Mistress of France - Chapter One


Florence - Italy


Smoke from a hundred flickering candles gave tangible density to the air, black spectres of malice.


‘Hang her from the walls and the bastards will shoot the pope’s sparrow for us.’


A murmur of support rippled through the commune council.


‘But she’s just a child,’ one of the Signoria protested.  All eyes turned and he cowered a little under their collective scorn.


‘I’m not saying we shouldn’t do something,’ he reasoned, ‘just that we don’t need to kill her.  We could ruin her value for the Medici by throwing her in a brothel.  It would cheer the people to break her in.  I might even have a poke at the wretch myself,’ he added for bravado.


‘Why don’t we just snap her little neck and leave the Medici without an heir?   All the pope’s plans for her would be crushed, as we will crush the enemy against our city walls,’ another man growled.


The Gonfaloniere held up his hand for silence.  ‘Our most pressing matter is those same Imperialist troops you imagine lapping benignly against our walls may well hit us like a tempest.’  He allowed the weight of his words to sink in.  ‘Regardless of her fate, we must move her from the convent to a more defensible position, with no chance of rescue and no sympathy to her cause.’


A few of the men reluctantly nodded but most relished a bloodthirsty fate for their enemy and grumbled complaints.


‘Would you have a cage with no song bird?’ the Gonfaloniere shouted, silencing the room.  The triumphant overthrow of the Medici’s three years ago had been tainted by the escape of two illegitimate cousins, Ippolito and Alessandro.  The last legitimate heir was their only hostage.  ‘While we have her the pope treads carefully.’  The warning settled like a mist over their murderous mood.  ‘Now, Aldobrandini?’


A thick set man in his early forties stood apprehensively, his hands clutching the edge of the table in dread of the sentence he would be instructed to undertake.


‘I’m entrusting you to fetch her from the convent.  Use force if you must, but keep her safe until we determine our course of action.  Take the eight of the watch with you.’


Aldobrandini didn’t need to guess why he was chosen for the mission as the most moderate in a bunch of extremists.  Who knew what some of the others would do?   He shuddered slightly at the thought of his own eleven-year-old child in the hands of these rough men.  But his daughter was safely tucked in bed; Catherine de Medici would be dragged before them to learn her fate.


‘Where should I take her?’


The Gonfaloniere glared around the room defying anyone to question his judgement.  ‘We can better defend her at St Lucia convent.  But protect her in the streets; the mood of the citizens is murderous; they would drink her very blood.’


 ‘Let them,’ one man shouted.  ‘Let the people destroy the last of the tyrants.’


Aldobrandini grimaced at the Gonfaloniere.  ‘I’ll fetch her tonight and pray the cover of darkness protects us all.’


A sword hilt pounded in the still summer night against the thick wooden gates of the Convent Murate.  ‘Open up in the name of the Republic,’ Aldobrandini shouted.


Catherine’s feet hit the ground before her women could stir.  Her heart was racing; they had come for her, and she knew it.  Tentatively opening the door she found the abbess hurrying towards her with a lit taper.


‘They will kill me,’ her child’s voice sounded unnaturally calm and the abbess raised the light to the girl’s face.  She was wide eyed with fright.


‘We’ll hold them off,’ the abbess promised, although in reality a convent full of women had little chance against armed men.


For nine months Imperialist troops in alliance with the Medici Pope Clement had circled the city walls battering the defences and the mood in besieged Florence was increasingly desperate.  The jewel of Tuscany was crippled by starvation, plague and raw fear.   Shifting alliance to reclaim Florence, the pope promised to crown the fifth Hapsburg Charles as Holy Roman Emperor in Rome.  The abbess abhorred the title.  Holy Roman Emperor indeed; he was as base and as greedy as the next man.


‘You have the scissors?’


Catherine raised a hand clutching a large pair of steel scissors.  She had dreamt this scene a thousand times over, a lucid dream of premonition.  Florence would shake her off with the night and bury their crime in the city’s history.


The abbess suddenly realised the girl slept with the blades within reach, but there was no time for sympathy.  ‘God bless you, my child.  If they fear your escape then your uncle must be close to success.  You must stay alive, dear Duchessina.’  She placed a hand briefly on Catherine’s head in blessing and hurried off, gathering the nuns and novices huddled in frightened groups and drawing them all bravely to the convent doors.  There was little time.


‘This is a house of God and no man shall step foot on convent soil,’ the abbess shouted through a slot in the gate.


The angry face of Aldobrandini appeared in the orange relief of torchlight.  ‘We haven’t time for sensibilities, Mother Abbess.  Open these gates or we take the convent by force.’


The abbess stood her ground.  ‘Come back in daylight with a letter from the Signoria to identify yourselves so we may know we have permission to admit you,’ she reasoned.


Aldobrandini stared through the gate.  ‘Foolish woman, open up or we must force our way.’


‘We are wedded to God and it is to him you will answer for your violence.’  The abbess could hear the shrill note of defiance in her own voice.  The slaughter of a child was not God’s will.


‘Fetch ladders, we’ll scale the walls,’ Aldobrandini ordered his men, motioning to the three strongest.  ‘You, keep trying to break it in.’


A powerful crash on the gate made the nuns jump with fright.  Over and over the men hurled themselves at the door, pitching muscle against wood, but the gate remained steadfast.  Nuns posted around the walls knocked over the ladders so they crashed to the ground, but Aldobrandini ordered his men straddling the wall to jump and they landed heavily on the neat garden beds.


The abbess gathered the nuns and tried to block the intruders from unlatching the heavy wooden bar of the gate, but they pushed the women out of the way, knocking a few older nuns to the ground.  The gate lurched open and Aldobrandini and his men stormed in, torches held high and swords drawn.


He stopped by one of the elderly nuns struggling to her feet.  ‘Forgive me, sister.’  He helped her up.  ‘I have no cause to offend.  My purpose is with the Medici girl.’  Turning to his men he shouted, ‘None shall be harmed,’ and strode through the cloisters, his right hand devoutly fluttering the sign of the cross.  Muttering, ‘May God forgive me,’ he tried to suppress thoughts of divine retribution.


The doors in the convent all swung open without resistance for there were no locks in a house of God.  With relief he found the Medici girl on her knees in prayer at the end of a draped bed.  She looked just a scrap of a girl, scrawny and small as if life in a convent had stunted natural growth.  Her eyes bulged slightly so you would pick her for a Medici as easily as if she had been branded.  Her hair was shorn close to her head and she wore the robes of a nun, a small habit formed for a child’s body.


‘You’re instructed to come with me.’  He motioned for her to stand, but she remained kneeling with hands clasped in prayer.  ‘Come, I have been sent to take you to a safe place,’ he insisted, gripping a thin arm and easily lifting her to her feet.


‘You dare lay a hand on a spouse of Christ?’ Catherine demanded pulling herself from his grasp.  ‘Eternal damnation to any man who forces a nun from her convent.’  Her voice was clear and commanding and Aldobrandini had to remind himself she was only eleven.


Something caught his eye in the shadows of the bed and he swiftly stooped and pulled out a long plait of hair, holding it up to her face but the girl stared back defiantly.  ‘You are a spouse of Christ these five minutes past with your deceitful disguise, but you do not fool me.  Change your clothes; we leave at once while the night still protects us,’ he insisted briskly.


‘While the night protects you from your foul deed!  I will not go,’ Catherine dropped to her knees again using prayer as her only defence.


‘You speak nonsense, child,’ Aldobrandini said more kindly realising she was trembling with fear.  ‘I mean you no harm, which is more than I can say for the mob outside these gates.  I must get you to safety.’


The abbess struggled against two men who held her at the door.  ‘She is safe here.’ 


Despair crept into Catherine’s voice.  ‘If you are so concerned for my safety have the Signoria post men outside the convent.  I will not be taken from here.’


Aldobrandini sighed.  He wasn’t a brutal man and sympathised with her situation.  Any other man in Florence would slap her Medici face and drag her off in chains.  Instead he bent down, lifted her to her feet and hefted her over one shoulder.  Catherine beat her fists against his broad back and kicked with surprising strength, screaming curses.  He pushed past the abbess and the nuns crowding the cloister.  The air was fresh with dew and the sweet scent of orange blossom.  Aldobrandini glanced up frowning; the sky had a tinge of grey heralding the dawn.


The abbess lunged through the guards and hugged Catherine.  ‘Keep your dreams secret, little one,’ she warned.  ‘Not all will understand and many will fear the insight given you by God.’  She tucked two miniature portraits into Catherine’s pocket.  They were her most precious possessions, images of parents she never knew.


Aldobrandini impatiently pulled the girl from the embrace and bundled her onto a mule.  The party rode off, ignoring Catherine’s pleas and the tears staining her face.  He tossed his cloak.  ‘Throw this over your head.’


‘No, all shall see me as a nun,’ Catherine said, defying him again.


‘All will see you as a Medici and the pope’s niece.  They will have your blood,’ he warned.


She went silent and Aldobrandini was ashamed for scaring the child more than necessary.  But it would certainly help if she were not recognised on the streets so he could get her safely to St Lucia.


Catherine began to harbour a frantic hope that he would be true to his word.  Perhaps they would let her live a few months more.  They rode in silence winding through the streets she knew so well.  The heavy relief of Santa Croce loomed before them, the horses’ hooves clattering on the stony ground and echoing from the grave edifice as they crossed the piazza.  Aldobrandini kept a steady pace, resisting the urge for speed, which might draw curious onlookers at this cold hour.


With dread, Catherine realised they were taking her towards the Palazzo della Signoria.  A wave of nausea flushed through her body but she knew she had to force away the paralysing fear and fight for survival.  If she slid from the mule and ran, they would hunt her down in the open space.  She had more chance in the narrow streets.


She slipped her feet free, feeling the warmth of the animal’s coat through her soft leather boots.  The mule tossed his head at her changed grip.  She was ready to run for her life.


Her captors turned into another street but one of the men rode up on her right, flanking her so tightly her legs brushed against the bellies of the horses.


Aldobrandini could easily see the outline of her proud profile.  The sun had risen and so would the people.  He spurred his horse on, tugging at the lead on Catherine’s mule, but the citizens of Florence emerged from their homes and the streets soon became a tide of bleary humanity.


‘Those are Medici eyes if ever I saw the devil stare out of them,’ a woman hissed as they passed into the Piazza della Signoria.


‘It’s the child,’ another called out and soon a group of men barred the way.


‘The Lord protect us,’ Aldobrandini whispered and dragged Catherine from her mule placing her within the safe circle of his arms.  Someone pulled at the girl’s leg but he kicked them aside and urged his horse forward, pushing through the gathering crowd.  A tomato flew through the air and hit Catherine; it was too green to splatter and Catherine’s arms flew up to protect her head.


‘Don’t waste food on her; she’s the cause of our hunger,’ a man cried out.  ‘Pull her from the horse.  Show her how we deal with a tyrant.’


Catherine was terrified.  Was she so despised by the people?  She had done nothing to harm them but their eyes were rent with bitter hatred.  A man lurched through the crowd, his face familiar from her past when she was safe and happy.  He pushed others aside and grabbed her hand.  Instinctively Catherine pulled away, afraid of being torn from the horse and at the mercy of the mob, but he pressed a note into her trembling fingers holding her hand for a brief comforting moment before being brushed aside.


Aldobrandini’s men created a protective phalanx in the square and they cantered away from the crowd through the open space, scattering sleepy pigeons in their path.  Catherine realised they had passed the Palazzo she most feared and felt sick with relief.  Aldobrandini rode with an arm across her body as if she would slip, eel-like into the river Arno, but the horses were travelling too fast now for escape.


The familiar sight of St Lucia convent emerged suddenly before them.  Great sobs wracked Catherine’s body as the gate opened and they rode into sanctuary.


‘We almost didn’t make it.  Guard your walls well and admit no one without the knowledge of the Signoria.’  Aldobrandini took her small hand in his and lowered her safely to the ground.


The abbess gathered Catherine in her arms.  ‘Poor child.  She’s had quite a fright; did you threaten her?’ she demanded.


‘To the contrary, sister.  I have followed orders and now she is in your care.  Duchesse,’ he addressed Catherine, ‘you are to remain here at the pleasure of the Signoria.  Now go, the child is frightened and cold.  Take her inside,’ he added kindly.  This was a bad business, he thought as he rode out of the convent grounds, a bad business to consider the fate of a child with her uncle’s army scratching at the city gates.


Catherine watched him leave, overwhelmed by her ordeal.  She raised her eyes to the staring faces of the nuns crowded around for the spectacle and forcing back tears, drew herself proudly upright.  They were not supporters of her family, but she knew most of them from her previous time confined at the convent; they were good women and no harm would come to her.


‘Take that off,’ the abbess gestured scornfully at her disguise.  ‘Unless you wish to take vows, a habit is no dress for a child.’


Catherine nodded obediently and allowed herself to be led inside.  Her new room had none of the luxuries of the Convent Murate, but that was to be expected.  She looked around the bare walls and sparse furniture wondering if she would ever lie under a silken canopy again.


Catherine touched a hand to her clipped hair, the blunt ends standing rigid from her head, where she had cut as close to her scalp as she dared, felt harsh against her fingertips.  I’m even uglier than before, she thought, ugly and homeless.  She yearned for a kind embrace but quickly steeled herself against thoughts of her parents.  Their deaths had left her an unprotected babe and today there was no warmth in her thoughts towards them, only the bitterness of regret and abandonment.


The nuns left her to change into a plain grey dress made from coarse wool.  She tested the bed—a thin straw mattress, but the covers looked warm enough for a cold cell in winter.  Her fingers tightened over the letter pressed into her hand and she slowly released them surprised at the stiffness from clenching.  She smoothed out the letter and reading the words, suddenly remembered the face.  Cosimo Ruggieri, the son of the family apothecary and alchemist.  He had grown into a man since she last saw him.  The letter read:


Duchesse, I am forever in your service.  Have courage.  I foresee a day soon when you will be free and reach great heights, and I will be humbly by your side, always your loyal servant.  The stars have foretold this and no man will change your destiny or mine.