Chapter 1: Ever After?
Danielle clutched her middle, feeling the pain ebb away to a dull ache, the absence of what could have been.
The midwife shook her head sadly as she examined the pooled mass in her basin. "I'm sorry, Majesty. Truly I am. I thought for sure this time.."
Danielle waved her away. She had expected as much. This was the third time; she only hoped the fever would spare her.
"Shall I send for your husband?"
Danielle flinched at the word. "No, Marie. Thank you. I should like to be alone for a few days."
Marie blanched; Henry wouldn't like that one bit, not if he wanted conjugals. "Are you certain, Majesty? He might offer some.. comfort to you." She knew this was a good time to conceive anew, when the blood was fresh, the womb ready, expecting a tenant -
"No." The wall was up, the voice now as cold as the winds which whipped against the walls of the castle. Her prison.
"Very well, Majesty."
As Marie turned to leave, Danielle's façade cracked for a moment. "Marie?"
"Send for Signor DaVinci. Please. Tell him.. Tell him it's regarding the great work."
Marie, confused but relieved, nodded in obeisance. Danielle set her face towards the window, watching the snow begin to fall.
Winter had come early this year; all the land lay barren, and she imagined herself soaking into that hard, unforgiving ground, becoming one with the fruitless earth.
Within a few weeks, Danielle was mobile again, if a little pale. The bleeding had slowed, and she had begun to allow Henry to visit her chambers once more. His stays gave her no pleasure, so to fill the hours before dark, she called upon what few friends she was allotted. Signor Leonardo was her favorite, her most trusted.
This visit, however, was cause for grave alarm. He was in bed, and did not rise to greet Danielle.
He coughed; at least it sounded dry. A dry cough could surely be overcome, couldn't it?
"Danielle. What are you doing out so soon? You should rest."
She set down her basket of needlework - Henry despised idle hands, even during social calls - and took a seat on the end of the bed. "Why did you not send for me?"
He smiled, weakly. "You, my child, have the face of an angel, but I daresay you don't have the healing powers of one." Another cough, this one rattling deeper inside of the old chest.
"Are you in pain?" The kindness in her, once her resting face, now so rarely shown, surfaced anew.
"It's nothing. Show me - show me what you've been working on."
Sheepishly, she pulled out the little square of cloth with its subpar stitching. "This is me," she said, feeling childlike, "and here is the castle.. and the stables.. the fields beyond.."
Signor was listening carefully, focusing his watery eyes on the work before him.
When she had finished deciphering the haphazard shapes, he looked at her.
"What is it, Signor?"
"You haven't added Henry."
Her face colored to match her burgundy gown as she realized it was true. Oh, thank heavens she hadn't presented it to Henry yet; he would be -
"No. I.. I meant to, later."
His finger tilted her chin, lifting her gaze. "The years have not been kind to you, have they, Danielle? There is a weariness, a .. heaviness about you."
She began to wring the cloth, twisting it between her fingers in her lap. "I have lost three pregnancies before the fifth month, and a fully-formed child besides. Who would not have some heaviness, Signor, under the circumstances?" Danielle remembered the face of her daughter, the cupid's bow mouth, the nose the shape of her own dearly departed father's -
"I didn't mean it unkindly. I worry for you."
Danielle forced a smile. "It is I who should worry for YOU. Have you eaten? Shall I make you something?"
It did her good to tend to someone who appreciated it, so he let her. When she had prepared a thin broth, he sipped at it slowly.
"I should like to teach you about herbs, Danielle. There are a great many things you don't know, and I feel time is escaping us."
She nodded, somber. "I should like that very much. Surely Hen - no one could object to me learning more about cooking."
It was settled; she would return the next day, or as soon as she was able, to begin learning all that the great mind had to teach her about plants and their various benefits.
It was to be a most enlightening curriculum.
Chapter 2: Pills and Potions
Danielle learns about herbs.. among other things
Signor DaVinci had arranged the various jars and pots with care. Each one was carefully labeled in his own hand. They were dried, of course; this time of year, there was no chance of finding fresh green things - but some things were more potent when dried.
There were soups, sauces and teas; there were poultices and balms, oils for the skin and the hair - to soothe, to beautify, to exfoliate. Signor had prepared a special salve for a delicate issue, and Danielle found that it greatly reduced the duration of the blister outbreaks upon her sex.
"How did you know?," she asked, blushing.
"Henry is not a master of discretion. I don't know that I should tell you.."
But he knew he would cave under her earnest, pleading gaze.
"Very well. There is talk that he frequents the house of Delacroix. There are three daughters there of marriageable age, and no father. Only an old mother with ideas above her station. One of the girls favors Marguerite."
She had neither said nor heard that name in years - not since receiving a desperate and journey-beaten missive from the Americas, begging forgiveness, begging to return to France, even if it was to stand on the very furthest tip of the soil, with one toe in the sea. Rodmilla and Marguerite's literacy and deportment were not highly prized attributes in the colony to which they had been shipped, and the pair had had to resort to the oldest and most enduring profession available to their sex. Marguerite, the carefully-cultivated rose, had found herself at the mercy of many New World thorns, and was currently with child - whose child was anyone's guess. Danielle, repulsed by the very idea of her stepsister raising a child - even the child of a filthy whoremonger - had resealed the letter, unfinished, and ordered it to be destroyed.
"I am sorry, Danielle. The pustules - I trust they are improved?"
She nodded. "Much improved. Thank you."
"I must write down the recipe, so that you will have it when I am gone. From what I have seen and read, there is no cure - only treatment."
She let that sink in. She would have these.. things, again and again, for life. Danielle couldn't help but wonder if they had some bearing on her inability to have a healthy baby, if they were somehow infecting her insides where no one could see. Perhaps when I am dead, she mused, they will cut me open and learn what he has done to me.
"Gone? Signor?" Her mind snapped back to the present, latching on to those words: 'when I am gone.'"
"My child, the evening hour is fast approaching. Don't let's waste it on sobbing and blubberishness."
He scribbled the recipe on parchment, double checking it before handing it to her. "Guard it well. Some people don't deserve relief."
She had to laugh at that. "I couldn't agree more."
The rest of the afternoon passed in happy learning. Still, the old man seemed more tired than usual.
"Shall I come again tomorrow?," she asked, uncertain.
"I think you'd better, my dear. It won't be long now."
Danielle closed the door behind her, leaning against it to ground herself. As much as she wanted him to be wrong, he was a brilliant man; who was she to question his ability to foretell his own passing, just as he had foreseen so many other significant events?
It would be a long, dark night.
Chapter 3: Goodbye
DaVinci's parting gift
He had found the needlework. Danielle's servant had been careless, leaving it so near the bed; after Henry had done huffing and puffing atop his wife, he had reached for his nightshirt, only to grab the blasted cloth instead.
"What primitive forms you stitch, my dear."
Her stomach curdled; couldn't he leave her in peace to tend to her douche? She now knew she was risking her life with each failed pregnancy, and the thought of bringing a child into this mess of a marriage was beyond what she could bear. Her pain was her own; she would not subject an innocent babe to its burden.
Henry prattled on and on, and Danielle's mind drifted to those carefree days of running in the fields with her friend Gustave. Oh, if only she had been content to be his wife! They would have been poor, but happy. Although he did not make her heart race, he was honest and kind. How had she not seen his love for her, shining like a golden thread running through the tapestry of her youth? Her marriage to Henry had snapped that thread, and Gustave had placated himself with another. Elise was a pretty thing, if a bit dull in the head, and she loved him as he had once loved Danielle. Gustave would never strike a woman, would never call her names or use filth words as Henry so often did -
"Did you hear me? I asked which of these wretched figures is supposed to be me?"
Danielle stammered. "I.. thought it best not to include you in it. You see, you're so often away on trade, or-or political matters; I wanted to show you as a ruler, not a.. peasant. You're so.. far removed from it all, Henry."
He searched her face, finding no trace of mockery - but the fear in her eyes angered him. How dare she fear him?
"I don't believe you. You're trembling. Besides, you make it sound as though I abandon you and my subjects."
She was damned, no matter what she said next.
"I.. didn't mean it like that. I.. I miss you while you're gone." How many lies had she told to soothe him? His father was a gibbering buffoon, reduced to drooling and blowing raspberries by a series of strokes. The queen mother was gone, a victim of a malady no doctor could name. Danielle missed them terribly, their honesty, their openness with her. What sort of person had she become, simply to survive?
Henry, crushing his lips to hers, sneered. "You miss me?"
She nodded, weakly, unwilling to repeat the lie. So many stains on her soul -
"Show me. Worship me."
Whatever did he mean?
"Pay me honors with your lips." As Henry shoved her head lower, she realized with horror what he meant. The outbreak was dried up and faded, but still there; would it mark her face? Was it not enough to have these sores, these blights, upon her womanhood; must her shame be upon her visage for all to see?
"Wherever did you get such a thought?," Danielle whimpered.
"Never mind that. Do it."
The cruel bastard. She wept as she suckled, and Henry laughed. Danielle swore she heard him say another name, though she couldn't be sure what it was. He befouled her mouth with his issue, then left her chamber without another word.
Danielle wept, soaking the needlework. The fire beckoned, and she moved toward it. Extending her arm as far as it would go, she tossed the work into the flames, knowing she would not sleep this night.
Signor was in bed once more, and Danielle thought guiltily of how much energy he had expended on her account the day before.
"Is there anything I can get you?"
He had the oddest look in his eye, and she knew something important would transpire ere she left him. "There is, but - not yet. For now, we resume the lessons."
This man had such grace, a way of setting her at ease no matter what was going on inside the castle. Though his quarters were a short walk from the gate, it always felt like entering another world, a world of knowledge and safety. "Peace within thy walls."
How many times had this man pretended not to notice her marks, merely offering her a cold compress or a warm cloth with which to refresh herself? "Good for the skin," he always said, and she always accepted whatever he offered. There was no malice in him, no arrogance; he was the most straightforward person she'd known, other than her father.
She nodded. Nothing more was said about it; he understood.
As the sun began to set, Danielle grew anxious. Signor had given her copious notes, stopping only to sip tea or cough into a handkerchief.
She carefully set aside the last page. "Signor?"
"Danielle, tonight, I shall die."
"How can you know? How can anyone know?"
He smiled. "Because I choose this night."
Tears pricked her eyes. Her lips were tingling, itching, though she doubted that that was a symptom of grief.
"I don't understand."
He settled himself against the pillow. "Would you make me one last cup of tea before you go?"
Danielle obliged, boiling the water, adding the usual leaves and spices.
"Now, would you put on those leather gloves, the ones hanging on that hook?"
Danielle took them down, examining them. "Whatever for?"
"Because this, Danielle, is to be a very special tea. It is so wondrous, it will allow me to see the face of God."
She dropped the gloves in horror. "Signor, I can't - you can't be - "
He looked at her with fatherly concern. "I am old. I have seen a great many wonderful things, and many not-so-wonderful. I have passed on much of my knowledge, to others, and now to you. The pain is getting more severe, and what's worse, my memory is starting to fray. When something is old and worn out past its usefulness, we dispose of it, do we not?"
She was crying now, great fat tears rolling down her cheeks. "What shall I do without you?"
"The gloves, Danielle."
She put them on, whimpering. He directed her to a hidden vial, instructing her on how much of the contents were needed in the tea - and explained why she needed gloves.
"This herb is very potent. It can enter the body through the skin, so you must never touch it directly. Understood?"
Time stood still as Danielle realized that this was far more than his way of ending his own suffering. He was offering her a chance to end hers as well.
She brought him the tea, and he raised the cup in a "Saluta," downing the contents at a swallow.
Danielle held her breath, but nothing happened. Had he been mistaken? Or joking? Was it a test?
"It works within a period of several minutes. I will seem to sleep, but it will be more than sleep. I have read it is not painful."
She petted his hand, holding it as if the hand were the thing which were dying.
"Are you not afraid?"
He considered it for a moment. "I have done all the good I can. I have also done.. well.. You must have heard rumors about me; you must know what I am. What I was. All those beautiful young men. Ahh.." He sighed in fond remembrance. "But God is good. He is just. Whatever I find on the other side, I deserve."
Danielle could not fathom this man being met by anything less than a chorus of angels.
"Will you stay with me until I fall asleep?"
She gave her word.
"And, when I am sleeping, do not let any silly person kiss me on the mouth - or they, too, might share my bed."
Danielle laughed, finding it odd. Then again, he was an odd man, and this was an odd situation. "I understand."
"Be happy, Danielle. Life is short. Be happy."
"And you, Signor. And you."
He spoke no more, seeming to fall into a dream, a pleasant one, she was relieved to note. Then he stilled, the room suddenly quieter without the sound of his ragged breathing.
He was gone.
Chapter 4: Tea for..
Henry. Oh, Henry.
Danielle had returned home as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. The gloves had been thrown into the fire; she would request a pair for herself when the time came.
Henry was the one who found him, and Danielle was almost sorry he did not kiss the old man as he wept. Almost.
"A most peculiar plague, Sire. None of the physicians have been able to identify it." Henry's simpering entourage bobbed their heads in agreement.
He was sulking, and it took every ounce of self-restraint for Danielle not to roll her eyes at it. He'd barely visited the old man in his final illness, and now he was brooding over his 'loss.'
"Perhaps we ought to preserve the house as a memorial, darling. Keep his things just as he left them." Danielle found that, sometimes, if she spoke softly in the presence of the court, Henry's advisors would parrot her idea as their own, and Henry would accept it. This was just one such occasion.
"Sire," one began, "why don't you preserve DaVinci's quarters in tribute to him? That way, you can visit whenever you like, and it will seem as though he's merely popped out for a walk."
Henry brightened, the man-child in him sparking to the idea. "Yes. It would ease my sorrows, while honoring his memory. It shall be done. Danielle, YOU shall be in charge of keeping his quarters in neat order."
She nodded humbly. "As you wish."
Now she would have free reign to come and go as she pleased, and no one would think anything of it.
Henry had just sealed his own doom.
She'd given him chance after chance. Danielle had had the finest storytellers come in to write down the epic tale of how Henry had wooed his Cinder-girl, hoping the memory would snap him out of his tyranny. They had added other tales as well, embellishments of his military exploits, grandiose accounts of how the kingdom prospered under his rule, stories of his.. prowess, and so on. Henry had hardly glanced at them.
One last chance, she vowed to herself. It was, after all, Henry's birthday tomorrow, and she knew all of the things he loved to .. receive.
Her ladies in waiting had bathed her, scrubbing and scraping until the flaws were all but invisible. Her lips' sores had stopped weeping, and skillful paint covered the scars. Danielle looked like a courtesan, worthy of an audience with any royal; her body was powdered and perfumed until she was fairly choking on the scents, and squeezed into her tightest, finest gown. Supper was to be served in Henry's chamber, and Danielle gritted her teeth at the thought of spoon-feeding him. Better a spoon than her fingers, she supposed.
Henry was wary at first, but she was so gay and charming, he soon began to believe she was sincere. Perhaps she had finally become the wife he'd wanted; this could be the dawn of a new era. What better way to seal this new beginning than by getting her with child?
With a wicked giggle, Danielle extricated herself from his grip. "Oh, Sire, I have so many delights in store for you. But first, I must give you something - something I've been keeping from you for weeks."
His anger began to percolate. "Keeping from me, precious?"
She nodded. "I must go and get it from its hiding place. Pardonne."
When she returned, she wore nothing but her undergarments - and a pair of white kid-skin gloves to match. They looked so soft, and he could imagine the feel of them on his naked skin..
"This, my love. Signor DaVinci left it among his things, with a note, saying it was just for you - for a special occasion. I'm not to enjoy a bit of it myself; he was quite adamant about that."
Henry smiled, smugly. "The dear old man. What is it?"
"A tea. He worried for you, Henry; this tea should ensure that you never fall victim to the plague which has cut down so many robust royal youths."
"Ah. So he found a preventive draft, and he was good enough to safeguard it for me? Not even taking it himself! Such a generous soul, always thinking of the crown!"
"Yes, my love. The crown.. must be protected at all costs."
He watched her tightly-bound form as she brewed the tea. "You know, Danielle, if you were to change a few things about yourself, you'd really be rather pretty."
"Yes. Your hair, for instance. I've heard there are ways to make it.. lighter. Golden. Like the women from the Dane-land."
Pleased with his success thus far, he began to list more suggestions. "Your waist. There are corsets in the Americas which are even tighter than ours, making the waist almost impossibly small."
"And your face-paints.. They're quite charming, but I wonder if a beauty mark would suit you? Just there," he said, pointing to a place above the corner of his lip.
"Your tea is almost ready." Steadying her hands, she carried the cup to him.
"To Signor," he said, lifting the cup.
Danielle raised an invisible glass to toast. "To Signor, and to happily ever after."
Henry drank the tea, and continued to talk for several minutes. When he began to yawn, Danielle's heart thundered in her chest. Would the added herbs have the desired effect? She had studied the notes meticulously, but, without a trial run.. She wanted him to suffer inside, just as he had made her suffer. He did not deserve a wholly peaceful death.
Yes. Henry began to itch, then to moan. "Oh.. Too much rich food. Must.. oh.."
Danielle helped him to bed. "Shall I finish giving you the rest of your birthday surprise?"
He was rather clammy. "Can't manage that just now," he said, trying for levity.
"I meant the stories I had prepared for you."
She had been so giving of herself; he owed her that much. "Very well. You may tell them."
"Once upon a time, a handsome young prince named Henry fell in love."
He tried to protest, but his lips merely twitched and whistled, refusing to form words. How curious.
"Her name was Madeleine. She was fair of face, with flaxen hair and a tiny, tiny waist.."
Henry saw red, but could not interrupt. His hands seemed weighted to the bed, else he would have struck that pretty painted mouth, wiping her smile clean off.
"She gave the handsome prince a lasting memento: pustules which appeared every few weeks, which boiled and burned and burst in disgusting issue. Henry was kind enough to share them with his wife, the one he had moved heaven and earth to woo."
The wench would die for telling of his visits. Her entire household would - oh -
"Madeleine's sisters suffered the same fate, of course, which is what they deserved for degrading themselves with their sister's pig."
Divorce was out of the question; how could he be rid of this woman? There must be a way -
"Shall I go on with the story?"
Danielle, bewilderingly, began to disrobe, revealing swollen breasts and a slightly rounded belly. She placed Henry's hand upon it.
"It isn't yours," she whispered. "It's the seed of Gustave, the peasant. The painter. With Elise's blessing. A queen, the people may despise; but an heir.. the last remaining hope, a shining treasure borne of royal couplings.. They will adore him," she said dreamily.
Henry's mouth opened and closed, horrible gurgles coming from his throat.
"Be happy. Life is short. Be happy."
DaVinci's words echoed in the room, in her mind. In her soul.
"No more pain," she cooed. Was she speaking of him, or of herself?
He tried to reach for the bell-cord to summon the servants, the doctors, the whole bloody court - but it was so far away, and his eyelids were so heavy.
"Ever after," she murmured, closing his eyes with her fingertips and his jaw with the back of her hand.
The story had ended, and yet, it had only just begun.
Chapter 5: Epilogue
The King - and the Prince - are dead. Long live the Queen.
Danielle had wanted to spare Henry's father from the news, in case he was able to understand it. Unfortunately, few things remained secret among Henry's cronies, and upon overhearing the news, the king collapsed into himself. Within hours, he was gone.
He did not live to see the birth of Danielle's son. He had fair hair at first, but it turned darker as the weeks passed, until it was almost as dark as Henry's. Still, Danielle knew. Signor had taught her how to calculate, how to count backwards from the date of birth; this child was Gustave's, borne of tenderness, the culmination of years of his longing, and of her deep need to be loved - truly loved.
Elise was appointed royal nursemaid, having given birth to a girl within days of the Queen. Gustave, Elise and baby Genevieve had full run of the castle and grounds; sometimes, in the privacy of Danielle's chambers, she nursed both children, the half-siblings holding hands as they peacefully occupied her lap. Her arms, and her heart, had never been so full. Born of the same blood, reared on the same milk, sheltered by the same love, the children truly had the best of all worlds.
It was a strange arrangement; Danielle had read extensively, and never found its equal - not as a long-term set-up, anyway - but Elise was content to share Gustave. Gustave, for his part, was just glad to be of.. service. The loves were different, yet equally important to him. Any courtier caught besmirching the Queen's virtue was summarily punished, and the rumors soon died down.
She consulted the couple on matters of state, as well as matters of the heart. They often talked long into the night; with two babies to tend, there was far less debauchery than the gossips had supposed. As the children's birthdays approached, Gustave slid into a meditative mood.
"Are you happy?" It was meant for both women.
"Yes," Elise said, snuggling closer to the two of them.
"I am," Danielle affirmed. "That's what life's really about, isn't it?"
"What's that?," Gustave wanted to know.
"Making your own happy ending."