliged, and then only did so to better himself and his noble house.  Love in matrimony was too absurd a thing for a man who possessed common sense.  The king had once confessed to Françoise that he could lust after women, but would never fall a victim to the tender passion.  Despite being friends with him, Françoise did not know why he had not believed in love since his youth. 

Life had proven the French ruler wrong after he had wed Anne Boleyn.  He had slept with numberless women and was perhaps more experienced in extramarital affairs than Zeus himself.  He had hugged and kissed beauties countless times, but his heart had been closed.  Until now…

“François,” she called.  The ruler frequently allowed her to address him by his name. 

“What?”  His quizzical brow shot up. 

Her smile widened.  “You are falling in love with Queen Anne.”  

“I do not know.”  His breath caught as he imagined his wife’s dark eyes. 

“Think about it.  But now go to her.”  She touched his arm, encouraging him to leave. 

The ruler let out a smile.  “Thank you, Françoise.  You are such a precious friend of mine!  In my absence, you have taken the best possible care of my queen.” 

“Just as I promised you in my letter.  I’ll continue watching over her.” 

The king spun on his heels and exited.  He didn’t see the countess wipe an errant tear from her cheek, for her heart ached with her unrequited, deep and everlasting, love for François.

§§§

As the monarch entered the queen’s bedchamber, his heart sped as a thrill of elation seized him at the sight of his spouse.  The music of longing, which he had so long combated with during their separation, echoed behind the closed doors of his inner realm. 

Crossing to a canopied bed where Anne rested, François studied her closely.  Now she was visibly pregnant, the dome of her belly accentuated by the covers hugging her form.  Despite her pallor, her exotic beauty was enhanced by the impending motherhood, glowing like a flower.  Such a scintillating emotional weather reigned in his universe that he gasped with pure joy.  But he fended off the impulse to embrace his wife and caress her abdomen, where the new life they had created on the wedding night was growing, for she would certainly not appreciate that.      

He seated himself on the edge of the bed.  Instantly, she snuggled to the other side.  Her eyes turned frantic, as if she were on the verge of tears, and fright flashed in them. 

Her reaction disappointed him.  “I’m not going to harm you, Anne.” 

She relaxed.  “I’m sorry.” 

“There is no need to apologize.”  With a sigh, he stood up. 

Her hand halted him.  “Please, do not leave.”  

He pressed her hand to his chest.  “Does the past preclude us from being friends?”

Bewilderment painted the queen’s features.  Questions blazed through her consciousness like meteors.  Did François fantasize about having a happy ending with her, and, if he did, why?  Anne was clueless as to the matter, and her face as warmthless as ever. 

Her arctic voice cut through the air like the twang of a ricocheting shot.  “Our practical arrangement of convenience was a bold step for us both, one of the few available solutions for us at the time.  We have been audacious in the most dangerous of ways – in the calculating manner of cunning people who strive to achieve goals by any means.  There is no greater happiness in a royal marriage than that when the king and queen work as allies; I prefer to keep it this way.” 

Inwardly disheartened, he appeared outwardly unruffled.  “Marriage confines man to the world of either duty and formality or love and ruin.  This is especially true for royals.”  His biting laugh was comprised of irony and regret.  “To wed a woman for whom you feel something and who returns your sentiments is to lay a wager with her as to who will stop loving the other first.”

She was hurt by his caustic words.  “Marriage is like a cage for a woman, particularly for a queen.  If she happens to fall in love with her spouse, she is forced to watch his little birds – his paramours – outside the cage.  They are so desperate to have him that, once they get inside, they peck her love for him to the death.  Thus, for most of the time, she is desperate to get out.” 

“In the Anacreontea, Eros once failed to notice a bee sleeping among the roses.  He was struck in the finger and ran to the beautiful Aphrodite.  He told her, ‘I’ve been killed, mother.  I’m dying.  I was struck by the winged snake that farmers call “the bee”.  She responded, ‘If the bee-sting is so painful, what pain, Eros, do you suppose all your victims suffer?” 

She remembered this tale.  “Is it from some Greek collection of love poems?” 

“Your intelligence has always been a lure for all those blackguards whom you call men.”  

Anne chuckled, and François grinned at her.  They laughed airily as a sense of exultation overmastered them for a fraction of a second.  He suppressed the inclination to pull her into his arms and kiss her senseless, until she cheerfully braced herself for his sensual onslaught. 

Nevertheless, the magical moment had passed and was gone.  Such an ethereal moment of perfect bliss, however, could not become a perpetuity of rapt joy, for she did not love him. 

The queen shifted closer to her husband.  “It is good to see Your Majesty at last.”

Capturing her hand, the monarch brushed his lips against her palm before stating half-smugly, half-hopefully, “Obviously, you have missed me, Your mysterious Majesty.” 

She extracted her hand from his.  “You are too conceited for my liking, sire.” 

He playfully conceded, “More than you can know.  But you like it.” 

She smirked.  “More than I hate it.  You may be amusing.” 

All of a sudden, François cupped her face and kissed her with a reverent tenderness.  In a handful of heartbeats, he parted from her and stared into her dark pools, full of confusion and astonishment.  In these moments, they both felt absolutely content, as if they had stood within the gilded gates of heaven, but they were called to reality by the Almighty’s judgment. 

He traced the contours of his wife’s face, gentling her, observing as anticipation replaced confusion in her eyes.  He felt a brief glimmer of hope that at this moment, Anne experienced a faint stirring of warmth within her breast, which a woman feels when her beloved enfolds her into his arms.  Yet, the sudden coldness in her gaze ceased the movement of his hand. 

His formal tone was devoid of the inner tumult as he pronounced, “True amusement lies in knowing how to live.  I’m not sure that the new Anne who married me knows this.”  

There was no hint of gentility in her demeanor as she declared, “When a man talks like that, Your Majesty, it generally means that it is time he entertains himself with a new beauty.” 

He retorted acridly, “Isn’t that an outstanding remedy for a man whose wife is colder than the snow?  As a king, I can give up any mistress if she bores me too much.  I can also give up most of my other amusements, even carnal ones, but not our union as we exchanged vows before God.”  His sneer caused her to wince.  “Our marriage shall always entertain me in a way.”  

Something glistened in her gaze.  “You have never loved a woman.” 

“You know,” he commenced, “I’ve always dreamed of love – true love, though I do not believe in it, partly due to my parents’ situation.  Indeed, where does one find it nowadays?” 

Anne blinked like a startled doe.  “I do not know.” 

“Very rarely,” her spouse continued in a grave undertone.  “I’ve never felt it myself – not what should be called love.  I’ve chased various women, and I’ve been keen enough over some of them.  But none of them has ever given me a spiritual contentment, while you can do that.”

This was his defense against his spouse’s indifference that sometimes alternated with disdain.  At the present moment, he felt as lonely as a sailor lost in the ocean, and his head-over-heels physical attraction for her now seemed to be an onerous burden.  Nonetheless, the words that he had never been as attracted to a woman as he was to his third wife hovered upon his lips.  The king was swimming in a sea of confusion that had only one focal point: why he cared for Anne so much, and why she haunted him like a sensual ghost determined to win his soul. 

She regarded him scornfully.  “So, I was right about you.” 

He put his hand to his chest, closing his fist there, as if he would draw something out.   “We men are as prone to infirmity as any lady, but we are trained from childhood to deny it.” 

Anne swallowed her umbrage.  “That is so kind of you to say that.” 

He climbed to his feet.  “Man is his own worst enemy, as Cicero said.” 

My wife is her own sworn foe, François silently fumed as he vacated the chamber.  Not her adversaries or anguish, but her clinging to the past might defeat her.  His affection for her sprang up into the fiercest flame of jealous passion, as he berated Anne for her unwillingness to meet him halfway and to at least make their marital life a little pleasant.  He was jealous of her to Henry, even though he was not certain that she still loved his English counterpart. 

In the meantime, the French queen lay in her bed; her gaze glassy and absent.  Being confined to bed, she delighted in reading books, which were brought to her from the library; she preferred chivalric romances and satires.  Her marriage seemed to Anne a fathomless enigma that encircled her like a waft of sensuality; no talk, tune, or poem could convey her tangled emotions.  Words are useless in my marital life.  Even worse – they are misleading, she lamented. 

§§§

As the king returned to his quarters, a young lady rushed to him.  Her impetuous welcome, accompanied with a volley of girlish giggling, goaded him to envelop her into his arms. 

“Your Majesty!”  The woman placed her head against his chest.  “My knight!” 

The monarch whispered into her ear, “Welcome back to court, Claude.” 

As they parted, François perused his guest.  Attired in a gown of auburn velvet worked with gold, its sleeves long, pendent and its neckline low, Claude de Rohan-Gié was a picture of majestic charm, which was attributable to her refined manners and her innate elegance.  A month earlier, Claude had turned seventeen and was now emerging into adolescence.  The king had sent her a gift for her birthday: on her bosom there was a cordeliere, which, being imitated from the cord worn by Franciscan friars, was formed of red silk twisted with threads of gold. 

The freshness of her youthful beauty was tinged with sensuality that she had developed thanks to the romance with her amorous sovereign.  During her service to Eleanor of Austria, she had quickly became one of the finest ornaments to the French court and caught the king’s eye.  Her father, Charles de Rohan-Gié, who had fought at Marignano long ago, approved of his daughter’s liaison with François because of the privileges and wealth it had brought to the House of Rohan.  For a short time, François had been so smitten with Claude that her coat-of-arms had been carved on some walls at Château de Chambord, where they often had rendezvous.    

Claude’s scintillating smile and her long, thick, honey-gold hair, which was hidden by a hood studded with gems, set off her hazel-green eyes strikingly.  Tall and slender, her well-curved body boasted a narrow waist, flared hips, and shapely legs, which she liked wrapping around his body in a dance of lust.  Her gaze barely concealed an early awareness of her femininity and also intellect that she used at random.  At the same time, Claude lacked the unrivalled majesty of Anne’s deportment and the indescribable exoticism of the queen’s appearance. 

Claude flashed him a dazzling smile.  “I’m wearing your gift, my king!  I love it so much! It is so expensive, and I’m surprised that you gave it to me.” 

Although his prodigality was sometimes excessive, François enjoyed seeing a lady’s joy upon receiving his lavish gifts.  “Women are the finest blossoms of beauty men can find.” 

Her arms snaked around his neck.  “Your Majesty is the most gallant knight.” 

Her admiration of him pleased and amused the ruler.  “The truest definition of chivalry is that a man should protect a woman against every other male but himself.” 

She chortled.  “Do not protect yourself from me.  We need each other too much.” 

“Perhaps.”  His response was skeptical, but she paid no heed to it. 

“Blessed are those in love,” purred Claude with a coquettish smile.  A graceful tilt of her head had the precise angle to showcase her alabaster neck.  “I love you, my heroic François!” 

Although François laughed, an amalgam of sadness and bitterness inundated him.  “The sun, rising and setting in glorious colors, never grows tired of its admirers.” 

“You are the sun of France!”  Her fingertips caressed the contours of his face.  “I shall always treasure your adoration for me, just as no lady ever gets tired of pretty flowers.” 

“My dear Claude, we ought to remember what makes an enlightened French woman: the bright and inquisitive mind, the inclination to learn new things, the aspiration to keep apace with mankind’s progress, and the ability to live sagely and well.”  He lifted his hand to her cheek, his fingers sliding along the curve of her jaw.  “You are all these things altogether, chérie!” 

Batting her eyes, Claude flirted with him audaciously.  “The gist of it all is this: it takes the brilliance of intellect, the splendor of sweet womanliness, and the glory of honorable grace to complete the picture of a perfect woman for a great king such as yourself.” 

“What a clever way of thinking!  A brainless woman cannot be beautiful.” 

Claude de Rohan-Gié tiptoed to kiss King François, whose towering height prevented her from reaching his mouth.  Bending his head, he caught her lips in a searing kiss that made them quiver, the tongues of carnal yearning flicking excitedly against their clothed bodies. 

The monarch pulled away, and his mistress issued a groan of protest.  His mind conjured the image of Anne’s rare smiles.  Her breezy laughter, which he had last heard in Calais, rang out in his ears like Aphrodite’s peremptorily irresistible tune of love.  A moment later, the sadness over Anne’s rejections of him bled into his consciousness, blurring these heavenly visions with a stamp of his melancholy.  My spouse hates me so… Nevertheless, any of my mistresses, whether another Anne or Claude, are always at my disposal, François fretted. 

Since adolescence, the king had lived in a seemingly perpetual dissolution.  His queen obstinately refused to jump into his romantic extravagances, all the while weaving their relationship into an existence as infinitesimal as sunrise or sunset.  Anne’s coldness intensified his desire to resort to his traditional hedonistic ways, while also hurting him like bereavement.    

“I want you,” he said hoarsely. 

She eagerly complied.  “I’m yours, my beloved!” 

François kissed a trail to the hollow of her neck, and Claude responded in kind, her body pliant in his embrace.  The color of her dazed eyes softened to a warm honeyed hue, drowning him further in her allure.  He carried her to a canopied bed in the corner, and then she undressed them.  Spasms of hunger raved through them as his lips marauded hers, as if her mouth were the only source of tenderness, which could make him forget his wife.  As their naked forms entwined, her limbs became soft pillars of an amorous temple, as she straddled him and rocked to and fro. 

Their bodies came together many times until the streaks of dawn colored the firmament.  Their needs sated, François lay next to her, feeling the meaninglessness of his life.  Claude was a goddess of elaborate intimate pirouettes: as always, tonight she had practiced all the refinements of physical love, one moment withholding her indecent caresses and the next lavishing her lover with them.  Yet, now the king’s universe was shifting, tumbling in its lonely monotony. 

Sliding into a robe of blue velvet, François went to the antechamber.  He sat there, a goblet of wine clasped in his hand, lost in thought.  His sister’s light footfall did not reach his ear.  

The Queen of Navarre mocked, “Has your sanity restored itself?” 

The king flittered his gaze to her.  “Sister, why are you not sleeping?” 

A livid Marguerite huffed, “You are a complete fool, François!  Your desire to be loved, to be held close to the other shape, to see the eyes full of devotion…  What about it?” 

“Why are you angry, Margot?  Deign to explain.” 

She stomped her feet in exasperation.  “You wanted to make your marriage work.  And what happened tonight?  You ran into that Rohan harlot, didn’t you?” 

 He narrowed his eyes.  “By heaven!  My wife loathes me and all men!” 

“She can hardly be blamed for that.” 

François sucked in a distressed breath.  “There must be a way of countering Henry’s curse that Anne can never love again.  When she is with me and not angry, she looks at me sadly.” 

Marguerite stated forthrightly, “You must restore her faith in justice and love.”

His eyes were beseeching, searching. “It may not work.” 

Stopping beside his chair, she touched her brother’s arm.  “Stay committed to Anne and discard all your mistresses; it will bind you two together.  Learn to love her through thick and thin – yes, brother, you are falling for her, although it is not deep love yet.” 

He clutched Marguerite’s fingers.  “We do not know our future.”

Marguerite cupped his hands over hers.  “Do that, or you shall never be happy!” 

After administering a compassionate pat on his shoulder, the Navarrese queen exited. 

The ruler swung the goblet around and sloshed some of the contents onto the floor, then swigged it down.  A raven of despair perched at the mast of his marital ship, being tossed by a storm of his discord with Anne, and every day it pecked the rest of his wife’s respect to him, as she grew increasingly distanced from him.  The king was awash with guilt over another betrayal of his vows to Anne, as suffocating as the one he had felt while being with his other lovers. 

François wondered, “Am I falling in love with you, my queen?”  Silence was the answer, but a laughter dancing in the air almost confirmed his suspicions.  “Perhaps, perhaps.”


February 1, 1537, Château de Villers-Cotterêts, Villers-Cotterêts, Picardie, France

Books were shelved on both sides of the study, illumined by candles burning on rosewood tables.  A desk, filled with papers, stood near a window, from where one could see snow falling out of a steel-gray firmament.  Consuming every inch of the walls were tapestries and paintings. 

The King of France paced the study like an expectant father near the door to the birthing chamber, although his wife would give birth to their child in three months.  His consciousness was teeming with the images of their recent quarrel: an exasperated Anne had not accepted from him a sapphire and diamond necklace that had once belonged to his mother, Louise de Savoy. 

His steps were like those of a man searching desperately for something precious.  Indeed, he was laboring to find an explanation for the aversion Anne seemed to be experiencing towards him.  Since his return, she had erected a thick wall of ice between them, as though she hated him and was hell bent on bruising his pride and heart.  His attempts at closeness had been thwarted. 

Anne’s harsh tirade echoed through his scull like circling vultures.  “I do not want any gifts from Your Majesty!  No ruler is a good fit for a husband, so go to your mistresses and spend everything from your treasury on them.  Leave me alone!”  Her rejection of his mother’s necklace, which had a special meaning for the Savoy family, was as painful as a physical wound. 

“Father!” exclaimed Prince Charles de Valois as he entered. 

François finally ceased pacing.  Plastering a smile on his face, he plodded to his guest and embraced him.  “Charles!  Look how you have grown in my absence!”  

The door opened, and Dauphin Henri walked in to see his brother in his father’s arms.  Henri cleared his throat to secure the room’s attention, and the two other men instantly parted. 

“Henri,” the monarch called softly.  “It is so good to see you, son.”

The dauphin surveyed his royal parent with undisguised jealousy and ire.  He had long been furiously envious of the special bond, which his father shared with Charles.  After the return of Henri and the late Dauphin François from the Imperial captivity, Henri’s relationship with his parent was strained, to say the least.  François and Henri disagreed about all kinds of things, their lives dampened by their frustrations over their arguments.  I still cannot forgive my father, Henri mused bitterly.  He allowed my now dead brother and me to languish in the Spanish prison for years.  In the meantime, father lived in luxury and entertained himself with his paramours. 

As the eldest prince kept silent, the ruler came to him and pulled him into his arms.  After disentangling himself from their embrace, François watched Henri attentively for a moment before a benign smile blossomed on his features, his joyful gaze darting between his offspring. 

“Come here, sons!”  The monarch gestured towards chairs, which lined the further wall. 

The three men seated themselves comfortably, and servants brought wine for them. 

François took a hearty swig of claret.  “Since my arrival at court, we have not had much time to talk.  I’ve heard that you have both excelled in your studies while I was away.” 

Slowly drinking wine, the Duke d’Orléans informed, “Henri, our sister Marguerite and I spent all the time here, at Villers-Cotterêts, but I would prefer to return to Fontainebleau and Saint-Germain-en-Laye once the Spanish are defeated.  Our tutors have praised our accomplishments in English, Italian, Flemish, German, and Latin.”  He paused, his censorious gaze flickering to the dauphin, and castigated, “However, Henri dines in private with Madame Diane de Poitiers too often, neglecting our company.  He strongly prefers to be with her instead of his wife.” 

The monarch flicked his troubled gaze to his elder son.  “Is that true, Henri?” 

The dauphin emptied his goblet and slammed it on the table, positioned between his and his brother’s chairs.  He stared at his parent with a blend of challenge and rebellion.  “Yes, it is.  Your Majesty knows that I did not want to wed that Italian daughter of merchants.  Nevertheless, you forced me to enter into a marriage I loathe more than I despise the Holy Roman Emperor.”

Charles’ glare condemned Henri.  “Henri, do not you dare disrespect our father! You–” 

“Let him speak, Charles,” interrupted François, his gaze never leaving the dauphin’s face.  “Henri, I know which thoughts are hovering at the edges of your mind.”  He raised his voice to accentuate the point.  “You have not forgiven me for your sufferings in Spain.  You crave to hold me accountable for my selfishness, and for what you might call cruelty towards you.” 

This candor caused the dauphin’s control to slip.  “I can neither forget nor forgive!  Your Majesty has long become more selfish than Narcissus.  You do love yourself, your court, and your countless mistresses far more than you feel for your own children.” 

Charles frowned at his sibling.  “That is falsehood!  You are despicable!” 

Henri glowered at his brother as if he were an insect.  “Charles, you blame me for lying,” he stilled for a second, his glare dashing to his father, “when he is the one who is lying!  He says that we are precious to him, yet he sent our deceased brother and me to Madrid so that he could return to France and be happy with his whores – Françoise de Foix, Anne de Pisseleu, and other prostitutes, whose names he can barely remember.  He betrayed our poor mother with numberless paramours, and she was so broken that she cried her eyes to sleep every night.” 

François reached for his goblet, lifted it to his lips, and drained the contents in an attempt to maintain the illusion of control.  “That is enough out of you, son.” 

His anger boiling like hot lava, Henri bounced to his feet.  “Everything I’ve said can be proved.  The whole court is aware of your countless amours and my mother’s unrequited love for you and your neglect of her.  The entirety of Christendom knows that you abandoned your two sons and dispatched them to Spain.”  His voice rose in a crescendo of rage, ringing through the air.  “We starved and cried in our small, damp cell, while you thrived and enjoyed life.” 

Charles spat, “Henri, shut up!  Never insult our father who is your king in the first place.”

François’ response was surprising.  “It is all right.  Do not berate him, Charles.”  

Dauphin Henri beheld his father fearfully.  He anticipated that his outrageous misconduct would be punished severely.  Instead, his parent covered the gap between them and engulfed him into a tight, affectionate embrace, and Henri’s arms went around the king’s back. 

After a short while, the king disentwined himself from his son.  “Well, we could have smothered each other.  Then who would have won the last battle against the emperor?” 

Charles was relieved that their father’s temper had not been exacerbated by the dauphin’s shenanigans.  “Our legendary Father!  Soon you will expel the Imperial barbarians!  Even brave and powerful Hercules is not as great as our beloved Knight-King is!” 

Grinning, François intoned, “You are flattering me.”  

“No!”  protested the Duke d’Orléans.  “It is as true as the fact that night follows day.”

The monarch strolled back to his chair.  “Hercules was mentioned in some Roman myths.  The famed Mark Antony considered him a personal patron god, as did the wicked Roman Emperor Commodus.”  A laugh spilled out of him.  “I’ve always sympathized with the tragedy of Mark Antony’s life and his fatal love for Cleopatra.  Nevertheless, I cannot be associated with Hercules, because the hero was also used by Commodus to stress his own false divinity.” 

The Dauphin of France and the younger Valois prince returned to their chairs. 

François regarded the two youths with warmth.  The king loved both of his surviving sons dearly, but Charles was undeniably his favorite thanks to the boy’s likeness to him.  Charles had taken after him in both looks and appearance, and the prince’s eccentric deportment was appealing.  Henri’s somberness and reticence were in stark contrast to his younger sibling’s vivacity, charm, and outspokenness.  After their return from Madrid, the young François – the eldest Valois prince and once the heir apparent to the throne – had been as serious and somber as Henri, but still more easy-going and optimistic than the seemingly always depressed Henri. 

The ruler’s thoughts dwelled on his difficult relationship with the dauphin.  The horrible imprisonment in Madrid had upended the previously blithesome childhood of Henri and François.  Their trauma had been so deep that both princes had started wearing dark colors after their return home.  That damned captivity!  François cursed mentally, his fists clenched to his sides.  At least, my eldest son was not hostile towards me; he understood why I had no choice but to send him and Henri to the emperor’s prison in my stead.  Will Henri ever comprehend and forgive me? 

They desperately needed a frank conversation, so François braced himself against a wave of contrition and anguish.  “Henri,” he addressed the dauphin.  “I’ve long felt guilty for the ordeal you and your elder brother suffered in prison.  Every time I remember those awful days, I almost expect that the fire and brimstone will fall upon me from heaven.” 

The heat of shame colored Henri’s cheeks.  “Father, I’m so sorry for my words.  I had no right to pronounce those horrendous things, which slipped from my tongue.”  

Charles commented dryly, “At least, you have finally realized that.” 

The king shook his head towards Charles, and then told Henri, “On the contrary, I’m glad that you voiced important matters which have long troubled you.  You are my son, but sometimes, your mind seems to be like a thick midnight forest, through which one cannot even wander.” 

“I, too, often think so,” put in Charles. 

Henri blushed more.  “I do apologize if my behavior frustrates everyone.” 

“No!”  the king hollered.  “I blame myself for my failure to find a way out of the mess I dragged myself into after the ignominious defeat of the French at Pavia.  Perhaps, after my capture, I should have fallen onto my sword instead of surrendering.” 

“No!”  This time, it was Henri from whose lips had produced the strong words of denial.  “Do not say that, Father!  You had no choice but to capitulate.” 

François loathed himself for his old political missteps, which had led to all those events.  “Henry of Navarre, your Aunt Marguerite’s husband, fled, while I did not even try to.  To escape would have gone against my code of honor, so I waited for my transportation to Spain.” 

Prince Charles growled, “The emperor is a skunk without honor and conscience.  He can be defeated only through craft, and he does not deserve any mercy.” 

The ruler sighed.  “I understand that now.  That failure changed me a great deal.” 

Henri did not concur.  “Father, chivalry is a rare gem in a dark and inequitable world.  It makes you who you are – the honorable Knight-King who is loved by his subjects.” 

The king gave him a long stare.  “Do you really think so?” 

The dauphin inclined his head.  “Yes, I do.”  

The monarch’s consciousness floated to his heir’s reproving speech.  “In early youth, I was impulsive and restless.  Being hungry for power, land, and fame, I dreamed of conquering the Duchy of Milan, which belongs to me by my birthright, and even the whole of Italy.  I was prone to making rash decisions and acting on emotion without thinking of the consequences.” 

Charles confided, “I’m dreaming of attaining glory on the battlefields of Italy.”  His face twisted into a soundless sob.  “Those brave Frenchmen who were slaughtered at the Battle of Arles and in our other provinces…”  His voice halted as a tide of anguish swept over him, and a flush of ire colored his cheeks crimson.  “We must avenge their deaths and kill those Habsburg thugs.” 

Henri scowled.  “Father, I crave to join our army to smash the Imperial foe into pieces.” 

The king’s response was a strict prohibition.  “Never!  I cannot lose either of you.” 

In spite of their disagreement, Charles and Henri nodded their comprehension.  François looked at them like a proud, devoted father, and these moments of their nearly tangible mutual affection erased the bitter taste of the dauphin’s earlier confrontation with the monarch. 

When François and Henri exchanged smiles, the world seemed so perfect.  In such rare moments, we are just loving father and devoted son, the dauphin cried silently with delight. 

François blew out a puff of air in vexation.  “We should not have engaged with the enemy at Pavia.  Our first success – when the entire force of our gendarmes scattered the Spanish – went to my head.  What a fool I was to think that I was invincible like salamanders!  Another day and night passed, and once light streaked through the sky, a mass of Imperial pikemen and arquebusiers descended upon our cavalry from all sides.   We did not realize the magnitude of the attack at first, while lacking room to maneuver because of the neighboring woods.  Thereupon, our gendarmes were encircled and brutally killed, while our infantry was broken and routed.” 

The two princes had already been taught the arts of war, but it was the first time that their royal parent had told them a real war story.  “That is horrible!”  they chorused.   

The king recollected, “I fought on until my horse was killed.  Then I was surrounded by Spanish arquebusiers, taken prisoner, and escorted from the field.” 

Charles snarled, “I hate the emperor!  We must capture him!” 

“We will,” Henri hissed with a hint of overconfidence that was noticed by his father. 

François regarded his son suspiciously.  “Henri, what is on your mind?” 

The dauphin was a picture of innocent confusion.  “I do not know what you mean.”

The ruler enjoined, “Henri, you must be actively involved in state affairs.  Monty is your friend, but you need to make acquaintance with my other ministers.”  

A grin flowered across Henri’s visage.  “Gladly!  Thank you, Father!” 

“My dear sons, you are not rivals!”  the monarch insisted.  “You both ought to be true brothers: loving, caring, and ready to support one another at any time.  Henri is my first heir, but I believe that you must both be knowledgeable about politics and government.”  

“With great pleasure,” effused the Duke d’Orléans.  

The dauphin’s eyes darkened like thunderclouds.  “Fate tends to destroy even the most best-laid plans.  I may predecease all of you, and then Charles will inherit the throne.” 

Charles drew an irritated breath.  “Your petty jealousy poisons you.” 

“I cannot,” the other prince barked. 

“Do not be envious, Henri,” François chastised.  “After your elder brother’s death, you became my heir.  Despite the persistent rumors that I will replace you as Dauphin of France, you must not be worried: I shall never betray you by taking your birthright away.  Someone must have spread this gossip with the intention to drive a wedge between us.”    

Henri smiled.  “Thank you for the assurance, Father, and I beg your pardon, again.” 

“Do you believe me now, son?”  enquired the king. 

“I do,” the dauphin answered sincerely. 

François emitted a sigh that had come from the depths of his soul.  “I married Claude not out of love, but out of duty.  Our marriage was agreed on by King Louis XII and your grandmother, Louise, without any regard for our desires.”  His brain was forming words to best describe his attitude to his first spouse.  “Claude was intelligent, kind, and pious – a model queen, although she could also be as a strong and opinionated woman.  Over time, I grew fond of Claude, but I never loved her.  I believed that it was my kingly right to take a mistress whenever I wanted.” 

Charles interjected, “Father, you do not have to–“ 

The ruler interrupted, “I’m not justifying myself – I’m just explaining.  I had a great many affairs in youth.  Despite being discreet in most cases, I still paraded some of my mistresses around the court.  Your mother knew of my infidelities, and they broke her heart because she fell in love with me.”  Contrition colored his tone as he supplemented, “I failed to return her feelings.  I could have treated her more respectfully, and I’m sorry for my mistakes.” 

The dauphin looked thoroughly touched.  “Thank you, Father.” 

François continued, “Claude and I were tied by our dynastic marriage and our children.”  His gaze fastened to Henri’s face.  “Your political union with Catherine de’ Medici should have secured for France an alliance with the Pope and the Medicis.  The previous Pope died and did not pay out Catherine’s dowry, but I still think we may benefit from this marriage.  I must admit that I’m also impressed with Catherine’s intelligence and her keenness to please.” 

Henri frowned in disgust.  “Catherine repels me.” 

Charles rolled his eyes.  “And Diane does not?!” 

The dauphin fired back, “Do not insult Diane!” 

“Enough!”  The ruler’s voice boomed through the room like a canon blast.  “There must be no clashes between brothers.  I do not want to ever hear or see anything like this again.”

“Of course,” the two princes rasped, although neither of them meant it. 

 Their father switched to the dauphin’s marital problems.  “Henri, your marriage, though unwanted, may become interesting for you.  Your mama and I were allies and friends, in spite of our differences.  You two may find common ground.  Give this marriage a try!”    

Henri’s brows furrowed sullenly.  “After she gives me a son, I’ll leave her bedroom.” 

“That is the least you must do,” acquiesced François. 

The Duke d’Orléans inquired, “How is our stepmother fairing?”

To conceal the anguish in his eyes, the monarch gazed out at the small hill hunched in opaque silhouette against the darkening heavens.  “Anne is feeling quite well.  Doctor Fernel says that if she stays in bed until the delivery, she and the baby will be all right.” 

The King of France was pleased that his sons – even Dauphin Henri who advocated the persecution of heretics – seemed to like Anne.  Henri was not happy that Anne had been permitted to worship Protestantism in private, but he had accepted her as his stepmother.  Unlike the dauphin, Charles was a member of his Aunt Marguerite’s literary circles, where the teachings of Calvin and Luther were read and discussed, and the prince had much in common with Anne.  François was both relieved and delighted that his queen had been respected and admired by his relatives. 

§§§

The afternoon was wearing away when Catherine Maria Romula de’ Medici, Dauphine of France, appeared in the queen’s suite.  She strode into Queen Anne’s bedroom like a breath of fresh air, in the splendor of her adolescence; like a force of nature showed by her determined gait.  

“Your Highness,” Queen Anne greeted.  “Welcome to my humble dwelling.”  

“I hope I’m not intruding.”  Catherine’s voice was flat. 

A hint of a smile twitched across Anne’s mouth.  “Of course, not.” 

A teenaged woman strolled to the queen’s bed.  Dauphine Catherine carried herself with regal dignity and unattainability, and Anne’s attention attracted the inquisitive expression of her hazel, deep-set eyes separated by a straight, narrow nose.  The singular mobility and intelligence of Catherine’s strict countenance unusually contrasted with her shyness, which she, however, could have displayed only because of her first private meeting with the queen. 

Catherine’s short stature looked heartbreakingly petite in her Italianate gown of purple velvet, with brown velvet sleeves trimmed with golden lace; the neckline and the bodies were lined with fur.  Wound with ribbons and twisted up into knots of various shapes with the ends hanging free, her long brown hair was covered by a Florentine headdress.  Everything about Catherine was blandness, timidity, and insinuation, from the angle of her jaw to her sharp chin, to every controlled motion, slow and gracious, a slight smile lending a wisp of kindness to her pale face. 

The dauphine lowered herself into a curtsey.  “Your Majesty, I wish you all the best.” 

At Anne’s nod, Catherine seated herself in a chair by the royal bed.  Their gazes locked, while the atmosphere of tense inquisitiveness around them was growing thicker and heavier. 

“How is Your Majesty feeling?” 

Anne chuckled.  “If French ladies learn how much free time I have to devote exclusively to myself, they would be envious enough to bite their thumbs off.” 

The dauphine smirked at her jest.  “They are simply jealous of you.  Everyone at court is aware that His Majesty is worried about his wife; far more worried than he has ever been about any of his wives and mistresses.  Many courtiers are discussing that.” 

“Let them talk.  Even four horses cannot overtake the tongue of scandalmongers.” 

At this, Catherine laughed.  “Yes, no one can sew buttons on their neighbor’s mouth.” 

The queen perused the dauphine more closely.  Catherine was not stunning at all, and her budging eyes were her least attractive feature.  However, there was a certain charm of intelligence and mystery about her.  As Catherine smiled, her eyes changed, becoming extraordinary – warm and trusting, and at this moment, Anne felt as if she could look into the woman’s soul. 

Anne broke the pause.  “I’m glad you have paid me a visit, Your Highness.  My husband and some others told me many awesome things about you.” 

“King François is an extremely enlightened man, who takes pride in his unparalleled role in the spreading of education and culture throughout France.  He has not annulled my marriage to Henri only because he admires my education and intelligence.” 

Her straightforwardness surprised the queen, who also spoke directly and comfortingly.   “Be at ease!  You are young and can bear many heirs for Dauphin Henri.” 

“My husband spends too much time with his mistress,” Catherine complained. 

Anne made obvious conclusion.  “Are you seeking an alliance with me, Madame?”   

Catherine chewed her lip.  “If it is possible, Your Majesty.” 

“Cheer up!”  The queen pointed a finger at her.  “There is a remedy against your lack of pregnancy.  I’ll bring your problem to His Majesty’s notice and ask him to talk sense into Dauphin Henri.  You cannot conceive if your husband frequents his paramour’s bed relentlessly.” 

Gratitude flooding her features, Catherine flashed a sweet, but cautious, smile.  “Thank you so much, Your Majesty!  You are my guardian angel!  God bless you and your child!” 

A joyful Catherine was a pleasing sight to behold.  Having experienced difficulties with childbearing in England, Anne felt closer to the other woman after their candid conversation, and even blessed to have the opportunity to assist her in salvaging her marriage. 

Suddenly, blandness filtered into Catherine’s eyes, the secrets of her soul concealed once more.  If Anne had not seen the soft look in them before, she would not have believed such a quick change was possible.  The warmth in Catherine’s orbs cooled, their color becoming darker until her eyes resembled a pair of sparkling onyxes – remote and withdrawn.  The dauphine’s face Anne was seeing now was the one Catherine showed to the world, the one most people saw.    

“I have a gift for Your Majesty,” the dauphine apprised. 

One of her Italian ladies-in-waiting, who waited for her in the antechamber, entered.  She passed the object wrapped in golden and blue brocade to Catherine, who gave it to Anne. 

“This is wonderful!”  Anne cried while unfolding it.  “The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli!  You must have brought this book from Florence because it was prohibited in France.” 

“That is true.  I have many books by Italian humanists and philosophers.” 

“Does His Majesty know about that?  Did he permit you to have these books?” 

“Only to me,” Catherine pointed out.  “I’m sure he will not mind if you have it.” 

Anne smiled her slimiest smile.  “Well, I hope he is not greedy.” 

The dauphine’s gaze drifted to a black marble table in the corner, where a multitude of books lay stacked, a few open.  “May I have a look at them?” 

“Of course, but I fear you will not consider my stock of books very interesting.” 

Catherine stood up and crossed to the table.  She read aloud the titles of a few volumes.  “Commentaries on the Gallic War by François Desmoulins de Rochefort, Paraphrases of the Whole of Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy by Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, as well as the Praise of Folly, the Education of a Christian Prince, and Foundations of the Abundant Style by Erasmus.” 

“These are wonderful works!”  the dauphine assessed.  “I guess you have many more.” 

“I do,” the queen confirmed.  “I especially love reading Erasmus.”  She had developed this habit during her long courtship with Henry when they had debated about many books.    

Catherine picked up one of the volumes by Erasmus and began turning over the pages.  “May I borrow the Ecclesiastes by Erasmus?  It is his new work published three years ago.  I know that it is about effective preaching, and I’m interested in this subject.” 

Anne nodded.  “Of course.” 

“I’ll return it to you soon.”  The dauphine strolled back to the bed. 

“I’d like to take a nap.”  The queen yawned, her hand flying to her mouth. 

As Catherine bobbed a curtsey and stepped backwards, Anne exhaled her breath in a rush.  As soon as her stepson’s spouse exited, relief swathed over her, like flickering shadows from candles.  The dauphine was someone who could undergo metamorphosis several times just within half an hour, like a chameleon.  God in Heaven!  Catherine has done nothing wrong to me, but I do not want to have any contact with her, Anne speculated with a sense of confused wonder. 

“I do not like her,” the queen said to herself as she shut her eyes and fell asleep. 

Chapter Text

Chapter 15: Murder and Triumph

February 20, 1537, Palace of Whitehall, London, England

Numerous lords and ladies had congregated in the royal presence chamber.  A sense of urgent curiosity was pervasive among them, as they watched their liege lord’s meeting with the leader of the dangerous revolt in the north of England against King Henry.  A trepidatious silence ensued as Robert Aske crossed to the throne and made his obeisance, his head bowed low.   

“Welcome to our court,” the monarch’s voice boomed like a cathedral organ. 

Attired in a doublet of flame-colored brocade, a furred velvet mantle of the same hue, and orange hose, the Tudor ruler sat in his gilded throne under a red silk canopy of state.  With his reddish brows lowered forbiddingly, the line of his mouth grim, Henry regarded the assemblage sternly.  His countenance softened a little as his scrutiny concentrated on his guest. 

Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, was as pale as a whitewashed gravestone; he stepped away from the throne.  At the foot of the throne stood Will Sommers, the king’s favorite jester, and near him the Duke of Suffolk.  The Seymour brothers, and a number of other nobles – all Cromwell‘s open enemies – were present as well.  Queen Jane Seymour and Lady Mary Tudor, who were both dressed in modest white gowns ornamented with pearls, wore expressions of anticipation. 

Lady Mary Stafford née Boleyn had found her refuge in the distant corner, together with her uncle – Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk.  For an instant, no one breathed, and Mary’s chest was tight with fright as she observed Aske, who froze on his knees in front of the monarch. 

“This long silence,” began Norfolk, “is an effective way to make Aske frightened.  This man is leading the rebellion against the Crown.  So, His Majesty must put him in his place.” 

Her heart galloped like a panicked horse.  “Will clemency be extended to them all?” 

He disregarded her question.  “The king keeps the traitor on his knees for so long in order to humiliate him.  Aske does not want to die, and he knows it is best to stay meek.” 

Mary inwardly shuddered, for Norfolk’s sneer was a mixture of derision, scorn, and something ominous that she could not fathom out yet.  What does his unsavory smile communicate?  Does it foreshadow something bad?  Why am I feeling as if the end of the world were now upon me?  A tangle of questions tumbled through her head, and her dominant emotion was mistrust. 

Thomas Howard was a self-serving man driven by ambition and a thirst for wealth and power, as well as an absolute faith in the superiority of the Howards over anyone else.  Mary Stafford would never forgive Norfolk for the vile betrayal of Anne and George as the duke had condemned them to death while having presided as Lord High Steward over their unjust trials.  However, in the situation when William Stafford was one of the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace, Mary had overlooked her hatred for the man and begged him to intervene on her husband’s behalf. 

Several weeks earlier, the royal forces under the command of the Dukes of Norfolk and of Suffolk had spotted the troops of the so-called pilgrims, which consisted of about forty thousand men, near Yorkshire.  Aske had coined the phrase ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ to describe their actions as a pilgrimage to the sovereign of England in order to stop the attacks on the monastic houses and to have the realm restored to the Holy Father in Rome.  The insurgents were not a rabble: they were a disciplined and well-organized force, many of whom had fighting experience as they had faced confrontations with the Scots on the country’s northern border for years.  Being significantly outnumbered, the royal troops had not engaged with the foe. 

After William Stafford had joined the rebellion, ignoring his wife’s pleas not to participate, Mary had gone to the north together with their two children.  She had been in Lincoln when the royal page had delivered the monarch’s invitation to court for Robert Aske and his close followers, including Robert Constable and William Stafford, for negotiations.  Fearful for her spouse’s life, Mary had accompanied him to London, where she had found the Duke of Norfolk immediately upon their arrival.  At Whitehall, Stafford, together with Mary, and Constable had been lodged in modest, but comfortable, rooms, but only Aske had been allowed to meet with their liege lord. 

Whatever more her uncle said to her, Mary paid no heed to it, as her attention was focused on the rebel, who finally climbed to his feet at the ruler’s sign.  As the piercing stare of Henry’s chilly aquamarine eyes rested upon Robert Aske, a shiver raced down her spine, raising a trail of anxious goose bumps on her arms.  It occurred to Mary that the monarch could have lured them all into some kind of trap, and Henry’s leer presaged what the outcome might be. 

Mary voiced her conclusion.  “His Majesty will make false promises so that the rebels decide to disperse.  But once the pilgrims go home, Aske’s head will be on a spike.” 

“When has the flippant mistress of two kings become so astute?”  Norfolk then changed his sarcastic tone for one of faux sadness.  “Perhaps you are correct.  Yet, it matters not, niece.”  He snaked a hand around her waist in an exaggeratedly protective manner.  “Whatever happens to them, your pretty head will remain attached to your neck because I want it to be so.”   

She recoiled in revulsion, but he held her tight.  “How dare you–”

“I dare,” he barked, “because I have power.  Shut up and watch.” 

Mary glanced at the rebel, who awkwardly dropped into another bow to his liege lord. 

“Your Majesty,” Robert Aske pronounced coarsely. 

“Mr Aske, come closer.”  King Henry motioned for him to move forward. 

“Thank you.”  The man took a series of tentative steps towards the throne. 

The ruler’s expression of fake sweetness disgusted Lady Stafford.  “I’m very glad to see you, Mr Aske.  I must confess that, for a long time, I believed that I was badly misinformed about the causes of disturbances in the northern part of our kingdom.  However, I’ve recently read your full and frank explanation, and I’ve been persuaded by the justice of your cause.  You see I deem the commonwealth of our realm and love of my subjects as far more precious than any riches.” 

This evoked repugnance in Anne Boleyn’s sister.  The same feeling she had experienced when years ago, a grinning Henry had discarded her – a love-struck foolish girl back then – with his child in her womb, and wished her happiness with her cuckolded husband.  The king is lying through his teeth.  Lying has long become his second nature, Mary lamented, disbelief and horror vying for the upper hand.  His cold eyes and his presumptuous grin speak louder than words.  He has sentenced all of the participants of the uprising to cruel death.  Henry portrayed himself as a benevolent ruler, while in reality he did not care about the people, hankering to spill their blood. 

Mary’s veins were freezing like ice.  “There is the look of the monster he has become in his eyes.  He would kill anyone to meet his lusts and to punish disobedience.” 

“Fortunately, no one hears you, save me.”  Norfolk’s voice was strained. 

They concentrated on the unfolding scene.  Everyone’s inquisitive looks indicated that they had not figured out Henry’s scheme.  The silence deepened, as if the monarch’s speech brought forth a deeper endless night in the realm, as well as a tangible feeling of some sinister premonition.  

Smiling broadly, Aske replied, “I’m humbled by Your Majesty’s words.  Thank you so much for being so wise and so kind!  But I must ask whether Your sacred Majesty intends to fulfil those pledges made in your name by the Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Suffolk.”   

“In every part,” Henry continued the charade.  “I’ll be more merciful than any other king.  The general and liberal pardon shall be extended to all our northern subjects.  There will be a free and lawful election to a Parliament of York every year, where all of the clergy and churchmen, without fear to cause our displeasure, will display their learning and speak their minds.  Furthermore, next year, we ourselves shall come to York to show our great love for the English people.” 

Robert Aske bestowed a grateful smile upon his sovereign.  This poor man does not sense any danger, Mary inferred dejectedly.  He and his friends are all as trapped as fishes in a fisherman’s net.  My dear William…  Oh, my goodness!  Not him!  With a gargantuan effort, she stifled a howl of dread and pain, as her consciousness conjured the pictures of her husband’s gruesome end.  There must be something she could do to aid him, but her thoughts whirled in disjointed disorder. 

As if reading her mind, the Duke of Norfolk growled, “Mary, stay here with me.” 

“I cannot,” she mumbled, stepping forward.  “I must save him!” 

The grip of his hand held her firmly in place.  “You cannot.” 

“He is my husband.”  Her voice was quieter than a whisper, but full of despair. 

The duke admonished, “Stop panicking, you idiot!  Your husband is a traitor whose days are numbered.”  His voice lowered to a dull growl.  “Think of your children with Stafford.” 

Flashing him a hateful look, Mary answered nothing, and veered her gaze to the rebel.  

Aske was still under the delusion that his liege lord wished them all well.  “Your Majesty is truly so magnanimous!  I swear that you shall find no more loving and loyal people in the whole of your realm than northern Yorkshire.  We will glorify your name for all eternity!” 

At the monarch’s gesture, Robert Aske strode closer with a smile. 

Henry broached another topic.  “You have also written against some of my advisors, protesting at their lack of noble blood.  It is too bold on your part, I must say.” 

Mary’s lips lengthened into a vicious smirk as a muscle twitched in Cromwell’s jaw.  She abhorred that murderer, who had fabricated the charges against her siblings, with a loathing that deepened as time went by and was to sour for the rest of her life, unless she could avenge her sister’s and George’s downfalls.  Now her spouse was in peril because of Cromwell’s wickedness. 

The mutineer flushed in spite of himself.  “Your Majesty, I–“

The monarch cut him off.  “I fully agree with you, but don’t say anything.  I assure you that all the enemies of the country will be dealt with.”  There was no malice in his stiff grin, only a trace of amusement, like when one watches a child mispronounce a word in a funny way.

Once again, a sense of loathing to the Tudor beast overwhelmed Mary Stafford.  Her hate for the king ran so deeply that it was now embedded in her skin and bone, flowing through her blood unabated.  Such a potent sentiment was more than she could bear, and she flicked her eyes to Queen Jane, whose face was all joy and pride for her royal spouse’s mercy towards the folk.  Jane’s poor awareness fueled Mary’s disdain further, and she wrenched out of Norfolk’s grip.    

Mary stomped towards the thrones, but her uncle pushed her back into the crowd. 

She felt Norfolk’s irate breathing upon her temple.  “Don’t dig your own grave.” 

“You are a godless scum, Your Grace!” 

“Go!”  Howard shoved his niece into the corridor and nearly dragged her to his apartments. 

Having calmed down, Mary followed Norfolk, sullenly and submissively.  They ascended the staircase and into another corridor, lined with portraits of English monarchs, which startled the unaccustomed eye here and there, as if they had been reflections cast from an ethereal world. 

Mary paused in front of the portrait of King Henry VII.  “His Majesty’s father is looking at us with a promise of long-awaited peace for his war-battered realm.”  A laugh bubbled out of her.  “Henry Tudor must now be spinning in his grave.  If he could see his second son, who once seemed to have been destined for the Church, he would have been disappointed.” 

Norfolk emitted a sigh in partial concurrence.  “I’m a Catholic, and I shall never abjure the true faith.  His late Majesty, King Henry VII, could have been… bewildered.”  His words were mild, for he would never criticize his sovereign aloud.  “He would have been proud as well.” 

“Really?”  She made a face of disdain. 

“As a reformer, you must thank your former lover for breaking with the Pope.” 

She retorted, “How could Henry VII be proud of that monster?” 

“Watch your tongue,” Norfolk advised gruffly.  “Your stupid behavior and the revenge you crave will inflict only disgrace upon your offspring.  Only I can save you, Mary.” 

The duke ushered the confused woman into his quarters and slammed the door.  

§§§

Lady Mary Stafford opened her eyes with effort.  She lay on a canopied bed that stood in the center of the room on a dais with marble tables and couches scattered around it.  The surroundings were unfamiliar, and a handful of flickering candles did little to illuminate the shadowed area. 

“Where am I?”  Mary wondered, disoriented and somewhat perturbed. 

She climbed out of bed and plodded over to a window.  Her gait wavered, as if she suffered from vertigo, and she nearly stumbled; her temples and the back of her skull were hurting.  She felt as if she had drunk herself into a stupor, although she had not consumed any alcohol today. 

Cupping her temples with her both palms, Mary looked out.  The royal park had gone into darkness, and snowflakes swirled like feathers falling from the firmament.  The white blanket over the gardens stretched as far as the eye could reach, and the dark city loomed in the distance.  With a degree of certainty that startled her, she presumed that she must have dozed off a while ago. 

At the sound of footsteps in the adjacent room, she pivoted to face the door that bulged open to reveal the Duke of Norfolk.  She gawked at him as he strode over to where she froze. 

“What happened?”  inquired Mary. 

He stopped beside her.  “They were all arrested and jailed in the Tower.” 

“Who?”  She was now nothing but panic stitched together with threads of terror. 

“Robert Aske, Robert Constable, and William Stafford were all apprehended.  You are lucky to have been asleep while the arrests took place.  There was too much noisy drama in the palace.” 

In a funereal silence, Mary swiveled to the window.  The dainty shimmer of stars, draped across the black heavens, mimicked the sprinkle of snow caught up in the crisp breeze.  The frosty weather mirrored the chill in her soul, which only the sound of William’s laughter could warm. 

She could not believe her uncle.  “Where is my William?” 

His response cut through her like a million daggers.  “In the Tower.  Soon his bill of attainder will be passed.  Then he will be executed without trial, like his conspirators.” 

Mary fumbled backwards to a nearby wall.  Desolate, she leaned against it and slid to sit on the floor with her legs folded and her knees under her chin.  “William,” she sobbed.  “No, he cannot die!  Not my beloved William!  He cannot just disappear from my life!” 

There was something so piteous in the distraught woman’s cries that they raised compassion in Norfolk’s cold heart.  He approached her and stood, watching her weep for a handful of heartbeats before putting an arm around her and hoisting her to her feet, then steadying her. 

“Mary, you are alive.  That is all that matters.” 

She hiccuped.  “My father expelled me from the family and disowned me after my wedding to William.  Why have you suddenly started caring for me, uncle?” 

It was the moment of truth for Norfolk.  “Whether you believe me or not, I did not wish any harm to come to Anne and George.  However, the king yearned to be free of Anne and to wed Jane Seymour.  To safeguard the Howard family, myself, and my power, I had to distance myself from them because they both were a lost cause.”  He heaved a sigh.  “I paid a heavier price than ever to keep myself safe.  But… I could not allow His Majesty to destroy you.” 

Perfect befuddlement painted itself across her visage.  “Why?” 

“You reckon that I’m an unfeeling man, who disposes of those who stand in my way to power without compunction.  But even men like me may have moments of weakness.” 

Mary deduced, “Did the king order to arrest me as well?  He must wish to take my life after his failure to murder Anne.  After all, I was in the north during the uprising before coming here.” 

“Yes,” confirmed the duke.  “After the audience with Aske, I led you to my quarters.  We talked for a short time, and then I gave you a slumberous draught.  After you had fallen asleep, I commanded to bring your children to my rooms; they are waiting for you here.” 

Hope brightened her tearful features.  “My Annie and Edward are both unscratched?” 

“Hale and hearty; they must now be asleep.  But you will still have to travel.” 

“What?”  A puzzled Mary wiped the tears away. 

“My niece,” the Duke of Norfolk said, pointing to the cord with a Boleyn pendant around her neck.  “Although Anne has always been considered the most spirited and opportunistic one of the Boleyn siblings, you are also seeking your own will.  You yearn to live the way you like and act the way you believe is right, even if it goes against the law and society rules you are bound to obey.  If you were like other women, you would never have married William Stafford – a soldier with nothing in his pockets.  How will you find your path?  It is not a thing of choice, but a thing determined by destiny that leads you to where you must be.  And now your place is not in England.” 

Confusion tinted her eyes.  “Explain.” 

He clasped her hands in his.  “Mary, you cannot help Stafford.  No one can.”  He stilled as he discerned reprehension in her gaze.  “Not even me,” he underscored.  “Your husband made his bed when he supported the revolt.  His Majesty will have the heads of every man who dared rebel against him; he enjoined to have even women and children punished.” 

Horror manifested on her countenance.  “King Henry is a callous beast!  He shall be damned to the deepest pits of hell if he goes through this plan!”  Her hand flew to her mouth as a realization dawned upon her.  “Our children!  Have they been condemned too?” 

The agitated glint in his gaze spoke more loudly than any words.  “Catherine and Henry Carey have been estranged from you since your second marriage.  Therefore, nothing bad will happen to them.  Catherine is His Majesty’s daughter, though an unacknowledged one, and so she will be all right.  At the same time, you must take Stafford’s children out of England.” 

The sight of her uncle’s uncharacteristically worried face aroused in Mary a sharp longing for her family – for all her offspring, Anne, and her mother, Lady Elizabeth Boleyn née Howard, but not her father.  “That monster will learn that you aided me to escape.” 

“I’ll weasel out of any charge.  But as a king’s man, I’ll do my duty regardless of my opinion.” 

Solemn glances of comprehension were interchanged.  A tide of fledging respect for her uncle rushed through Mary, but then the old sensation of caution around the man superseded it. 

Touching her shoulder as if to say farewell to her, Thomas Howard uttered, “You will join Anne at King François’ court.  Everything has been arranged for your voyage.” 

“Oh, Anne, my sister!”  Mary broke into a bemused chuckle.  “I’ve missed her so!  And I’ve been afraid for her safety since learning about the invasion of France.”   

Norfolk walked to a table in the corner.  “Be vigilant during your journey, especially in France.  Some provinces are occupied by the Spaniards, but my men know which places to avoid.” 

She noticed that he was emotionally exhausted; such a rare thing when one could see this man without masks of pomposity.  “You going really to be okay, Uncle?” 

Norfolk grinned uncharacteristically kindly.  “Niece, you are addressing me as Uncle again?  Well, perhaps not all is lost for a devil like me.  The past year has had its toll on me.” 

“Be careful,” was all Mary could say.  “Will you safeguard Princess Elizabeth?” 

“Anne’s daughter is at Hatfield, and I have no access there without the king’s permission.  Do not worry about her:  Lady Margaret Bryan and Lady Margery Horsman are taking good care of her.  Lady Horsman joined the princess’ household after Anne had gone into exile to France.” 

“My sister must have asked Margery to do that.  Anne and she are close friends.” 

The Duke of Norfolk grabbed his cap of black velvet with two ostrich plumes from the table.  As he adjusted it on his head, he said, “Tomorrow is another day, Mary.  Don’t think about the past – focus on the future.  Trust me: everything is going to be fine.  We ought to leave.” 

§§§

Abysmal grief crashed upon Mary while Norfolk and his three most reliable servants escorted her and her children through the maze of corridors.  Visions of her life with William Stafford flashed through her mind: their meeting in Calais, their marriage, the birth of little Annie and Edward, and their happy life in poverty, short like a winter day.  Her heart was slipping into a void of hurt. 

At midnight, the hallways were empty, yet footsteps were clacking against the floor. 

“Wait here,” the Duke of Norfolk instructed. 

Nodding at her uncle, Mary ushered the children into a niche in the wall. 

Annie yawned.  “Mama, are we leaving?” 

“Why are we hiding?”  Edward also yawned.  “I want to sleep.” 

“Shhh!”  Mary put a finger to her lips.  “We must escape before… it is too late.” 

“And papa?”  Annie and Edward chorused. 

“Be quiet,” Mary whispered.  “Please…”  A tear fled from her eye.

One of Norfolk’s men interjected, “We are awaiting His Grace.”  

Footsteps were approaching, and discovery seemed imminent for the fugitives.  Then Norfolk spoke, and Mary recognized the voice of the man who responded to her uncle. 

“Not sleeping, Your Grace?”  Sir Nicholas Carew enquired. 

“Insomnia,” the duke answered.  “You don’t look happy, Sir Carew.” 

Carew grouched, “Years ago, I was frequently sent on embassies to Paris.  King Henry wanted again to dispatch me to the French court so as to help Sir Nicholas Wotton – but I refused.” 

“It was reckless of you to act so.  You must obey His Majesty.” 

Carew spat, “I cannot when the Boleyn whore rules the Valois court.” 

“You still hate Anne so?”  Norfolk then listed the privileges the man had obtained.  “The king appointed you knight of the Order of the Garter.  Once you lost the royal favor because of Wolsey’s intrigues, but later you were restored to the Privy chamber.  You were made the junior knight of the shire for Surrey.  All these thanks to Anne!  Moreover, Anne and you are relatives.” 

Mary fisted her hands into balls.  Nicholas Carew and the Boleyn sisters were related via their great-great-grandfather – Thomas Hoo, Baron Hoo and Hastings.  It irked her that Anne had helped their many greedy relatives, but they had all abandoned her or turned on her.  None of them treasured the privileges Anne’s ascendance to the royal position had secured for them.    

“That witch is nothing to me,” Carew blustered.  “I’m sad that she had not been executed, or better burned.  Her place is not on the throne of any country, but in hell.” 

Norfolk looked around.  “Be quiet, Carew.  The king does not wish to hear her name.” 

“I should have been more careful; thank you, Your Grace.”  Carew’s head swiveled back and forth, as he fearfully examined his surroundings several times.  “Nobody heard us.” 

“So, you are staying in England?” 

Carew spoke freely, for the duke had cut Anne out of the Howard clan.  “Despite being angry with me for my refusal, the king also offered me to go to Bologna on a diplomatic mission, and I consented.  I hope not to be absent for long, for I must take care of the king’s eldest daughter.  Poor young princess…erm... lady!  She returned to court, but her father has been distant from her.” 

“Good luck, Sir Nicholas.”  Norfolk reckoned that the man was a fool to trust him.      

“Likewise, Your Grace.”  Carew was surprised by such an abrupt end of their conversation. 

After Carew’s departure, Norfolk hastened to find his niece and the others.     

“All is well.”  The duke took Annie in his arms.  “Quickly!” 

“I loathe Carew,” Mary stung icily.  “He is an ungrateful douchebag.” 

“Gratitude is nothing in power games.”  He indicated towards the right corridor.  “This way!” 

As soon as they exited the palace, Mary was swept by a profound sense of bereavement at the realization that her former life was gone forever.  At present, she hated the English ruler with an insane fervor, which made her ready to sacrifice her soul to this all-consuming passion, as if it were a deity to be worshipped with self-destruction.  Henry Tudor is guilty of William’s imminent death and of George’s demise.  If only I could extract vengeance upon him, Mary mused.   


March 21, 1537, near the city of Poitiers, Poitou, France

The previous weeks had been unusually chilly for this time of year.  The snow hadn’t yet thawed since the temperature was low, as if Thallo, the Greek goddess of spring, had no power. 

The day was cold and crisp; it had stopped snowing in the morning, so the visibility was normal.  Hours before sunset, the French troops were camped near the forest of Nouaillé.  The army, which had arrived in Poitiers a week earlier, consisted of approximately three thousand bowmen, five thousand men-at-arms, and a force of five thousand infantry and six thousand cavalry. 

As the Valois leader walked to the front ranks, the knights bowed to him.   

“Please!”  King François paused in the circle of his soldiers.  “There is no need for that.  We are here as brothers-in-arms to fight for our country against Emperor Carlos.” 

Yet, the men bowed again in reverence.  Others began streaming for where the ruler stood. 

In a voice dripping with conviction, François proclaimed, “Now Ferdinand von Habsburg is our prisoner.  The Imperial troops are depleted on the back of our victory in Chamerolles, and they suffer from decreasing morale due to their losses.”  He surveyed them, his eyes glimmering with sacred knowledge of their success.  “Conditions are ripe for triumph.  We shall win!” 

“Long live His Majesty King François!” 

“Our great Knight-King will lead us to victory!” 

“God bless our chivalrous sovereign!” 

“Save and protect our ruler from the vile emperor!” 

The monarch saluted his subjects.  “Today, we face one of the most compelling challenges in our history.  Some might die as heroes today, and they shall never be forgotten.”  His voice rose in a crescendo of devotion to their homeland.  “With faith in our honorable future, our triumph will be a great achievement not only for the nation, but also for all the people who value harmony above dissension, friendship above animosity, and prosperity above devastation.” 

A chorus of approval boomed like a hundred cannons firing at once. 

The monarch’s countenance was imbued with endless gratitude to his subjects.  “I thank all those who have been staunch in their loyalty to me, your sovereign, and unflagging in their efforts to help France overcome our difficulties.  I’ll keep resolute in our quest for victory.” 

Deafening shouts of adoration for their liege lord rang out like a million bells. 

François moved his speech to the closure.  “God shall bless us, my beloved subjects!”  He then quoted Julius Caesars’ illustrious words, “Veni, vidi, vici!” 

“Lord save and protect the Knight-King!” 

“Death to that Spanish barbarian and his brother!” 

“We shall destroy the Imperial foe, utterly and completely!”  

“Long live King François and Queen Anne!” 

At this, the monarch smiled, pleased that his spouse was hailed.  The French courtiers and even many commoners had conflicted feelings over having Anne as their queen. 

The next proclamation was aimed at cultivating the new queen’s reputation.  “My dearest wife, Queen Anne, saved my life in the Battle of Chamerolles.  She assisted us in securing alliances with the Protestant countries.  She is a true heroine of France, and I’m proud of her.”   

This time, the response was less enthusiastic and even somewhat reluctant. 

With a sigh of disappointment, the ruler prompted, “Ready for battle!”  

Many approached the king, one of them Anne de Montmorency, Marshal of France. 

François walked to Montmorency.  “What of your report?” 

A knavish grin creased the marshal’s mouth.  “Our spy counselled Emperor Carlos and his generals that their attack ought to be delivered on foot.  He pointed out that their horses were vulnerable to our arrows at Chamerolles, which resulted in the heavy casualties on their part.  The emperor heeded this advice: his army left its baggage train behind and formed up nearby.” 

The monarch broke into laughter.  “Notwithstanding his valor and military talent, Carlos seems to have lost his vigilance due to fatigue.  He has forgotten the lessons of history.” 

“Yes,” concurred his companion.  “This time, the French will win the Battle of Poitiers.” 

“The Lord hear thee in the day of trouble.”  The king crossed himself.  

§§§

The prayer done, the Valois monarch returned to his tent and donned his armor.  He then went back to the front lines and ordered the commanders to array their men in a defensive posture among the snow-laden hedges and, beyond them, an expanse of blinding white orchards and pastures. 

For the French, the present situation mirrored that for the English before the Battle of Poitiers of 1356.  The royal armies occupied vantage points on the natural high ground so that the bowmen would obtain a considerable advantage over the heavily armored Imperial masses.  Claude de Lorraine, Duke de Guise, deployed several divisions of archers behind a prominent thick hedge. 

King François addressed his marshal.  “During that dratted Hundred Years’ War, Edward the Black Prince won the Battle of Poitiers thanks to the English longbow.  Today, France will wash away the old shame of her ignominious defeat at the hands of foreign invaders.” 

“Amen to that.”  Montmorency raised his gaze to the heavens. 

“How is the siege of Genoa progressing?” 

“The Turks have been besieging Genoa, but the city is still resisting.” 

The monarch called for his men from the Scots guard to join the column.  The Spanish footmen were now crossing the snow-covered field that was like white paper, on which the metallic figures of warriors cast the eerie likeness of startling phantasies of war.  After ordering the French archers to be at the ready, François contemplated the front ranks of the Imperial cavalry rounding a bend of a frozen stream as his mind replayed the battle plan over and over again.   

Suddenly, a recognizable Spanish voice cried, “Keep close together, men!”   

An angry François gripped his reins.  “That bastard is again disguised!” 

Instantly, Montmorency barked to the guards, “Do not leave His Majesty alone!” 

“Fire!”  The king dismounted, and grabbed his own bow from his shoulder. 

The Duke de Guise snickered.  “Many insects will die in the next moment!” 

At Guise’s signal, many archers, who had been deployed on the wings in front of the cavalry, poured a volley of arrows upon the foreigners, many of whom slipped onto the earth, although some climbed to their feet.  Arrows were again loosed to inflict more damage upon the foe before the Spanish infantry could advance.  The compact bows of the French fighters, made of wood, horn, and tendon, could fire arrows with enough velocity to punch through even plate armor. 

Smirking at the sight of their first success, François nocked an arrow.  He chose a target: one of the front men carrying a broad standard, emblazoned with the Habsburg arms.  Holding his breath, he let it fly and watched it strike the man in the thigh, below the shield.  The Spaniard fell, and those behind tripped over him and helped him stand up just as François shot again. 

Most of the Imperial men kept marching towards the French columns.  Only a dozen yards to François’ right, four of his men were injured, while another two spread out, firing crossbow bolts on the attackers.  Someone hoisted his spear to throw it at the monarch, only to receive a bolt in the throat.  The French rained down arrows and javelins on the adversary; François also continued shooting while being protected by Philippe de Chabot, who held a shield before him. 

Many arrows hit home: hundreds of invaders were now piled up in the snow, reddened with their blood.  Within the space of a few minutes, they were temporarily repelled.     

“We have done it!”  François lauded, and his men joined in his cheering. 

“Retreat slightly!”  Carlos shrilled to his comrades in Spanish.  “Regroup!” 

The emperor and his men started moving backwards in step and reached the center of the battlefield.  The French gave chase to preclude them from escaping into the safety of the juxtaposed woods.  The Imperial warriors had just enough time to form a semicircle around their master for his protection, which allowed François to figure out where his archrival was hiding. 

“Capture Carlos!”  François shouted above the din of the collision.  He then shouldered his bow and ran to his destrier.  “My men!  Follow me!” 

“Protect the king!”  Montmorency enjoined.  “At any cost!”  He was awash with relief as Chabot and a small squad rushed after their foolhardy liege lord. 

A horn sounded, and the French heard the rumble of hooves.  That would be the foreign cavalry charging forward to aid the emperor, countered by the French cavalry that surged forward, pushing back the foe.  This time, the French strengths matched those of the Holy Roman Empire, and the cavalries battled for half an hour, but eventually, the Spanish had to withdraw.  

Someone killed the horse behind the Valois monarch, just as it had happened during the Battle of Pavia.  Surrounded by adversaries from all sides, François remained as tranquil as one is in a serene hour of quietness.  The king spotted the broad Habsburg standard of the approaching knight, who suddenly hurled a spear towards him.  It struck François in the flank, but the blow was turned aside by his mail; he spun and slashed down, snapping the spear shaft in half.  

“Who is it?”  Straining his sight, François discerned the warrior whom he had wounded in the thigh at the beginning of the confrontation.  “It is him!”  he soliloquized. 

Drawing his weapon, the ruler impaled one of his opponents; others glared at him through the visors of their helmets.  A moment later, a sword rang off the back of François’ helmet, and he staggered forward, blinking at the knight who came into view – the man was his worst enemy. 

In these historical moments, Carlos von Habsburg personally faced François de Valois on the battlefield.  The emperor’s gray eyes exuded malicious glee, for he had circumvented his Valois counterpart, and his colossal hatred darkened them to the color of steel.  Leering, Carlos wielded his weapon towards François, who instinctively veered away to evade a fatal blow.   

“You will lose, Carlos!”  promised François in accented Spanish. 

The King of France cut down another adversary.  Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a sword flashing towards his skull.  He swiftly ducked, avoiding Carlos’ assault, but another blade was thrusting towards him, which he blocked at the very last moment.  François spotted Chabot beside him, his gaze frightened because of his king’s close brush with mortality. 

“Thank you, my friend.”  The ruler smiled at his subject. 

“Safeguard His Majesty!”  Montmorency was trapped amongst the fighting mass. 

The sun hung low in the dim gray firmament, throwing inky shadows across the field that was now littered with mutilated corpses and dead animals.  Where the sun’s bleak light fell, the snow on the blood-soaked ground glittered like rubies.  From their mythological realm, the deities of war curiously observed the dramatic spectacle performed by the two powerful archenemies. 

An anxious Guise endeavored to help his sovereign.  However, the Swiss mercenaries, who also obeyed the emperor, launched a ferocious assault on the team of archers. 

Propelled by his unbridled fury, King François slashed across the leg of Emperor Carlos.  His opponent dropped to one knee, and François jumped to him, landing beside Carlos and glaring at him down with such Cyclopean loathing that the emperor anticipated that the blade would pierce his heart.  However, the ruler of France froze until his eyes lost their murderous zeal. 

 François stepped back before hissing in Spanish, “I do not kill a fallen man.” 

Nonplussed, Carlos articulated in his native tongue, “Your code of honor might lead you to your grave.”  For the most part, they had spoken this language during François’ captivity in Madrid. 

All of a sudden, Don Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba, who had distinguished himself in the Imperial conquest of Tunis, steered his unit to his master.  Distracted, François and his men were pushed back a few feet before the charge was stalled by Montmorency’s divisions. 

The Duke of Alba and the emperor retraced the route Carlos had taken earlier to reach François for a duel.  Countless arrows whizzed and whizzed on, and Alba raised his shield above his master’s head and held it sideways.  Thousands of French emerged out of the woods under the leadership of Claude d’Annebault, swarming the area like hungry vultures.  However, the Spanish, though a losing party, showed rather stubborn resistance.  Claude de Guise had the archers redeployed to a position where they could hit the unarmored sides and backs of the enemy’s horses. 

François joined the fight and soon lost track of the number of opponents he dispatched.  All the time, Chabot and Annebault stayed by the monarch’s side, both attentive and ruthlessly efficient.  As the sun was setting, the sky glowed crimson, as if symbolizing the slaughter of the invaders.  A French horn sounded three short blasts, signaling that now the Imperial forces were in full retreat.  The war cries were replaced by groans of the dying and wounded, rippling through the frosty air. 

The Valois ruler galloped around the perimeter of the field, searching for his mortal foe.  His guards split up in their pursuit of the emperor, who had just disappeared with his loyal commander.  The Duke of Alba’s cries to evacuate the emperor steadily grew more dispersed.

A chagrined and indignant François reined to a halt on some flat land before the piles of red snow.  “I’ll inspect the breadth and depth of the battlefield to find him.” 

“For King François!”  Guise roared as he fired an arrow.

“Kill them all!”  bellowed Montmorency. 

François coveted to take his Habsburg rival prisoner.  “Find Carlos!” 

Two arrows lodged in the legs of Annebault, who slipped from his stallion.  The king’s men divided, riding in a circle to safeguard their liege lord and his injured advisor.  Meanwhile, Guise’s archers directed myriads of arrows at the fleeing foes, while the French cavalry reached the rearmost Imperial knights and slain many, chopping off limbs and scattering bodies left and right. 

 “To me!”  the Duke of Alba shrieked in a voice colored with urgency and unutterable despair.  “The emperor has been shot!  For the love of Christ, take him to safety!” 

At this, a dozen of the French cavalrymen, with François at their helm, dashed to Alba’s soldiers, who were carrying the unconscious Habsburg monarch.  As they neared the panicking Spanish, another shaft slammed into the emperor’s chest.  Being close to his rival again, François saw no blood because the arrows had penetrated Carlos’ mail, but not the leather vest beneath. 

“It is the emperor!”  apprised Montmorency.  “Do not let him escape!” 

The small Imperial cortege urged their steeds into an insane gallop.  Some of Alba’s soldiers steered their beasts to the King of France and his guards so as to divert their attention, and by doing so, allow others to vanish into the safety of the woods.  François came alongside a Spanish warrior, who hacked at him, but he parried before swinging backhanded and catching the man in the chin. 

“After them!  Now!”  François blocked and spurred away, his horse knocking aside some of the enemy’s mounts.  “For France!”  His knights hurried after him. 

§§§

François urged his mount faster, but there were nonetheless too many men between him and the Habsburg monarch.  As they dived into the forest, a group of Imperial warriors appeared from around the side of a road.  François raised his shield just in time before a lance slammed into it, sending him flying down from his destrier and into the cold, yet soft, pile of snow.  

The ruler clambered to his feet.  “I wish all the Spaniards had been at the bottom of the sea!”  He repeated Anne’s infamous words about his enemy’s nation.   

The Imperial knights were gone, Emperor Carlos with them.  Many French soldiers were pursuing them; others huddled nearby, awaiting the royal orders. 

Montmorency, Guise, and Chabot brought their mounts to a halt.    

“Your Majesty,” said the Marshal of France cautiously, “there is no sense in trying to find the emperor now.  It is nightfall, and we might get lost in the dark woods.” 

“Damn!”  François peered at the road, shadowed by the snow-capped trees. 

Montmorency worked to diffuse the tension.  “We have won the Battle of Poitiers!” 

Chabot intoned, “Our ancestors who died here have been avenged!”

The Marshal of France commended, “The soldiers of the great King François are far better trained and braver than those of King John II had once been.  In spite of being your forefather, King John lacked military prowess, wisdom, and cunning, unlike Your Majesty.”  

However, their sovereign’s mood was as gloomy as the blackest void in Tartarus.  “John and I have something in common: we were both captured by invaders.” 

“Today, you avoided that,” underscored Chabot. 

“But Carlos fled,” François rasped. 

His subjects were all cognizant of their king’s scorching disdain towards the emperor.  Alarm crawled beneath their skin, like a worm through wet earth.  They were a little terrified of the ruler’s immeasurable animosity towards the Habsburgs, which had burrowed into François’ very soul. 

The distant roar of ordnance from the French camp heralded their victory in Poitiers.  Now it was only a matter of weeks, perhaps days, before the invaders were ejected or destroyed. 

It seemed a long time later when the drum of hoofbeats was heard. 

The king’s eyes flashed.  “Maybe they have got him.” 

His friends prayed that the monarch would not rush into the darkened forest.    

“There you are, Your Majesty!”  The Italian accent was so thick that the words uttered in French were not easily comprehensible.  “Congratulations on the demise of your foe!” 

Ercole II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, Modena, and Reggio, slid from the saddle and hugged the monarch.  Clad in Spanish armor, he was a handsome young man, his dark hair tousled and his face unshaven because of his continuous martial exploits.  His tall, well-proportioned figure was seen well as he parted from the embrace and then, for the better convenience in walking, divested himself of the mantle, embroidered with gold, which was slipped over his shoulders.

François was Ercole’s father-in-law by the man’s union with Renée of France, Queen Claude’s younger sister and the king’s niece through marriage.  The Duke of Ferrara’s loyalties had once fluctuated between the rulers of France and the Holy Roman Empire.  Nevertheless, the Habsburg invasion of France had caused him to drift towards the allegiance to François, for Ercole had realized that one day, Carlos, who did not comply with treaties, could invade or annex his lands. 

“My most inconstant spy!”  François joked. 

Ercole criticized in a jesting manner, “Don’t be ungrateful, Your Majesty!  I’ve aided you to win today’s confrontation.”  His lips lengthened into a grin.  “The emperor escaped, but he is injured.  Yet, we have Ferdinand and also someone of importance to your new wife.” 

The ruler quizzed, “What do you mean?” 

“This bonny lady,” the other man answered.  “And her children.”  

The Duke of Ferrara gestured towards the Lady Mary Stafford, who wore a warm cloak lined with rabbit skin.  Everyone’s astonishment bordered on incredulity as they eyed the King of France’s ex-mistress, whom François had defamed as a whore years ago. 

Her features as pale from the cold and worry as the finest alabaster, Mary sat on a horse nearby.  Her children, Annie and Edward, were in the cart behind their mother’s palfrey. 

The monarch was shamefaced at the remembrance of the insults he had rewarded Mary with during the Field of Cloth of Gold of 1520 and later so long ago.  The others stared at the infamous former mistress of two kings, as if they could see the touch of every man she had been with. 

Anne de Montmorency and Mary Stafford avoided eye contact.  When she had lived at the Valois court, he had taken her maidenhead before she caught François’ eye, and it was their secret.  The intersection of their gazes aroused in both of them a forbidden fluttering of memories of their encounters in the past.  In youth, Mary had been flippant enough to have had several lovers. 

The marshal’s hardened warrior heart skipped a beat as his scrutiny focused upon Mary.  She had aged well and had no wrinkles, and she could be considered a woman in her prime.  Her cloak hugged her figure tightly, still slender and finely curved, despite her several pregnancies throughout Mary’s two marriages.  She was still quite a lovely woman, and he recalled that Anne Boleyn’s elder sister had once been considered the grandest English rose at the Tudor court. 

“Why are you here, Madame Stafford?”  inquired King François, taking a step to her. 

Masking her inner tumult, Mary responded in flawless French, “His Grace of Ferrara saved me from the Spanish camp, where I had spent the previous week.”  At the sight of his befuddlement, she elaborated, “My children and I were travelling from England to find my sister.” 

The king was shocked.  “Didn’t you know about the invasion?”  

She blurted out, “I’m a widow!  King Henry executed many rebels, my husband among them, and he would have murdered me if my uncle hadn’t helped me to run away.  I knew that France was a dangerous place now, but I had no choice.  The weather was bad, so we found refuge in Normandy, where Imperial agents discovered and delivered us to the emperor in Poitou.” 

Ercole explained, “I took her with me during my own escape.” 

Mary wiped away tears with her palm.  “I’m sorry for my lack of restraint.” 

François appeased, “That is all right.  Now you are safe.” 

Once more, a tempest of sobs assailed Mary.  Montmorency perused her, his mouth open, his chest tightening with atypical anguish.  To him, this suffering creature was more beautiful than Anne Boleyn and even than the copy of the Madonna by Sandro Botticelli, which hung behind the altar of his private chapel in one of his estates.  Meandering tears whitened paths down her cheeks as she wept anew, making her blue eyes almost as translucent as the clear seawater. 

“Madame, time heals all wounds.”  The marshal’s voice sounded hoarse. 

Mary huffed in annoyance.  “Monsieur, I heard that your wife is hale and hearty, giving you a babe almost every year.  What do you know about bereavement?” 

“I did not want to…”  Montmorency fumbled for words, but found none.  

Guise mocked, “All paths in France lead to the two Boleyn girls.” 

Montmorency growled, “You are a fool, Guise.” 

Philippe de Chabot, who despised both of the Boleyn sisters, intervened, “Sophocles said that silence gives the proper grace to women.  I’m certain that Lady Stafford knows this.” 

The marshal glowered at Chabot.  “Philippe, do not be rude.” 

François reprimanded, “Where are your gallant manners, Philippe?” 

The Admiral de Brion held his ground firmly.  “I’ve simply quoted Sophocles.” 

“Indeed.”  The Duke de Guise believed that Chabot ought to have concealed his scorn towards the queen’s sister, just as he did.  “But should a lady stay in the forest for so long?” 

The king closed the topic.  “Let’s return to the camp and check on Annebault.” 

Soon the small party left the forest of Nouaillé behind.  As they neared the camp, the cries of triumph were as loud as those of the god Mars, announcing another Roman conquest.  Soon they were joined by the heavy beat of drums and the fanfares of trumpeters. 

Exhausted and agitated, Mary observed the snowflakes churn up white waves in the air.  As her consciousness swerved back to William Stafford’s tragedy, tears suffused her eyes.  She thought of Anne, while the horses and the cart slowly trudged along the snow-laden road.  Anne must crave revenge upon that Tudor monster. I’m burning with hatred for him!  Together we shall become the unstoppable gale, Mary swore again as the cortege came to a standstill.