Barnes & Noble.com
Donna Russo Morin
For fans of Philippa Gregory, this stunning historical novel takes readers into the fascinating, sexy, excessive, and dangerous world of Louis XIV’s Court of Versailles, and the life of a young woman who manages to survive and thrive within it. For many privileged young women, Versailles is a paradise. For others, it is a gilded and bejeweled cage of oppression. Jeanne Yvette Mas du Bois is unlike most courtiers and the flavor of decadence tastes bitter upon her tongue. When Jeanne saves a Musketeer’s life, she is mistaken for a man and admitted to an inner circle where she learns of an assassination plot against the Queen—and falls in love with a man she can never have. Now, with the Queen in jeopardy, and her own double life making her privy to the tangled intrigues at court, Jeanne is in a powerful yet increasingly perilous position. Jeanne fights against an arranged marriage to a weak, ineffectual, effeminate man of her father's choosing; she fights with a small, dedicated group of Musketeers to save the life of the Queen of France; and she fights for the true love of her life.
Jeanne knocked softly on the closed door.
In the desolate silence left behind by her father and brother, she and her Maman had embraced in their shared survival, two soldiers rising from a desecrated battlefield. Jeanne began to apologize, but the ravaged and bruised appearance of her mother's face had stolen all words from her tongue. Her mother had kissed her lips, left the room and closed her bedchamber door. Jeanne had waited anxiously for her mother, but she could wait no longer, the words of regret stuck in her throat like a half chewed piece of food and she longed to spew, ridding herself of the choking guilt.
"Maman?" She called softly, knocking once more, opening it a crack this time, without waiting for words of encouragement.
Her mother lay on her back on her bed, no movement save the slight rise and fall of her chest, her eyes shut tight. Jeanne tiptoed to the bedside, peering down at her mother. Fresh tears sprang to Jeanne's eyes as she saw the large bruise spreading like a dark purple stain on the side of her mother's face. Jeanne turned and took the few small steps to the pedestal in the room's corner holding water pitcher and basin. Gathering a cloth from the shelf beneath, she poured cool water into the ewer, soaking the cloth. Turning back to the bed, Jeanne gasped, dropping the cloth to the hard wood floor. Her mother stared at her with lifeless intensity.
"Ah, dear Maman, you are awake."
Jeanne rinsed the cloth out in the basin, ridding it of the clinging dirt from the floor. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she gently placed the cloth on her mother's marred skin.
"Why do you antagonize him so?" Adelaide's voice sounded meager and strained, uttered without gesture or expression.
"I do not mean to, Maman, truly I do n...not." Jeanne's voice caught in her throat, her dark eye’s avoiding her mother’s golden ones. She held the cloth to her mother's face until the heat of their bodies stole the coolness from it. Jeanne dunk it in the chilly water, bringing it back to her mother.
"Can you ever forgive me?" Jeanne’s swelling tears of attrition spilled over and ran a course of repentance down her checks.
The corners of her mother's mouth rose in the slightest of smiles. Adelaide brought a hand up, cupping her daughter's face.
"Do I not always?" Lowering her hand, Adelaide braced herself, pushing against the silk coverlet to sit up straight. She leaned against the carved wood of the headboard, gripping her head as if it were about to fly from her shoulders.
"Do you want me to call for the physician?" Jeanne rose from the bed, deeply alarmed at the whiteness of her mother's usually golden skin, especially pale against the blackness of the darkening bruise.
"No, no. I am fine. We must not let anyone see me." Adelaide almost shook her head, but the pain stopped her at the first movement. She reached up and captured her head with her hands, as if to keep it from falling off.
"I will always forgive you, ma petit. But I do not know how much longer I can protect you." Adelaide raised a shaky hand to her daughter. Jeanne took it, sitting once more by her mother's side. "Things are not as when you left for the convent. Your father's situation is more precarious than ever."
Adelaide spoke freely with no fear of interruption from her husband. As a member of the state council and a fairly well placed courtier, he would be wherever the King was. Gaston rarely returned to their rooms except to sleep, too afraid not to "be seen".
"The King has wrenched all power from the noblemen," Adelaide spoke through tight, white lips, "it is but a masquerade he acts, letting them believe they advise him. The Fronde has left our King paranoid and controlling."
Adelaide, the daughter of the Comte de Clemont, a distant cousin to the King, was a part of a prestigious bluestocking society of women and privy to the very inner circles of the Royal family, a fact that only served to alienate the married couple more.
Adelaide leaned toward her daughter, grasping the young hands. Jeanne started slightly at the feel of the cold, bloodless skin. She recovered, putting her mother's hands in her own, capturing them in her younger, warmer ones, wishing she could give back to her mother all she had received.
"They are powerless men, these nobles, reduced to petty games and intrigues to give their life any meaning. They are humiliated and frustrated by the machinations the King forces them into. It is no wonder they lash out at any around them less powerful than they."
"But we are his family." Jeanne burst out, her words flying from her mouth like wayward birds and she unable to catch or contain them.
"Who is more powerless than their wives and daughters? Your father is one of the few noblemen still to serve in Louis's government and it is only because he possessed financial education. His position is tenuous at best. Why do you antagonize him so, by speaking thus?"
"It is not my intent, Maman," Jeanne turned from her mother, walking to the open doorway, poised in the egress as if to take flight. "And it is not my fault."
Indeed, it was not her fault that her father suffered at the hands of the King. Louis XIV ruled by absolute monarchy, proclaiming forthrightly, 'l'etat, c'est moi,' I am the state. It was his complex set of unwritten laws and codes of behavior, who may enter the room when, who may sit, who must stand, who may eat and when. Noblemen now held only honorary positions and pensions. Life was a struggle for trivial distinction and privileges.
Louis would do anything to keep the nobility from uniting against him, as they had during the Fronde almost thirty years ago. The memories of the ten-year-old King, of the deprivation and despair during those years colored all his decisions; he ruled by them. He had dedicated his life to punishing them for it.
He filled his high council, the Conseil d'en Haut, with promoted commoners, usurping the nobles, finding it easier to dismiss an elevated commoner than to strip a comte, and all his descendants, of the title. It was the reign of the lowborn bourgeoisie, as the Duc de Saint-Simon had so aptly named it. The rest were the King’s puppets, dancing to the threat of court banishment or a life in the Bastille.
Jeanne turned back to Maman, hands pressed against her stomach, as if under the yellow embroidered bodice, her intestines fought to gain their freedom. Her long shadow shook upon the wall behind her, cast by the guttering candles. With small, rapid movements she shook her head back and forth, long brown curls flowing like waves about her head.
"I am not like the other girls. There is…something…wrong with me." Her deep brown eyes pleaded for understanding.
Adelaide's mouth formed a ghost of a smile, a benevolent acceptance of a mother to her wayward child.
"I know, mon cher, I know. But you can try. Why did you not try harder at the convent?"
"Ak, morbleau!" Jeanne hands flew dramatically in the air. "I could not stand it, Maman. The girls, they are beyond stupid; they are ludicrous, puerile. They fainted in horror at the least little thing, or worse, giggled incessantly for hours and hours."
Jeanne ran the few steps back to the bed, falling upon it with such force, her mother bounced upon the feathers.
"I can not bear a life where the most momentous decisions I have to make are what to wear and what to serve. It is too meaningless and trivial. I want to learn things, study, be a part of the world. I can n--"
Adelaide raised a hand, silencing her daughter.
"Do you think you are the first woman to wish to break the shackles imposed upon us by the virtue of possessing a womb?" Her mother's words hissed out from between closed teeth. "If so, you are greatly deceived."
Jeanne saw her mother's frustrated tears, the vein popping on her forehead and her red splotchy skin and, for the first time, saw the true anguish in her Maman, anguish of her own wasted life.
The young, suddenly frightened girl did not know what to do to relieve the pain of this woman, this angel who had given her life and so much more. She did the only thing that came to mind.
Jeanne stuck out her tongue and rolled her eyes as she'd seen the King's jesters do.
Maman's face went blank--then split wide as she barked a laugh of pure delight. Her eyes popped open and one long, slim hand flew to her chest as if to contain the swift skip of her heart. The shroud of despair lifted. Still laughing softly, she gazed upon her daughter with soulful eyes, bright with the turmoil of her emotions. Adelaide reached out for her daughter and pulled her into a tight embrace.
"Oh, ma petite, you are and always will be the breath and death of me."
Jeanne smiled from the safety of her mother's bosom, memories of such sanctuary taken there over the years flitting through her mind like passing scenery. She inhaled the musky, flowery scent of her mother and squeezed back with all the force of her overwhelming love.
"I will try harder, Maman. I really will."
Adelaide clucked her tongue, reveling in the healing force of her daughter's touch.
"Non, mon cher Jeanne, you most probably will not."