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Palais du Louvre, Paris
Servants struggled under heavy black mourning velvet, draping it across gilt-framed paintings and tapestries that adorned our uncle's apartment at the Palais du Louvre in Paris. They worked their way around the chamber until even the windows were covered, though they couldn't dim the opulence. From candles twinkling in crystal chandeliers to the incense of frankincense and myrrh wafting from a golden brasier to the polished marble floors, everything around us signified my uncle's power. For such wealth stemmed from power, and my uncle was Cardinal Mazarin, the most powerful man not just in France but in all Europe. In a chair beside me, my sister Hortense eyed the mourning velvet and muttered, "Mamma isn't dead yet."
I gripped my favorite novel tight. Our uncle had brought me into Paris days earlier in case Mamma requested me. He would send me back to my cold convent cell the moment she died. But what would he do with my dear sisters?
Victoire, the eldest of the Mancini girls at twenty-two years, put a hand on Hortense's arm. "The mourning cloth shows deference." Victoire's marriage to the duc de Mercœur elevated her rank to princess of the blood. Pregnant with her third child and adored by her husband, she brought pride to our family. "But prepare yourself, for the physicians say Mamma will not live."
Hortense turned to me with tears in her eyes. I was seventeen years of age, but this little ten-year-old sister was my closest, and perhaps only, friend. She was not only the prettiest Mancini but easily the prettiest creature I'd ever seen. It hurt to see her beautiful face look sad, and I pulled her into my embrace.
Mamma had been ill, as we had all known she would be, for months. Our uncle had moved her from Palais Mazarin to the Louvre for access to the king's physicians. Though busy as chief minister to King Louis the Fourteenth, the cardinal spared no expense trying to restore his sister's health. We came every day to see her, and every day Mamma called in one of my sisters or my brother. But not me.
Marianne, the youngest sister at six, eyed how I hugged Hortense and promptly started sniffling. Soft-hearted Victoire turned to comfort her. Marianne's sniffles amplified to sobs.
I myself was too fearful to cry, which seared me with guilt. When Mamma summons me, I must seize the moment. I must beg her to convince my uncle to keep me at court. God willing, my request wouldn't kill her. I patted my skirts to ensure the bottle of lung-wort syrup was still tucked safely in my hanging pocket. My astrological judgment of her disease suggested that lung-wort, ruled by Jupiter, might comfort her.
Hortense pulled away to study me. "Will His Eminence send you back to the Convent of the Visitation, Marie?"
Too many of my childhood years in Rome were spent in the Benedictine Convent of Santa Maria in the Campo Marzio, while my oldest brothers and sisters were permitted to live in Paris with Uncle Mazarin. When our father died and Mazarin summoned the rest of the family, my mother intended to leave me at the Roman convent. I'd begged her to bring me, pointing out Paris had convents, too. She'd brought me reluctantly, and I'd hoped my uncle would let me live at court. He had taken one look at me and declared I was too scrawny, not pretty enough. He put me in the Convent of the Visitation beyond the city walls, sending Hortense sometimes to keep me company. I'd spent two years there. The thought of returning to the convent, where life offered no color, no light, and where nuns with hairy chins woke me at all hours of the night for matins, filled me with dread. "He will not send you back because of how lovely you've become."
A blush rose on her cherub-pink cheeks. She had no idea how her loveliness had cost me.
The doors to my mother's sickroom opened. Cardinal Mazarin emerged, red watered-silk cassock swishing around him, waxed mustache curved perfectly upward at the ends.
All four of us scrambled to our feet. "Your Eminence," we said in unison.
He glanced over us. "Victoire, Hortense, and Marianne, your mother wants you."
She doesn't want me. Again. My heart grew heavy. My sisters proceeded through the doors.
But Hortense stopped short. "What about Marie?"
His Eminence did not look at me. "Your mother has not summoned her yet."
Hortense glanced back. "She'll be lonely."
Our uncle's face softened. "Stay. I will tell your mother of your generous spirit."
Hortense didn't mean to please, it just came naturally. A trait I had never possessed. The cardinal closed the doors, and Hortense returned to my side. But as soon as we opened my novel, the king's herald sounded in the outer chambers. "His Majesty the King!"
A row of pages in the king's tricolor livery rushed to line the walls. In walked King Louis wearing his austere frown. He had visited my mother's bedside before, but usually this antechamber was crowded. Now courtiers filing in behind the king encountered a mostly deserted room. One of the courtiers was Olympia, the second-oldest Mancini sister, and the king's favorite. King Louis had dubbed her his fair-lady and showered her with gifts. She wrinkled her long slender nose at me, which made the courtiers snicker.
King Louis looked at me. Even with his handsome aquiline nose and hooded hazel eyes, the king's frown always made him seem aloof. It was impolite to stare directly at a king, but as I struggled to overcome my nervousness, I studied him openly. That is when I recognized in that frown an emotion I often saw in my own looking-glass: loneliness. He studied me back, and for the first time, it felt like someone was actually seeing me. I sensed it from the inside out. It swept my nervousness away like mist on the wind. He walked to me. "Mademoiselle Mancini, you hold vigil alone today?"
Hortense cleared her throat. "I am here!"
The king glanced. "So you are." He gestured behind him. "I haven't seen so many Mazarinettes in one chamber in weeks."
He meant us, the nieces of Mazarin. The courtiers chuckled graciously, and my female relatives cast smiles at each other. Besides Hortense, Olympia, and myself, our Martinozzi cousin Anne stood in his throng. The Martinozzis were fair of hair and skin where we Mancinis were dark. Anne had become Princess de Conti by marriage, and our uncle had already sent her sister, Laura, to wed Alfonso d'Este, the Italian Duke of Modena. Like us, they were part of my uncle's scheme to ally himself with powerful families. He had once tried to arrange a marriage for me. And now, with the king staring so intently at me, I became aware that the man who'd refused to wed me had entered with the courtiers. I wanted to run away. But Armand de la Meilleraye didn't notice me. He had fixated on Hortense, ogling her. My little sister was so beautiful that the man selected to be my husband had refused me because he loved her.
King Louis followed my gaze, and his expression changed. He leaned close and whispered, "Meilleraye is a fool. You're better off without him."
He understands. My face burned. Though the courtiers hadn't heard, they saw my blush and started whispering. I flushed all the more.
King Louis glanced at my novel, where my knuckles were white from gripping it. "What are we reading?"
I, the Mazarinette known for having brains instead of beauty, couldn't remember. I looked at it blankly. "It isGerusalemme Liberata." He didn't seem to recognize it. "Jerusalem Delivered. An Italian poem fraught with magic and romance."
He grinned, a subtle crack in that royal frown. "You ladies with your love stories." His entourage giggled.
"There are battles." I held up the book. "The Crusades."
He seemed surprised. "Combat! That might be worth reading."
I extended it to him. "It may be why you start, but you'll finish for the romance."
The courtiers stared. Were they shocked that I would speak to the king? Or at the daring way I'd spoken? King Louis took my book. My precious book!
He held it up, glancing at his retinue. "Wait until my tutors hear I've taken reading suggestions from a convent-educated girl." They tittered some more. He thumbed the pages. "The nuns let you read this?"
Hortense held a finger up to her lips. "Shhhhh!"
I grinned. "Amazing what you can get your hands on in a convent by bartering silk stockings."
Some of the courtiers pretended to look shocked. Most laughed. Olympia shot me a warning look.
Hortense didn't seem to notice. "Marie never forgets a word she reads. Go on." She pointed to the book. "Test her."
The king considered this, but Olympia spoke first. "Shouldn't Marie be reading prayer books while keeping vigil for our dear Mamma?"
King Louis nodded, never turning from me. "My sympathy. Has your mother improved?"
"The cardinal's physicians say she has not."
"I shall send my own physicians again."
I glanced at the curious faces behind him, not wanting to say too much. "What she needs is hope, for I'm afraid she's given up."
"That she must not do," said the king.
Hortense grasped my hand. "Mamma clings too much to our father's prophecy."
Olympia glared at Hortense and tried to change the subject. "Your Majesty, shall we go in to visit now?"
But the king looked into Hortense's innocent face. "What prophecy?"
Hortense must have been frightened by Olympia, for she moved behind me.
So I explained with a half-truth. "Our father predicted long ago, based on the alignment of the stars, that our mother would die before the end of the Year of Our Lord 1656."
He looked skeptical. "Who can trust the stars?"
But our father had used more than astrology to make such predictions. "Our mother's faith in the stars gives the stars power. Thus she robs herself of hope."
"How serious you are, Marie." He stared.
I didn't know how to reply, and there were no giggles.
Finally, he nodded. Hortense and I curtsied as he entered our mother's chamber. Olympia fluffed her skirts to the sides, blocking anyone from taking her place directly behind the king. The courtiers followed in step as if they were one body, slithering like a colorful, silken snake.
* * *
Hortense was asleep, head on my lap, when the king left with his train an hour later. Olympia insisted on waking her and taking her to a supper banquet. Olympia didn't invite me, and I didn't beg to go. I needed to wait.
I had fallen asleep myself when the summons came. My uncle opened the chamber doors and eyed me. "Marie."
Bleary-eyed, I leapt to my feet. Huge candelabra stood aglow in every corner, doing little to cheer the black-cloaked walls. My mother lay on a wide gilt bed. She stared at me, searching my face as she used to do, then held open her arms.
I rushed into them. "Mamma," I cried. Why do you seem to fear me? Why am I always the last one you call?
"My child," she muttered in Italian. She stroked my hair as I buried my face in her neck, breathing her scent. "You mustn't be sad for me. You mustn't cry."
But I would. "Yes, Mamma."
"When I am gone you must obey your uncle."
I sat up. "You must hope to recover."
"My time has come. Accept it as I did long ago." She glanced at my uncle. "You will be pleased at His Eminence's generosity."
I turned to him, almost hopeful. "Have you found another potential husband?"
He glanced at the maids. Without a word, they gathered their water basins and cloths and slipped from the room. The physicians followed, gripping their bloodstained tools. His Eminence leveled his glare on me. "Offering you to Meilleraye was merely my way of testing him. I counted on his refusal, and now he believes he owes me. I never intended for you to marry, but you shall have a handsome settlement."
All my dread of the convent returned.
Mazarin cleared his throat. "When your mother dies, you will not only rejoin the Convent of the Visitation, you will take holy orders."
"Become a nun? Please, no!"
Mamma put her hand on my arm. "It is the safest course for you."
"My heart breaks at the thought of leaving my sisters."
His Eminence said to my mother, "You must tell her."
She gripped my hands, and I listened intently. "Your father was a great oracle. Each of his predictions proved true, from your oldest brother's death right up to his own. He made predictions about you. They will make you understand why you must take holy orders." She rose on her elbow, breathless with sudden passion. "He drew up your horoscope the day you were born, then redrew it countless times, always coming to the same conclusion. He consulted the waters, he read the entrails of animals, even called on the spirits of the dead. Every sign confirmed it." She took a shaky breath, and I started to sweat. "You were born under an evil star. One day you will disgrace your family in ways no woman has ever done before."
My father hid my horoscope from me? "I would never-"
"When you grew up so headstrong, reading novels you shouldn't, acting so sullen, I didn't know how to handle you."
"If I was sullen it was because I saw fear in your eyes instead of love whenever you looked upon me."
She stroked my cheek. "This is the best way to protect you from your own destiny. Become a nun and counter your evil star."
"Your Eminence," I said, turning to my uncle. "You must not believe this prophecy."
"You Mancinis always carry the old superstitions too far. I am a Prince of the Church and cannot condone practices that border on witchcraft. But even Christ's magi followed the stars. I cannot discount what your father read in yours." He frowned. "Meilleraye must have seen what I see. You are different."
Different. Not charming like Olympia. Not beautiful like Hortense. Not angelic like Victoire. Not witty like Marianne. Each had potential where I posed a threat. I stood and hoped they wouldn't notice the bottle of lung-wort syrup bulging in my hanging pocket. "You want me out of the way."
He looked aside. "It is something in your manner. You don't take correction. You have too much command of yourself, and others tend to follow commands you make."
The wary look on the cardinal's face reminded me of the time I had stolen fresh cannoli from the kitchens of Palazzo Mancini back home on Rome's Via del Corso. Cook had slaved over them. When she caught me with their sweet nut paste on my cheeks, she chased me outside to the courtyard herb garden and cornered me behind the rosemary hedge. She raised a hand to hit me. In my terror I did what came naturally. I pointed and whispered,You cannot hurt me. As she brought down her arm, she cried out. She cradled her hand, curled in an ugly cramp.Strega! she cursed. You little witch! She'd looked at me then the way the cardinal and my mother looked at me now.
"You are wrong." I thought of the charm in my pocket. "My sisters never do a thing I say."
Mamma fell back on the bolsters.
My uncle's words were a drop of honey in a bowl of vinegar. "We want to protect you."
I frowned at him. "You want to protect yourself from superstitions you claim have little merit."
They glanced at each other, and the pain in my mother's face made my heart drop. I had gone too far.
She closed her eyes. "This fuss is making me worse."
My uncle tried to usher me away, but I threw myself on the bed, kissing her hands. "Mamma, forgive me. I would never disgrace you. At least make His Eminence give me time!" My tears showered her frail skin, and I longed to give her the syrup. She cupped my face; I met her eyes.
But then she started coughing. My uncle jerked me back so hard I nearly fell on the floor. The physicians rushed in. The women reappeared, darting around, fighting fear and death with cloths and basins of water.
"Insolence," said my uncle, pushing me toward the door.
But I called past him, "Don't die and deprive me of my sisters, too!"
I heard sobs between coughs, and the door slammed before my face.
Copyright © 2015 by Marci Jefferson