The anticipated followup to Lord Carabas and Cry Mesuline! Seventeenth century Paris: a city of intrigue, divination, illicit romance and murder.
Louis XIII is dead, and Louis XIV serves as the child puppet of Mazarin while the nobles of France seethe with bitterness. Developing precognition brings Jules disturbing visions he can't quite comprehend. Something runs rampant through his chateau turning his household upside down. Bereft of his former patron, Richelieu, Jules must ally himself with his most hated foe to humiliate those of purer blood who scorn him. He, his grown sons, and his lover Curran engage in spiteful games meant to disgrace an arrogant old woman with the keys to Jules' past. Will a harridan's ruin be worth the sacrifice Jules will make?
Prelude, La Rochelle, 1629
I made my way to the small chateau by the sea near Pont-de-Piere, a windswept bit of strand exposed to the coast and isolated from all other habitations. T'was Cardinal Richelieu's choice that it be so. There, in a tiny little villa, in the middle of a religious war, the Lord granted him fleeting periods of freedom from the worries of his office. He could move about as he chose. For a time he could pretend that he was not the second man of France. But, only for moments you understand. Such a fancy could not be maintained for long.
We, his créatures, would come and go without notice of the outside world. The spider's web of information could thrum its warning without any, but he, the wiser. Fishermen brought news of the English fleet. Soldiers carried rumors of dissents in the ranks. Spies, such as I, brought reports from the opposing lines.
The warm summer winds carried the crash of the surf across the night. The noise jarred with the ringing in my ears that had been my lot for weeks now. Shivering on the sand, at the margin of the trees, I waited for him. I could not be warm even in the throes of August. Had I stood amidst the flames of Hell itself, I would have been frozen.
At his approach, I rose from my lie and then nearly fell as a wave of dizziness overtook me. He stood in the darkness, waiting for me to recover. Gorget, breast plate, and greaves flashed under the scarlet robes of his office. Trained for the military, but destined for a life devoted to God and King, he straddled both worlds here. As he stared beyond me towards the black velvet of the ocean, "Tell me."
My nails were bitten to the quick, but I chewed on them anyways. "La Rochelle is the same, only worse now."
"How so?" Five guards stood back apace from us. Although near enough that they could come to his aid, they all knew not to approach too closely. What I would say was to be heard by one man only.
"There are no more miracles as they called them. Even the devil has ceased to torment the heretics with false hopes of salvation." Early on the defenders would pray for deliverance and such would be answered by a ship of meal or small victory. Even those counterfeit hopes came no more. "Jean Guitton fights hourly with the clergy. He wishes to cede the day to you."
"And what has brought about such a change of heart in the Maire? Was it not he who started this farce?"
Shrugging, "Madame Guitton succumbed to the privations this last week."
"So he is upset that he has had to bury his wife?" His voice carried both contempt for the man's weakness and sorrow for his loss.
"No, Your Eminence." I rubbed my hands for warmth. My fingers burned as though stung by a thousand ants. The ulcers where I had bitten into my own skin broke fresh. "He is upset as there was not enough of her left to bury."
For a moment the horror of my words did not register. Then, slowly, their import wound through his mind. "Is it almost done here then?"
"Almost." I blinked and shook my head to clear the spots that swam before my eyes. "There are still a few of the most rabid who say they will die in La Rochelle. Many others are willing to make certain they do."
"Bon," as if he half expected the news, "they will expect a report?" When I nodded my assent, he continued. "This, then, is what you must tell them." For an hour or more he filled me in on such things as I should know. In these last months my memory had begun to suffer lapses and thus he must quiz me over details. I repeated and repeated what I was told until I had it to his satisfaction. Finally there was nothing more to be locked within my brain. Before I could take my leave, the Cardinal's voice drew gentle. "Julius, where do you plan to go when this is done?"
"Some say that the Duc de Rohan will not concede." My voice had faded to a hoarse whisper. "I thought that I might go to him."
"And when we have crushed him?"
"I will go wherever your eminence tells me I must."
He turned to me then and put his hand on my shoulder. "You understand, Jules, I cannot afford to spare you from among their number. Whatever fate is theirs will be yours as well." The legend of Richelieu is that of a despot. He was always anything but. Removed and calculating to be sure, but gentle, brave and warm to those he held affection for. In my dreams my father was he… it could never have been aught but a dream. My father was Fé and Richelieu and I were almost the same age. Sad brown eyes considered my emaciated form.
Have you ever seen a man who is starving? Skin turns to oiled paper. Every bone and joint is wrought in base relief. The approach of mortality is carved into your skull. I had always been slender, tall, and muscular. Physical labor was no stranger to me. In these past months my patron had witnessed me fade to a shadow. As Richelieu was prone to do at times when emotion conquered him, tears slid down his cheeks. I studied the line of the shore in the distance pretending I did not see him overcome by the sight of me... by the knowledge that I was so because he had asked it of me.
"Oui. I understood such from the moment I received your orders." My wife had brought them home to me, home to our lands in La Florida. I had not seen my eldest son in more than a year. I had never met the babe that clutched at her skirts. She could not bring herself to tell me that first day, nor for some days after. Finally Keiko had whispered the charge of my patron, commanding me to France. But I was not to go to him. I should instead, make my way to La Rochelle as a convert to the cause.
It was not unreasonable to think that such could be. My wife's family was Scots, long a stronghold of the reformed faith. We had weathered a summer there of late. La Florida was a bastion of Huguenot flight. Calvinists outnumbered Catholics in the Americas three to one. My provincial position was, in truth, an exile, banishment for murder. I would have many reasons to join with the unrest. To have the Vidamé du Caroline renounce his faith and see the truth of God was propaganda for the Calvinist masses who had raised themselves against their king. Such things had quickly garnered me the trust of the men within the city.
More than a year now La Rochelle had withstood the blockade. I had slipped into the city towards the close of the previous year, before the ring of guns on blockships had cut off the harbor. Protestant Charles I had promised aid. The hoped for salvation from England had never truly come. A few ships here or there had managed to run the blockade. Supplies had long since dwindled to nothing. Prayers, once effective, were wasted.
Dog and donkey meat had been luxuries in La Rochelle when I first arrived. Then the residents of the besieged town stewed leather in tallow until even that was gone. There was not a mouse or rat to be found within the city walls. We ate what under normal conditions would have been unthinkable. Tens of thousands of people had died during the siege. Perhaps a little beyond five thousand were left.
I still shudder at the thought of what I was willing to consume then. I thought of nothing else but eating. Even the brief escape of slumber had been denied to me by the crawling emptiness in my stomach. My apartments were crammed with useless pots and books and clothes. I could not leave anything be. I might have need of, might want it later.
Thus, these last horrid
months, I had brought Richelieu the news of the state of the siege from
within the city walls. In return I gave the defenders snippets of the
truth mixed with stories of the Cardinal's devising meant to show how
hopeless the situation was. Some were fabrications. Some were truth.
Some were a mixture of both.
After I made my reports, I would find myself loitering, delaying my return, just to watch his guards at their simple meals. Fantasies, rivaled in nature only by those sexual ones which beset me as a youth, overcame me at the smell of food. There was no joy in my life except the hope that someday I might sit at a table and eat until I burst. "Have you further instructions for me?"
"Non. You may go." As I turned to make my way back to Hell, "Jules, when the city falls, do not go to the Duc. Others will serve me there."
I knew he meant it to be my salvation. It rang in my ears as a dismissal. "As you wish, Your Eminence."
He walked back to his guards. For a moment he paused and spoke with a soldier with a sergeant's knot on his shoulder. Both looked at me, and the officer nodded in response to a question I was not privy to. Then Richelieu took his leave accompanied by four of his guards.
The captain approached. Tortured black eyes looked out from beneath his broad brimmed hat. I smiled. "Bonjour, mon ami." His clothes and arms spoke of his rank. The livery he wore spoke of his position within the house of the Cardinal. "You are looking well. Your new situation suits you."
Swallowing his emotion, "I've brought yer something." He could not manage more than a whisper. Like the Cardinal, he was forced to witness my slow descent into a caricature of death. A small packet was cradled as though he held the Host in his hands. My stomach roiled at the scent of bread and cheese.
"Non. Curran, I cannot." I don't know if he understood what hell it was for me to turn him down. "If I ate anything now I would be ill."
"Jules," the Irishman's voice caught, "Jaysus, don't die on me."
What could I say? "I have no intention of doing so without a fight." It was time to go. We could only have spare moments to speak with each other. Sometimes all we could console ourselves with was to be in the same room as I reported to my patron. I stepped to him, pulling him into my arms. His hot tears slid down my cheek. "Do not worry," I whispered into his skin, "God will protect me."
Half a dozen men waited for my return in the chapel of La Rochelle. Like me, all were on the edge of death. Months ago we had abandoned the preambles of rank and courtesy. Such things were luxuries we could ill afford. I dropped myself onto a bare bench, stretching out as if to sleep. A wave of nausea swept over me as lights danced behind my eyelids.
When I had recovered enough that I could speak, I gave my report, "Le Roi has returned to the battlefield. He has taken command. The longer we resist, the more determined he becomes to crush us." Grumbling swept round the room. Throughout the battle the young king had alternatively taken ill and recovered. Each time he was well enough he returned to fight. Each time he returned to fight his troops rallied. "The news from England is worse. Buckingham is dead. There will be no more ships raised by him." Both of those things were true. They would soon enough be verified by others. The men fell to arguing among themselves. I cared not for it and turned my head to the wall. Silently I prayed for this hell to end.
I prayed to die.
What ships the Duke of Buckingham had raised before his death came and were driven back. The Cardinal and King could be seen among the troops. Both manned cannon during the brief assault. Yet another month we held out. One more was needed for the negotiations to be completed. The terms were the unconditional surrender of the town. Protestant chapels would become Catholic churches. As with other Huguenot nobles who survived the siege, I was forced to make public renouncement and conversion back to the Catholic faith. Le Roi was lenient for those who did; three years of banishment, but none forfeited their lands or profits.
Many who had survived starvation died horribly from the instant effects of return of a normal diet. I had so little control over myself that I found I had to stay away from food. Even when I had eaten so much that I would vomit, I could not find a point of satiation. I returned home to recover my health and let all men forget about my existence until he should need me again. Curran stayed behind, in the service of the Cardinal's guards.