At first glance he was an unremarkable man, short and stout with greying hair and the drab clothes of a commoner. I could not see his face from my vantage two floors above, but I watched him recoil as he emerged from the carriage and his foot first met the cobblestone; he signaled for his cane and reached for the coachman’s arm. Even with these aids, he moved gingerly, haltingly through the sultry morning, and I thought, aghast, He is a sick, aging man --- nothing more.
Behind him, clouds had gathered early over the river, promising an afternoon storm, but for now the sun was not entirely occluded. Its rays slipped through gaps and reflected blindingly off the waters of the Loire.
I receded from the window to settle in my chair. I had wanted to dazzle my summoned guest, to charm him so he would not detect my nervousness, but I had no heart in those days for pretense. I sported mourning, black and plain, and looked anything but grand. I was a thick, unlovely creature, very worn and very sad.
Thank God they are only children, the midwife had muttered.
She had thought I was sleeping. But I had heard, and understood: A queen’s life was valued more than those of her daughters. And they had left behind siblings; the royal bloodline was safe. But had I not been drained of blood and hope, I would have slapped her. My heart was no less broken.
I had approached my final attempt at childbirth without trepidation; the process had always gone smoothly for me. I am strong and determined and have never feared pain. I had even chosen names --- Victoire and Jeanne --- for Ruggieri had predicted I would have girl twins. But he had not told me they would die.
The first infant was long in coming, so long that I and even the midwife grew anxious. I became too tired to sit in the birthing-chair.
After a day and half a night, Victoire arrived. She was the smallest infant I had ever seen, too weak to let go a proper wail. Her birth brought me no respite; Jeanne refused to appear. Hours of agony passed, until night became day again, and morning led to afternoon. The child’s body was so stubbornly situated that she would not pass; the decision was made to break her legs so that she could be pulled out without killing me.
There followed the midwife’s hand inside me and the dreadful muffled snap of tiny bones. I cried out at the sound, not at the pain. When Jeanne emerged dead, I would not look at her.
Her sickly twin lived three weeks. On the day Victoire, too, succumbed, a cold, prickling conviction settled over me: After all these years, Ruggieri’s spell was failing; my husband and surviving children were in mortal danger.
There was, as well, the quatrain in the great tome written by the prophet, the quatrain I feared predicted my darling Henri’s fate. I am dogged in the pursuit of answers, and I would not rest until I had learned the truth from the lips of the famed seer himself.
A knock came at the door, and the guard’s low voice, both of which drew me back to the present. At my reply, the door swung open and the guard and his limping charge entered. The former’s expression grew quizzical at finding me entirely alone, without my ladies to attend me; I had busied Diane elsewhere, and had dismissed even Madame Gondi. My conversation with my visitor was to be strictly private.
“Madame la Reine.” The seer’s accent betrayed his southern origins. He had a soft moon of a face and the gentlest of eyes. “Your Majesty.”
Madame Gondi said that he had been born a Jew, but I saw no evidence of it in his features. Unsteady even with his cane, he nonetheless managed to doff his cap and execute a passable genuflection. His hair, long and tangled and thinning at the crown, hung forward to obscure his face.
“I am honored and humbled that you would receive me,” he said. “My greatest desire is to be of service to you and to His Majesty in whatever manner most pleases you. Ask for my life, and it is yours.” His voice shook, and the hand that gripped the cap trembled. “If there is any question of impropriety, of heresy, I can only say that I am a good Catholic who has endeavored all my life to serve God. At his bidding, I wrote down the visions. They are sent by Him alone, and not some unclean spirit.”
I had heard that he had often been accused of consorting with devils, and had moved from village to village over the past several years to avoid arrest. Frail, vulnerable, he regarded me with hesitation. He had read my letter, yet he had no doubt heard of my husband the King’s hatred for the occult and for Protestants; perhaps he feared that he was walking into an inquisitional trap.
I hurried to put him at ease.
“I have no doubt of that, Monsieur de Nostredame,” I said warmly, smiling, and extended my hand. “That is why I have asked for your help. Thank you for traveling such a distance, in your discomfort, to see us. We are deeply grateful.”
His body shuddered as fear unclenched it. He tottered forward and kissed my hand; his hair fell forward again, soft against my knuckles. His breath smelled of garlic.
I looked up at the guard. “That will be all,” I said, and when he lifted a brow --- why would I be so eager to forsake propriety by dismissing him? --- I subtly hardened my gaze until he nodded, bowed, and departed.
I was alone with the unlikely prophet.
Monsieur de Nostredame straightened and stepped back. As he did, his gaze fell upon the window, and the scene beyond; his nervousness vanished, replaced by a calm intensity.
“Ah,” he said, as if to himself. “The children.”
I turned to see Edouard running after Margot and little Navarre on the grassy swath of courtyard, altogether ignoring the cries of the governess to slow down.
“His Highness Prince Edouard,” I said by way of explanation, “likes to chase his little sister.” At five, Edouard was already unusually tall for his age.
“The two younger ones --- the little boy and girl -- they appear to be twins, but I know that is not the case.”
“They are my daughter, Margot, and her cousin, Henri of Navarre. Little Henri, we call him, or sometimes Navarre, so as not to confuse him with the King.”
“The resemblance is remarkable,” he murmured.
“They are both three years old, Monsieur; Margot was born on the thirteenth of May, Navarre on the thirteenth of December.”
“Tied by fate,” he said, thoughtlessly, then glanced back at me.
His eyes were too large for his face, like mine, but a clear, light grey. They possessed a child’s openness, and beneath their scrutiny, I felt uncharacteristic discomfort.
“I had a son,” he said wistfully, “and a daughter.”
I opened my mouth to offer sympathy and say I had already heard of this. The most talented physician in all France, he had earned fame by saving many sick with plague --- only to watch helplessly as his children and wife died of it.
But I had no chance to speak, for he continued. “I do not wish to seem an ogre, Madame, mentioning my own sorrow with you here dressed in mourning; I do so only to explain that I understand the nature of your grief. I recently learned that you mourn the loss of two little girls. There is no greater tragedy than the death of a child. I pray that God will ease your grief, and the King’s.”
“Thank you, Monsieur de Nostredame.” I changed the subject quickly, for his sympathy was so genuine, I feared I might cry if he said more. “Please.” I gestured at the chair set across from mine , and the footstool which had been placed there expressly for him. “You have suffered enough on my behalf already. Sit down, and I will tell you when the children were born.”
“You are too gracious, Your Majesty.”
He eased himself into the chair and settled his affected foot onto the little stool with a faint groan. He propped the cane next to him so that it remained within reach.
“Do you require paper and pen, Monsieur?”
He tapped his brow with a finger. “No, I shall remember. Let us start with the eldest, then. The Dauphin, born the nineteeth of January, in the year 1544. To cast a proper chart, I need--”
“---the hour and place,” I interrupted. Having a talent for calculation, I had already taught myself to cast charts, though I did not entirely trust my own interpretations --- and I all too often hoped they were wrong. “No mother could ever forget such a thing, of course. Francois was born at the Chateau at Fontainebleau, a few minutes after four o’clock in the afternoon.”
“A few minutes after...” he echoed, and the finger that had thumped his brow began instead to massage it, as if he were pressing the fact into his memory. “Do you know how many minutes? Three, perhaps, or ten?”
I frowned, trying to remember. “Fewer than ten. Unfortunately, I was exhausted at the time; I cannot be more precise.”
We did not speak of the girls, Elisabeth and Margot; under Salic law, a woman could not ascend the throne of France. For now, it was time to focus on the heirs --- on Charles-Maximilien, born the twenty-seventh of June at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, in the year 1550, and on my darling Edouard-Alexandre. He was born the year after Charles, on the nineteenth of September, twenty minutes past midnight.
“Thank you, Madame la Reine,” Nostredame said, when I had finished. “I will give you my full report within two days. I have already done some preparations, since the dates of the boys’ births are widely known.”
He did not move to rise, as would be expected. He sat gazing on me with those clear, calm eyes, and in the silence that followed, I found my courage and my voice.
“I have evil dreams,” I said.
He seemed not at all surprised by this strange outburst.
“May I speak candidly, Madame?” he asked politely. Before I could answer, he continued, “You have astrologers. I am not the first to chart the children’s nativities. I will construct them, surely, but you did not call me here to do only that.”
“No,” I admitted. “I have read your book of prophecy.” I cleared my throat and recited the eighty-fifth quatrain, the one that had brought me to my knees when I first read it:
The young lion will overcome the old, in
A field of combat in a single fight. He will
Pierce his eyes in a golden cage, two
Wounds in one, he then dies a cruel death.
“I write down what I must.” Monsieur de Nostredame’s gaze had grown guarded. “I do not presume to understand its meaning.”
“But I do.” I leaned forward, no longer able to hide my agitation. “My husband, the King --- he is the lion. The older one. I dreamt...” I faltered, unwilling to put into words the horrifying vision in my head.
“Madame,” he said gently, “You and I understand each other well, I think --- better than the rest of the world understands us. You and I see things others do not. Too much for our comfort.”
I turned my face from him and stared out the window at the garden, where Edouard and Margot and little Navarre chased each other round green hedges beneath a bright sun. In my mind’s eye, skulls were split and bodies pierced; men thrashed, drowning, in a swelling tide of blood.
“I don’t want to see anymore,” I said.
I don’t know how he knew. Perhaps he read it in my face, the way a sorcerer reads the lines of a palm; perhaps he had already consulted my natal stars, and read it in my ill-placed Mars. Perhaps he read it in my eyes, in the flash of knowing fear there when I uttered the eighty-fifth quatrain.
“The King will die,” I told him. “My Henri will die too young, a terrible death, unless something is done to stop it. You know this; you have written of it, in this poem. Tell me that I am right, Monsieur, and that you will help me to do whatever is necessary to prevent it. My husband is my life, my soul. If he dies, I will not want to live.”
I believed, those many years ago, that my dream had to do only with Henri. I had thought that his violent end would be the worst that could possibly happen to me, to his heirs, to France.
It is easy now to see how wrong I was. And foolish, to have been angered by the prophet’s calm words.
I write what God bids me, Madame la Reine. His will must be accomplished; I do not presume to intervene.
If God has sent you these visions, you must strive to discover why He has done so. You have the responsibility.
I had a responsibility to keep the King safe, I told him. I had a responsibility to our children.
Your heart misleads you, he said and shuddered as if gripped by invisible talons. When he spoke again, it was with another’s voice... another who was not altogether human.
These children, he murmured, and I knew then that even the darkest secret could not be hidden from him. I pressed a palm against the bloodied pearl at my heart, as if the act could conceal the truth.
These children, their stars are marred. Madame la Reine, these children should not be.
The day I met the magician Cosimo Ruggieri --- the eleventh of May --- was an evil one.
I sensed it at daybreak, in the drum of hoofbeats on the cobblestone street in front of the house. I had already risen and dressed and was about to make my way downstairs when I heard the commotion. I stood on tiptoe and peered down through my unshuttered bedroom window.
Out on the broad Via Larga, Passerini reined in his lathered mount, accompanied by a dozen men-at-arms. He wore his red cardinal’s robes, but had forgotten his hat --- or perhaps it had fallen off during the wild ride --- and his white hair stood up in wisps like a coxcomb. He shouted frantically for the stablehand to open the gate.
I hurried to the stairs, arriving at the landing at the same moment as my Aunt Clarice.
She was a beautiful woman in that year before her untimely death, delicate as one of Botticelli’s Graces. That morning found her dressed in a gown of rose velvet and a diaphanous veil over her chestnut hair.
But there was nothing delicate about Aunt Clarice’s disposition. My cousin Piero often referred to his mother as “the toughest man in the family.” She deferred to no one --- least of all to her four sons or to her husband, Filippo Strozzi, a powerful banker. She had a sharp tongue and a swift hand, and did not hesitate to lash out with either.
And she was scowling that morning. When she caught sight of me, I ducked my head and dropped my gaze, for there was no winning with Aunt Clarice.
At the age of eight, I was an inconvenient child. My mother had died nine days after I was born, followed six days later by my father. Happily, my mother left me enormous wealth, my father, the title of Duchess, and the right to rule Florence.
Those things prompted Aunt Clarice to bring me to the Medici Palazzo to groom me for my destiny, but she made it clear that I was a burden. In addition to her own sons, she was obliged to raise two other Medici orphans --- my half-brother Alessandro, and my cousin Ippolito, the bastard of my great-uncle Giuliano de’ Medici.
As Clarice stepped alongside me on the landing, a voice drifted up from the downstairs entry: Cardinal Passerini, acting regent of Florence, was speaking to a servant. Though I could not make out his words, the timbre of his voice conveyed their message clearly: disaster. The safe and comfortable life I had shared with my cousins in our ancestors’ house was about to disappear.
As Clarice listened, fear rippled over her features, only to be replaced by her customary hardness. She narrowed her eyes at me, searching to see if I had detected her instant of weakness, threatening me in case I had.
“Straight down to the kitchen with you. No stopping, no speaking to anyone.”
I obeyed and headed downstairs, but soon realized I was too nervous to eat. I wandered instead towards the great hall, where Aunt Clarice and Cardinal Passerini were engaged in strenuous conversation. His Eminence’s voice was muffled, but I caught an impassioned word or two uttered by Aunt Clarice:
What did Clement expect, the idiot?
Their conversation centered on the Pope --- born Giulio de’ Medici -- whose influence helped keep our family in power. Even as a child, I understood enough of politics to know that my distant cousin, Pope Clement, was at odds with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles, whose troops had invaded Italy; Rome was in especial danger.
Abruptly, the door swung open, and Passerini’s head appeared as he called for Leda, Aunt Clarice’s slave. The cardinal was grey-faced, his breath coming hard, the corners of his mouth pulled down by agitation. He waited in the doorway with an air of desolate urgency until Leda appeared, at which point he ordered her to bring Uncle Filippo, Ippolito and Alessandro.
Within moments, Ippolito and Sandro were ushered inside. Clarice must have come to stand near the doorway, for I could hear her say, quite clearly, to someone waiting in the hall:
“We need men, as many as will fight. Until we know their number, we must tread carefully. Assemble as many as you can by nightfall, then come to me.” A strange hesitancy crept into her tone. “And send Agostino to fetch the astrologer’s son -- now.”
I heard my Uncle Filippo’s low assent and departure, then the door closed again. I remained a few minutes, trying vainly to interpret the sounds emanating from the chamber; defeated, I wandered towards the staircase leading to the children’s rooms.
Six-year-old Roberto, Clarice’s youngest, came running in my direction, wailing and wringing his hands. His eyes were squeezed tightly shut; I barely caught him in time to stop him from knocking me down.
I was small, but Roberto was smaller still. He smelled of heat and slightly sour sweat; his cheeks were flushed and tear-streaked and his girlishly long hair clung to his damp neck.
At that instant the boys’ nursemaid appeared behind him. Ginevra was a simple, uneducated woman, dressed in worn cotton skirts covered by a white apron, her hair always wrapped in a scarf. On that morning, however, Ginevra’s scarf and nerves were undone; a lock of golden hair had fallen across her face.
Roberto stamped his foot at me and emitted a scream. “Let me go!” He struck out with little fists, but I averted my face and held him fast.
“What is it? Why is he frightened?” I called to Ginevra as she neared.
“They’re coming after us!” Robert howled, spewing tears and spittle. “They’re coming to hurt us!”
Ginevra, dull with fright, answered, “There are men at the gate.”
“What sort of men?” I asked.
When Ginevra would not answer, I ran upstairs to the chambermaids’ quarters, which overlooked the stables and the gate that opened onto the busy Via Larga. I dragged a stool to the window, stepped onto it, and flung open the shutters.
The stables stood west of the house; to their north lay the massive iron gate that kept out trespassers. It was closed and bolted; just inside it stood three of our armed guards.
On the other side of its spiked bars, the street hosted lively traffic: a flock of Dominican monks on foot from nearby San Marco, a cardinal in his gilded carriage, merchants on horseback. And Roberto’s men -- perhaps twenty in those early hours, before Passerini’s news had permeated Florence. Some stood along the edges of the Via Larga, others in front of the iron gates near the stables. They gazed on our house with hawk-eyed intensity, waiting for prey to emerge.
One of them shouted exuberantly at the passing crowd. “Did you hear? The Pope has fallen! Rome lies in the Emperor’s hands!”
At the palazzo’s front entrance, a banner bore the Medici coat of arms so proudly displayed throughout the city: six red balls, six palle, arranged in rows upon a golden shield. Palle, palle! was our rallying cry, the words on our supporters’ lips as they raised their swords in our defense.
As I watched, a wool dyer, his hands and tattered tunic stained dark blue, climbed onto his fellow’s shoulders and pulled down the banner to shouts of approval. A third man touched a torch to the banner and set it ablaze. Passersby slowed and gawked.
“Abaso le palle!” the wool dyer cried, and those surrounding him picked up the chant. “Down with the balls! Death to the Medici!”
In the midst of the tumult, the iron gates opened a crack, and Agostino --- Aunt Clarice’s errand boy --- slipped out unobserved. But as the gate clanged shut behind him, a few of the men hurled pebbles at him. He shielded his head and dashed away, disappearing into the traffic.
I leaned farther out of the open window. Behind the thin stream of smoke rising from the burning banner, the wool dyer spied me; his face lit up with hatred. Had he been able to reach up into the window, he would have seized me --- an eight-year-old girl, an innocent -- and dashed my brains against the pavement.
“Abaso le palle!” he roared. At me.
I withdrew. I could not run to Clarice for comfort --- she would not have provided it even had she been available. I wanted my cousin Piero; nothing cowed him, not even his formidable mother... and he was the one person I trusted. Since he was not in the boys’ classroom receiving his lessons, I hurried to the library.
As I suspected, my cousin Piero was there. Like me, he was an insatiable student, often demanding more of his tutors than they knew, with the result that we often encountered each other huddled behind a book. Unlike me, he was, at fourteen, still cherub-cheeked, with close-cropped ringlets and a sweet, ingenuous temperament. I trusted him more than anyone, and adored him as a brother.
Piero sat cross-legged on the floor, squinting down at heavy tome open in his lap, utterly captivated and utterly calm. He glanced up at me, and just as quickly returned to his reading.
“I told you this morning about Passerini coming,” I said. “The news is very bad. Pope Clement has fallen.”
Piero sighed calmly and told me the story of Clement’s predicament, which he had learned from the cook. In Rome, a secret passageway leads from the Vatican to the fortress known as the Castel Sant’Angelo. Emperor Charles’ mutinous soldiers had joined with anti-Medici fighters and attacked the Papal Palace. Caught unawares, Pope Clement had run for his life --- papal robes flapping like a startled dove --- across the passage to the fortress. There he remained, trapped in his stronghold by jeering troops.
Piero was totally unfazed by it all.
“We’ve always had enemies,” he said. “They want to form their own government. The Pope has always known about them, but Mother says he grew careless and missed clear signs of trouble. She warned him, but Clement didn’t listen.”
“But what will happen to us?” I said, annoyed that my voice shook. “Piero, there are men outside burning our banner! They’re calling for our deaths!”
“Cat,” he said softly, and reached for my hand. I let him draw me down to sit beside him on the cool marble.
“We always knew the rebels would try to take advantage of something like this,” Piero said soothingly, “but they aren’t that organized. It will take them a few days to react. By then, we’ll have gone to one of the country villas, and Mother and Passerini will have decided what to do.”
I pulled away from him. “How will we get to the country? The crowd won’t even let us out of the house!”
“Cat,” he chided gently, “they’re just troublemakers. Come nightfall, they’ll get bored and go away.”
Before he could say anything further, I asked, “Who is the astrologer’s son? Your mother sent Agostino to fetch him.”
He digested this with dawning surprise. “That would be Ser Bennozo’s eldest, Cosimo.”
I shook my head, indicating my ignorance.
“The Ruggieri family has always served as the Medici’s astrologers,” Piero explained. “Ser Bennozo advised Lorenzo il Magnifico. They say his son Cosimo is a prodigy of sorts, and a very powerful magician. Others say such talk is nothing more than a rumor circulated by Ser Bennozo to help the family business.”
I interrupted. “But Aunt Clarice doesn’t put a lot of faith in such things.”
“No,” he said thoughtfully. “Cosimo wrote Mother a letter well over a week ago. He offered his services; he said that serious trouble was coming, and that she would need his help.”
I was intrigued. “What did she do?”
“You know Mother. She refused to reply, because she felt insulted that such a young man --- a boy, she called him --- should presume that she would need help from the likes of him.”
“Father Domenico says it’s the work of the Devil.”
Piero clicked his tongue scornfully. “Magic isn’t evil --- unless you mean for it to hurt someone -- and it’s not superstition, it’s science. It can be used to make medicines, not poisons. Here.” He proudly lifted the large volume in his lap so that I could see its cover. “I’m reading Ficino.”
“Marsilio Ficino. He was Lorenzo il Magnifico’s tutor. Old Cosimo hired him to translate the Corpus Hermeticum, an ancient text on magic. Ficino was brilliant, and this is one of his finest works.” He pointed at the title: De Vita Coelitus Comparanda.
“’Gaining Life from the Heavens,’” he translated. “Ficino was an excellent astrologer, and he understood that magic is a natural power.” He grew animated. “Listen to this... “ He translated haltingly from the Latin. “’Using this power of the stars, the Magi were first to worship the infant Christ. Therefore, why fear the name Magus, a name which is pleasing to the Gospel?’”
“So this astrologer’s son is coming to bring us help,” I said. “Help from God’s stars.”
“Yes.” Piero gave a reassuring nod. “Even if he weren’t, we would still be all right. Mother might complain, but we’ll just go to the country until it’s safe again.”
I let myself be convinced --- temporarily. On the library floor, I nestled against my cousin and listened to him read in Latin. This continued until Aunt Clarice’s slave Leda --- pale, frowning, and heavily pregnant -- appeared in the doorway.
“There you are.” She motioned impatiently. “Come at once, Caterina. Madonna Clarice is waiting.”
The horoscopist was a tall, skinny youth of eighteen, if one estimated generously, yet he wore the grey tunic and somber attitude of a city elder. His pitted skin was sickly white, his hair so black it gleamed blue; he brushed it straight back to reveal a sharp widow’s peak. His eyes seemed even blacker and held something old and shrewd, something that fascinated and frightened me. He was ugly: His long nose was crooked, his lips uneven, his ears too large. Yet I did not want to look away. I stared, a rude, stupid child.
Aunt Clarice said, “Stand there, Caterina, in the light. No, save your little curtsy and just hold still. Leda, close the door behind you and wait in the hall until I call you. I’ll have no interruptions.” Her tone was distracted and oddly soft.
After a worried glance at her mistress, Leda stole out and quietly shut the door. I stepped into a pane of sunlight and stood dutifully a few paces from Clarice, who sat beside the cold fireplace. My aunt was arguably the most influential woman in Italy and old enough to be this young man’s mother, but his presence --- calm and focused as a viper’s before the strike --- was the more powerful, and even Clarice, long inured to the company of pontiffs and kings, was afraid of him.
“This is the girl,” she said. “She is plain, but generally obedient.”
“Donna Caterina, it is an honor to meet you,” the visitor said. “I am Cosimo Ruggieri, son of Ser Benozzo the astrologer.”
His appearance was forbidding, but his voice was beautiful and deep. I could have closed my eyes and listened to it as if it were music.
“Think of me as a physician,” Ser Cosimo said. “I wish to conduct a brief examination of your person.”
“Will it hurt?” I asked.
Ser Cosimo smiled a bit more broadly, revealing crooked upper teeth.
“Not in the least. I have already completed a portion; I see that you are quite short for your age, and your aunt reports that you are rarely sick. Is that true?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“She is always running in the garden,” Clarice offered palely. “She rides as well as the boys do. By the time she was four, we could not keep her from the horses.”
“May I...?” Ser Cosimo paused delicately. “Could you lift your skirts a bit so that I can examine your legs, Caterina?”
I dropped my gaze, embarrassed and perplexed, but raised the hem of my dress first above my ankles and then --- at his gentle urging --- to my knee.
Ser Cosimo nodded approvingly. “Very strong legs, just as one would expect.”
“And thighs,” I said, dropping my skirts. “Jupiter’s influence.”
Intrigued, he smiled faintly and brought his face closer to mine. “You have studied such things?”
“Only a little,” I said. I did not tell him that I had just been listening to Piero reading Ficino’s attributions for Jupiter.
Aunt Clarice interrupted, her tone detached. “But her Jupiter is in detriment.”
Ser Cosimo kept his penetrating gaze focused on me. “In Libra, in the Third House. But there are ways to strengthen it.”
I braved a question. “You know about my stars, then, Ser Cosimo?”
“I have taken an interest in them for some time,” he replied. “They present a great many challenges and a great many opportunities. May I ask what moles you have?”
“There are two on my face.”
Ser Cosimo lowered himself onto his haunches, bringing us eye-to-eye. “Show me, Caterina.”
I smoothed my dull, mousy hair away from my right cheek. “Here and here.” I pointed at my temple, near the hairline, and at a spot between my jaw and ear.
He drew in a sharp breath and turned to Aunt Clarice, his manner grave.
“Is it bad?” she asked.
“Not so bad that we cannot repair it,” he said. “I will return tomorrow at this very hour, with talismans and herbs for her protection. You must employ them according to my precise directions.”
“For me,” Clarice said swiftly, “and for my sons, not just for her.”
The astrologer’s son cast a sharp glance at her. “Certainly. For everyone who has need.” A threat crept into his tone. “But such things bring no benefit unless they are used exactly as prescribed -- and exactly for whom they are created.”
Clarice dropped her gaze, intimidated -- and furious at herself for being so. “Of course, Ser Cosimo.”
“Good,” he said, and bowed his farewell.
“God be with you, Donna Clarice,” he said graciously. “And with you, Donna Caterina.”
I murmured a good-bye as he walked out the door. It was odd watching a youth move like an elderly man. Many years later, he would confess to being fifteen years old at the time. He had used the aid of a glamor, he claimed, to make himself appear older, knowing Clarice would never have listened to him otherwise.
As soon as the astrologer was out of earshot, Aunt Clarice said, “I’ve heard rumors of this one, the eldest boy. Smart, true -- smart at conjuring devils and making poisons. I’ve heard that his father despairs.”
“He isn’t a good man?” I asked timidly.
“He is evil. A necessary evil, now.” She lowered her face into her hand and began to massage her temple. “It’s all falling apart. Rome, the papacy, Florence herself. It’s only a matter of time before the news spreads all over the city. And then... everything will go to Hell. I need to figure out what to do before...” I thought I heard tears, but she gathered herself and snapped open her eyes. “Go to your chambers and study your texts. There will be no lessons today, but you’d best comport yourself quietly. I won’t tolerate any distractions.”
I left the great hall. Rather than follow my aunt’s instructions to go upstairs, I dashed outside to the courtyard. The astrologer’s son was there, moving swiftly for the gardens.
I cried out, “Ser Cosimo! Wait!”
He stopped and faced me. His expression was knowing and amused, as if he had completely expected to find a breathless eight-year-old girl tearing after him.
“Caterina,” he said, with odd familiarity.
“You can’t leave,” I said. “There are men outside calling for our deaths. Even if you got out safely, you would never be able to come back again.”
He bent forward and faced me at my level. “But I will get out safely,” he said. “And I will come back again tomorrow. When I do, you must find me alone in the courtyard or the garden. There are things we must discuss, unhappy secrets. But not today. The hour is not propitious.”
As he spoke, his eyes hardened, as if he was watching a distant but approaching evil. He straightened and said, “But nothing bad will happen. I will see to it. We will speak again tomorrow. God keep you, Caterina.”
He turned and strode off.
I hurried after him, but he walked faster than I could run. In seconds he was at the entrance to the stables, in view of the large gate leading to the Via Larga. I hung back, afraid.
The palazzo was a fortress of thick stone; its main entry was an impermeable brass door posited in the building’s center. To its west lay the gardens and the stables, viewable from the street and enclosed by an iron gate that began where the citadel proper ended.
Just inside that gate were seven armed guards, warily eyeing the crowd on the other side of the thick iron bars. When I had last peered through the upstairs window, only six men had lingered by the western gate. Now more than two dozen peasants and merchants stood staring back at the guards.
A groom handed Ser Cosimo the reins to a glossy black mare. At the sight of the astrologer, a few in the mob hissed. One hurled a stone, which banked off an iron bar and struck the earth several paces from its target.
Ser Cosimo calmly led his mount to the gate. The mare stamped her feet and turned her face from the waiting men as one of them cried out:
“Abaso le palle! Down with the balls!”
“What,” called another, “did they bring you here to suck the cardinal’s cock?”
“And his Medici-loving balls! Abaso le palle!”
The commotion alerted others who had been standing watch across the street, who hurried to join those at the gate. The chant grew louder.
Abaso le palle
Men shook their fists in the air and pushed their hands between the bars to claw at those on the other side. The mare whinnied and showed them the whites of her eyes.
Ser Cosimo’s composure never wavered. Serene and unflinching, he walked towards the metal bars amid a hail of pebbles. He was not struck, but our guards were not as fortunate; they yelped curses as they tried to shield their faces. One hurried to the bolt and slid the heavy iron bar back while the others drew their swords and formed a shoulder-to-shoulder barricade in front of Ser Cosimo.
The guard at the bolt glanced over his shoulder at the departing guest. “You’re mad, sir,” he said. “They’ll tear you to pieces.”
I broke out from my hiding place and ran to Ser Cosimo.
“Don’t hurt him!” I shouted at the crowd. “He’s not one of us!”
Ser Cosimo dropped the reins of his nervous mount and knelt down to catch my shoulders.
“Go inside, Catherine,” he said. Catherine, my name in a foreign tongue. “I know what I am doing. I will be safe.”
As he finished speaking, a pebble grazed my shoulder. I flinched; Ser Cosimo saw it strike. And his eyes---
The look of the Devil, I was going to say, but perhaps it is better called the look of God. For the Devil can trick and test, but God alone metes out death, and only He can will a man to suffer for eternity.
That was that look I saw in Cosimo’s eye. He was capable, I decided, of undying spite, of murder without the slightest regret. Yet it was not that look which unsettled me. It was the fact that I recognized it and was still drawn to him; it was the fact that I knew it and did not want to look away.
He whirled on the crowd with that infinitely evil look. At once, the rain of stones ceased. When every man had grown silent, he called out, strong and clear:
“I am Cosimo Ruggieri, the astrologer’s son. Strike her again, if you dare.”
Nothing more was said. Darkly radiant, Ser Cosimo mounted his horse, and the guard pushed open the singing gate. The magician rode out and the crowd parted for him.
The gate swung shut with a clang, and the guard slid the bolt into place. It was as though a signal had been given: The crowd came alive and again hurled pebbles and curses at the guards.
But the astrologer’s son passed unharmed, his head high, his shoulders square and sure. While the rest of the world fixed its unruly attention on the palazzo gates, he rode away, and soon disappeared from my sight.
Excerpted from THE DEVIL’S QUEEN: A Novel of Catherine de Medici © Copyright 2011 by Jeanne Kalogridis. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.