From her earliest days, Genevieve Gravois has known one fact above all: Francis I, king of France, is her enemy. Raised by her embittered aunt after her parents' deaths, Genevieve has been schooled in things no woman should know: how to decipher codes, how to use a dagger and a bow, and how to kill. For Henry VIII has a destiny in mind for the young girl--as his most powerful and dangerous spy.
When the time is ripe, Genevieve enters the magnificent world of the French court. With grace to match her ambition, she becomes maid of honor to Anne de Pisseleau, King Francis's mistress. Yet neither the court--which teems with artistry and enlightenment as well as intrigue--nor Francis himself are at all what Genevieve expected. And with her mission, her life, and the fate of two kingdoms at stake, she will be forced to make deadly decisions about where her heart and her ultimate loyalties lie.
"As opulent and sparkling as Louis XIV's court and as filled with intrigue, passion and excitement as a novel by Dumas. . .a feast for the senses." --Romantic Times (4 stars)
"Vivid, delightful, spirited. . .a page-turner as smooth as fine cognac." -Steven Manchester, author of The Unexpected Storm
"A wonderfully spun gem of a story." --Armchair Reviews
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January 25, 2011
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Excerpt from To Serve A King by Donna Russo Morin
It is the little victories, That bring us the big ones. --Ignatius de Loyola (1491-1556)
Beneath an unmerciful sun, the squire dropped the flag with a flourish. Riders kicked at glistening flanks; horses charged forward with little between them save the narrow wooden poles of the lists. Hooves thundered upon the jousting field; the pounding boomed in the ears. Dirt clumps flew up into the air as if tossed in celebration. Weighted and encased in full armor, plumes on helmets bobbing with every gallop, the combatants raised their lances with steely determination, eyes locked upon the impending opponent as they cradled their weapons in the crook between bicep and chest.
Nobleman, courtier, commoner, and peasant jumped to their feet in the overflowing, banner-festooned stands, holding their breath as the two kings bore down upon each other. The impact, when it came, burst out like two worlds colliding. Lance met armor, snapping with a riotous crash and a splintering of wood, and the air ruptured with gasps and cheers. Each competitor had broken his lance upon the other; yet both had kept their saddle. The match was a draw, again.
Fran?ois quit his black steed with deft agility, tugging off the cumbersome helmet with agitation. Beneath it, his thick chestnut hair lay matted with sweat to his face and jawbone.
"Well done, Your Majesty," Montmorency called out as he approached, raising his voice above the unabated cheering. Beside him, a slight man brandished a satisfied sneer as he scissored his short legs, hurrying to keep up.
With a sidelong look of annoyance, the young king of France scoffed, struggling to remove his gauntlets.
"Do not patronize me, Monty." Finally relieved of them, Fran?ois threw the thick, padded leather gloves to the ground, words slithering out between grinding teeth. "Damn it all, I cannot best the man."
"That is true," Philippe de Chabot said as he picked up the gloves and slapped them together to dislodge the fresh mud. "But neither can he best you. There are worse ways to spend a day of sport."
In the bright sunlight, Fran?ois squinted slanted eyes at his companions, his valued friends since childhood, his closest advisers since becoming king five years ago, and felt the heat of his ire cool. Perhaps there were other ways to triumph over this adversary yet.
In Henry VIII, Fran?ois found everything he detested in a king--a hedonist obsessed with the quest for power and plea- sure--and yet a part of him strove to imitate this nemesis whom he would never admit respecting, though respect Henry he did. The faults Fran?ois railed against in his archrival were ones others attributed to Fran?ois himself. How disgusted he would be to know it.
"Besides," Chabot continued with a shrug of his small shoulders, "you are much better looking."
Monty barked a laugh as Fran?ois snickered, cuffing Chabot in the arm.
"You must pay your respects to your opponent." The gruff, aged voice doused the conviviality of the young men. Chancellor Duprat approached, skinny legs waddling under a rotund body. "King Henry awaits your hand, Sire."
"Of course." Fran?ois accepted the intrusion and instruction without argument. Accompanied by his triumvirate of men, he stalked across the rutted tourney field.
"Well ridden, Your Majesty," he called as he approached his challenger, outstretched hand in the lead.
With a devilish smile upon his plump, freckled face, Henry accepted the hand thus offered. "And you, Your Highness."
Cardinal Wolsey, rotund form looming in red cassock and mozzetta, hovered by Henry's side as always, as did the dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk.
These two rivals politely embraced, between them a pull of genuine affection, more potent after the last few days together, yet sharp with the edge of competition, like two loving brothers forever bent on besting the other.
"A worthy match indeed," Fran?ois conceded. "One deserving of a hearty toast."
"More than one, I should think," Henry agreed. "I will see you at table?"
"It will be my honor." Fran?ois accepted the invitation with a sweeping bow.
As the men separated and made to quit the field, the crowd erupted into another burst of applause, colorful banners flourishing. With magnanimity, each sovereign acknowledged the accolades with a wave, a nod, and a smile as they quit the field.
A young man standing along the front rail took his pretty wife by the arm, hoisting his daughter higher in his grasp, and began to lead them through the departing congested throng. "Come, mes amours, I must prepare to attend the king at table."
"Of course, my dear," replied the delicate woman at his side, skin flushed from a day in the sun.
The toddler in her father's arms put her head down onto his strong shoulder, blond curls falling on her face as her eyes grew heavy, then closed. Exhausted from the excitement of the long day, she would sleep peacefully tonight.
The royal combatants retired from the tourney field, entourages in tow, each to his own opulent encampment. These men of power and privilege endured no discomforts; though ensconced in makeshift, temporary lodgings, each camp contrived astounding accommodations for this auspicious meeting.
Months in the making, the summit was unlike any conducted before. Leaders who had been overlooked waited with equal amounts of wonder and fear, because any accord between France and England could only spell trouble. The possibility of orchestrating a great peace enticed the English king. The opportunity to bring another to his cause against his rivalry with Charles V of Spain, newly appointed Holy Roman Emperor--chosen by the new pope over Fran?ois himself--had inveigled the French king forth. A grand meeting, an opportunity to talk; diplomacy and deal making decorated by a grand festival. And yet the undercurrent of competition between the two young and brash chevaliers, the constant quibbling for any modicum of superiority over the other, no matter how miniscule, permeated every facet of this audacious assembly.
In the shallow Val d'Or at the very edge of English-occupied France, near Calais, halfway between the castle ruins of Gu?nes and Ardres, they had met on an early June afternoon.
Henry would have a castle no matter where he laid his head. In the shadow of the Ch?teau de Gu?nes, the Palace of Illusions had been erected with sections brought from England already assembled. Covering an area of more than two acres, it was a convoluted construction of wood and earth covered with a painted canvas to resemble stone and formed with turrets, parapets, and windows. Within its vast rectangular interior lay a courtyard boasting two magnificent fountains fed by three pipes--one for water, one for hippocras, and one for wine.
In a meadow on the outskirts of Ardres, the French had pitched their tents, almost four hundred of them, some as large as any castle's great hall. Many of the nobles in attendance had forfeited all property, selling their fields, their mills, their forests to attend the event with appropriate honor. Surmounted by pennants of golden apples and emblazoned with their owners' coats of arms, the tents of velvet and cloth of gold spread out across the countryside like wild flowers. The field shimmered as if the gold grew from its earth. But no pavilion rivaled the splendor of Fran?ois's tent.
Taller than any other and sixty feet on a side, two ship masts lashed together supported the mammoth cloth of gold. Blue velvet lined the interior, decorated with fleurs-de-lis and gold embroideries from Cyprus.
Beyond splendid, yet the kings' accommodations paled in comparison to the events conducted over the course of the summit.
Banquets, dances, and mummings filled the nights; a feat of arms--jousting at the tilt, an open field tournament, a foot combat at the barriers with puncheon spears, swords, and two-handed swords--filled the days. The kings were the most rowdy and jubilant attendants of all. In their company were their nobles, their friends, and their women. Fran?ois had brought his mother; his wife, Queen Claude; and his mistress, the Comtesse de Chateaubriant. Regal and silent by Henry VIII's side, stood Catherine of Aragon, with countless fair maidens waiting to warm his bed. As the kings made merry, their ambassadors and delegates made diplomacy, Wolsey speaking foremost for England, while the Queen Mother, Louise de Savoy, spoke for France. Many words passed between these two equally keen minds, but little of lasting consequence was said.
Henry rubbed at his midsection, a replete, resounding belch coaxed forth from the embroidered brocade-covered protuberance. Attendants scurried around him, cleaning the remnants of the evening's festivities like ants upon an abandoned picnic ground.
He watched them from his elevated perch on the velvet chair in the corner of the vast room; watched, but cared little about their performance. The last of the guests had retreated in the early hours of the morning, leaving the king in the company of his most reliant confidants.
"Have we found out who the young women are?" Henry spoke to his men, but his unfocused, bloodshot eyes never strayed from the buzzing workers before him, mesmerized, in his hazy stupor, by their tedious, repetitive movements.
The bearded Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, stepped forward, if a bit unsteadily, wine sloshing in a tightly gripped chalice. "They are Thomas Boleyn's daughters, my lord, Mary and . . . and Anne."
Henry pulled himself up from his slump and whipped round, all at once full of eager attention. "Certainly not?"
" 'Tis true, Your Highness, they have been in the French queen's company for some years and are quite soon preparing to return to our homeland."
With sensual, languid movements at odds with his rugged physique, the king reclined once more. "Be sure to send them a personal invitation to court."
"Of course, Your Highness. As you wish," Suffolk assured him, but not without a roll of his eyes and a salacious smile at the small group of men gathered in duty and imbibing.
"Are we done here, Wolsey? I tire of these games." Sounding like nothing so much as a spoiled, petulant child, Henry's bulbous bottom lip stuck out in a pout.
"I believe we have done all we can here, Your Majesty," the cardinal said with neither enthusiasm nor disappointment. "You have done well to sign the treaty."
Henry snarled at him. To make peace with the posturing Fran?ois rankled; the hand that wielded the quill itched.
"You will see great results from this, I assure you," Wolsey pacified.
It was the slightest of changes, but the king's pout reformed, a devilish grin blossoming in its stead. In that moment, Henry found the joy of the situation in which he found himself: As the lesser of the three world powers, both France and Spain courted him. A master manipulator, he intended to exploit the state of affairs for all it was worth.
"Send a message then, would you, Wolsey? Tell the emperor I would like to talk. He should know of the ostentatious display we have witnessed here. A man with so much to prove as our Fran?ois, putting on such a show, must have something to hide."
"Of course, Majesty, but per--"
When the hand of his king flicked in his face, the cardinal's thoughts froze on his tongue. Henry leaned forward, resting his free hand upon one knee, eyes fixed upon the young man rushing toward him. The pale, snaggletoothed youth approached his sovereign, lips forming words aching to launch from his mouth. Henry's quieting hand flicked from Wolsey to the approaching squire, who clamped his mouth shut, eyes bulging in fear at the abrupt command.
"Cease and desist." The king's booming voice pummeled the air. "You are all relieved. Make for your beds."
Every manservant and chambermaid dropped whatever lay in their hands, and took themselves off without thought or question. The small gathering of courtiers drew closer to the king, put on guard at once by the abrupt change in his tone and demeanor.
"Speak," Henry barked the instant the last servant had quit the chamber.
With a twitch and an Adam's apple-bobbing swallow, the young man made his report.
"Your fears have been confirmed, Your Highness. The man in question has indeed been seen in clandestine conversations with members of the French contingent."
"Bastard!" spat the king, pounding a fist on the arm of the chair and spewing upon the floor, as if the word and gesture were not enough to rid him of his venomous rage.
The messenger quaked in his worn leather boots, bulging insect eyes once more protruding from his long face. Only Suffolk remembered him.
"You may leave us, good sir. You have done well. Have no fear." With a calming hand upon the youngster's shoulder, the duke turned him toward the door, helping him away with a firm yet gentle nudge. Turning back, Suffolk met with the king's blazing stare.
"You know what to do?" Henry moved not a bit, his voice low and quiet, yet his rage was there for any to see did they know what to look for.
Suffolk's full lips thinned in a grimace, but he bowed, spun on his heel with determination, and left; not a one questioned his compliance with whatever the king demanded of him.
The screams of human and animal mixed in a grotesque chorus, filling the predawn hours with their horror and revulsion. The monstrous flames rose into the black sky, roaring like cannon blasts in the day's most hushed hours. Men, women, and children fled from the orangey blaze in fright while soldier and guard ran toward it. But it was too powerful, too repulsive, and it was impossible to break through to its heart, to penetrate the barrier and save those trapped within. They stood at the aperture of the tent now fully ablaze in the apex of the English camp, waiting to catch those fortunate enough to escape from the fiery cataclysm.
The pandemonium swirled about the inferno like the oxygen that fed it so splendidly. For within every neighboring tent, the brilliance of the flame appeared alive upon the walls, the nexus of its glow indistinguishable through the pale canvas. In terror they ran out of their tents, into the fray; haphazard, undirected commotion. No matter how removed from danger, they ran and screamed, the sickening scent of burning flesh fueling their fear.