nell65: (by roulade)
[personal profile] nell65
Still more of the medieval LFN AU. Yes - still in my head, still needing to be written out and done so I can move on. ;-)

But another 5000 or so words this month, and some of the hardest - getting going on a new section. This is actually only about half of the words, the rest are disjointed pieces, assembeld in the right order but linked only by stage directions!

Under a cut. Jean’s Palace, Paris, December 1363


“So.” Lady Margaret de Bourbon turned to Nikita with a bright, infectious smile. “What do you think of Biette de Casinel, Nikita?”

Nikita choked on the biscuit she was eating. Coughing and waving away concerned expressions on the part of the sisters Margaret and Jeanne de Bourbon, she struggled to come up with the best way to respond to such a direct question. The three of them were sitting in a curtained alcove of Jeanne’s somewhat down at the heels dressing room, drinking tea and, until this second, engaging in a rather forced and artificial conversation about the dismal winter rain filling the gutters outside.

Jeanne was the Dauphin’s wife. She and her younger sister Margaret were also noble cousins to the king and his children, as well as to Rouen’s family. They were connected to both the Valois and the Samuelle lines through their mother, in a confusing cross-generational leap that required paper and pen to trace out the convoluted lineage. They were handsome enough women who bore a mild resemblance to the king, mostly due to fair coloring and broad shoulders, high foreheads and narrow, sloping noses.

What familial similarity the sisters’ shared, however, was undermined by their very different life courses. Grief and worry had already taken their toll on twenty-six year old Jeanne. Her face was thin and lined with strain, the hollow above her sharply visible collarbones far too deep for health. Her heavy rings spun loosely on her long, elegant fingers, her nails were rough and her cuticles bloody. The thirteen years of her marriage had been marked by lethal political turmoil, bloody civil uprisings and intermittent warfare with the English, as well as more personal tragedies. Jeanne had born the Dauphin three children in quick succession in the late 1350s. Their daughters had died three years ago, and her surviving four-year old son was, according to gossip at least, quite frail. She had birthed no more children since the youngest girl died in infancy. According to gossip, because out of grief she denied the Dauphin access to her bed.

In contrast, still unmarried at twenty, Margaret retained the plump prettiness, rosy skin and unlined lips of maidenhood. But her eyes too, were anxious and full of worry. The French court was an unhappy place. The royal family was out of money and rocked by passionate arguments between the King and his sons over the uncertain future of a kingdom he had staked on an outrageous ransom and dangerous alliances.

Rouen had introduced Nikita to Margaret their first day at Jean’s court, and done everything he could to foster a friendly relationship between them in the week since they had arrived. Nikita’s initial skepticism about the likely success of this plan faded once she saw more fully how isolated Margaret was. Jeanne had more or less withdrawn entirely from public view after her children’s deaths. As a result, at this latest moment of crisis in the royal house, Jeanne was a forgotten person. Any friendly face was probably welcome to Margaret right now.

To be sure, access to Rouen and his close ties to the Dauphin and his brothers was surely worth the two royal sisters stooping to cultivate Rouen’s mistress. So, while it was no longer a real surprise to Nikita that Jeanne had invited her here today, or that Jeanne’s true goal was to quiz Nikita about Biette de Casinel, the abruptness and directness of Margaret's question had nonetheless left Nikita gasping for breath.

Biette de Casinel, soldier’s daughter and the current mistress of the Dauphin, was an extremely lovely woman. Further cementing her importance to the future king of France, she had just given him a plump and healthy son. She also, on the several recent occasions that Nikita had been in her company, appeared to be breathtakingly stupid. So stupid, in fact, that Nikita was strongly tempted to think it an act, except she wasn’t sure it was possible to pretend so thoroughly.

After taking another sip of mulled wine and then a deep breath, Nikita turned to Margaret, who had asked the question. “She is a beautiful woman, obviously. And she seems to have a pleasingly placid and tranquil demeanor, my lady.”

Jeanne shook her head in mock dismay. “Oh Nikita. You sound so like cousin Michel! So tactful and discrete.”

Nikita felt her smile freeze and for a fleeting instant wished she could share what Michael had actually said about the Dauphin’s mistress.

Margaret leaned forward, an earnest expression on her face. “Please Nikita. We could really do with your opinion on Biette, one concubine of another.”

Now thoroughly discomfited, Nikita focused on setting her mug down on the small table between them as carefully as possible.

“Margaret,” Jeanne laid a hand on her sister’s arm, “you have embarrassed my guest.”

Margaret shrugged and smiled semi-apologetically at Nikita. “Sorry. That was rude of me. But, Jeanne, be serious a moment. We are here to talk about sex and men, so we might as well speak frankly as elliptically.”

Jeanne narrowed her eyes at her younger sister, who stared back unrepentantly, and then she nodded and turned back to Nikita.

Nikita sighed and shook her head. “Alright. You’ve seen her, I trust?”

Both the sisters nodded.

“Well, then, you know she is an extraordinarily sensual person. She is soft and billowy and always dressed in silks and velvets, making her appear extremely touchable. She is usually nibbling at some sweet, showing off her even white teeth against her full lips. She is also extremely calm. Almost eerily so. I suspect that in comparison to dealing with affairs of state and family, the Dauphin finds her presence soothing and undemanding. Rather like falling into a deep stack of featherbeds.”

Margaret nodded, as though this confirmed what she had already told her sister. Jeanne leaned forward, her gaze bright and intense. “Is she trustworthy? Do you think she carries his interests close to her heart?”

Nikita paused, searching for the right words. Finally she said, “I honestly can’t tell. She appears to be entirely focused on herself and her own comfort most of the time. I don’t think she has any particular feelings for the Dauphin other than a vague fondness and some hazy desire to please him,” Nikita lifted her shoulder, “but I understand they have been friends since childhood so perhaps that bond is strong.”

“Yes.” Jeanne nodded. “Her father has served the king’s household all his life.” After a beat she went on. “Could others use her to hurt him?”

Nikita nodded. This was where it had been going all along. “Yes. I believe they could.”

Actually, Michael was sure that someone already was. The royal family was beset on all sides. Nobles wanted more autonomy, allies wanted more considerations, citizens wanted more freedoms, peasants wanted lower taxes and greater safety, opponents wanted more power, and always, always, the English and their unpayable ransom loomed over everything else. Charles, the Dauphin, was a threat to all of these interests and more, mostly by virtue of clearly having a stronger and more disciplined character than his father, and therefore more capable of being a better and more effective king when his time came. Anything that kept Charles away from his duties, anything that disrupted his household, like a billowy and fecund mistress, was likely a boon to any or all of his opponents.

Jeanne and Margaret exchanged a long look. Then Jeanne said, “Do you think you could convince Rouen to help us ease her out of Charles’s life?”

Since that was the whole reason Rouen wanted her to be sitting here in this room, Nikita nodded again. “Yes, your highness, I believe I could. I believe he wishes for the estrangement between you and your husband to come to an end.”

Jeanne sat back and smiled in relief. “Michel has always been a good friend.”

~*~*~*~*~

“I spy your handiwork all over this one, cuz.”

Samuelle looked up from his conversation with one of his uncle’s advisors, happy for a break in the frustrating business of trying to wring more cash out of the thoroughly depleted treasury. “What are you talking about, Philippe?”

Nineteen year-old Philippe Valois, youngest son of Jean of France, leaned closer and nodded across the room. “That. Jeanne.”

Samuelle leaned back to glance around Philippe and saw a cluster of women had just entered the large chamber. The party was led by Jeanne de Bourbon, wife to Charles, and her younger sister Margaret. The babble of conversation gradually faded and the subsequent rustling as people around the room came to their feet and bowed was very loud.

Charles, who had been seated with another small group to Samuelle’s left, also rose, but he stepped forward with his hands outstretched and a concerned look on his narrow, angular face. “Jeanne? Is everything all right? Anything amiss?”

Jeanne took her husband’s hands in her own, smiling as she shook her head. “No, nothing amiss. Quite the opposite! I’m feeling so much better today I thought it was time to come greet our friends and guests.”

Charles smiled in what Samuelle read as genuinely pleased surprise. “Well then,” the Dauphin replied to his wife, holding out his arm in invitation, “Come, let us make the rounds.”

Charles and Jeanne turned away from Samuelle and began to circle the room, clearly intending to speak individually with each person present. Samuelle slid his eyes to his right, looking to see what the reaction of Biette de Casinel would be to the arrival of her lover’s wife.

Biette’s lovely, placid expression did not alter, but Samuelle was certain she paled ever so slightly.

He resisted the urge to smile, instead retaking his seat, signaling to others around the room that they were free to resume their business until the Dauphin and his wife should approach them. He glanced over at Philippe, who had dropped into an emptied chair. This left his father’s chief financial counselor on his feet, scowling down at the young prince. Samuelle frowned reprovingly at Philippe, who elaborately ignored him.

“Why do you think I had anything to do with this?” Samuelle asked.

Philippe raised an eyebrow in an almost successful attempt at wry, sophisticated amusement, and said, “your woman.”

Samuelle raised his own brow in return. “My what?”

Philippe dropped his pose. “Nikita. Your lovely, clever Nikita.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I know she’s been taking tea with Jeanne these last few days.”

“Really? Has she?” Samuelle shrugged slightly. “I had not realized.”

Philippe frowned in turn. “I don’t believe that. But whatever you say. Margaret told me.”

“But, what would that have to do with Jeanne’s coming here, today?”

“Apparently Jeanne has been seeking advice on how to win her man back, and thought a concubine was likely to offer the best counsel on the subject.”

“Well, being in the same room at the same time is a good beginning. Though why she should need Nikita’s advice for that I do not know.”

“Not that, Michel! I image she was seeking advice for other,” here Philippe paused to smile crookedly, a lascivious gleam in his eye, “more intimate maneuvers.”

Samuelle could imagine no more unlikely scenario than the reserved Dauphine seeking, or Nikita sharing, bedroom tips at this stage of their acquaintance. If they became close friends, well, that would be different. There had been an afternoon in the fall, when they were still in Labrit with Michelle and Hugh, when he and Barbant had interrupted a sisterly chat. Michelle had looked up at Samuelle, flushed a rosy pink and then burst into giggles, which turned into hearty laughter as soon as she caught her sister’s eye. Nikita had started laughing too. He and Hugh had promptly retreated, agreeing without words to never acknowledge the situation again. Now, Samuelle stared coolly at Philippe for a long beat, waiting until the younger man dropped his gaze and shifted uncomfortably, before saying. “You are a filthy-minded boy.”

“Michel!”

“If Jeanne has found a reason to resume her public duties at this time,” here he flicked his glance towards Biette before catching Philippe’s gaze again, “that is all to the good, whatever the cause.”

At this, Philippe nodded grimly. “I totally agree, cousin.” He scowled and went on, “were you here yesterday when she actually interrupted a counsel between Charles and our father to ask him about pocket money? She wanted to buy some frippery or other. I feared for a moment that father would stroke out on the spot.”

“Yes. I was.” And he had immediately told Nikita to step up their schedule. She had obviously succeeded.

By this point Charles and Jeanne’s progress about the large room had finally brought them near Biette de Casinel and her party. She was sitting with her brother and his wife. A nursemaid stood behind them, holding the elegantly swaddled infant, who, fortunately, seemed to be as placid in temperament as his mother. Samuelle felt the anticipation in the room rise as the assembled nobles and courtiers strained to watch the coming confrontation, all without appearing to do so.

Jeanne immediately stepped up to the nurse, holding out her arms and exclaiming, “Oh, do let me see the baby.”

Too flustered to do anything else, the nurse handed the child over to the Dauphine, dropped into a deep curtsey, and stayed there.

Jeanne held the child close in one arm, pulling the heavy silk blanket away from the infant’s tiny, pink face with her other hand. “Oh, what a beautiful child!”

The infant worked an arm free and waved his tiny fist in the air. Jeanne caught his hand and briefly pressed her lips to his plump little knuckles. If her smile was faintly tremulous, her eyes remained dry. She looked over to Biette. “Aren’t you worried about his health? I should think exposing such a small one to all these people and all these damp airs would be so dangerous! Please, I can’t be comfortable worrying about him, and I’m sure you are anxious as well. Do feel free to stay away from court until he is old enough to be left alone without his mother, safe in his nursery.”

Then Jeanne pressed the child into Biette’s chest, forcing an extremely startled Biette to accept her son or drop him. Jeanne stepped back and folded her hands, a small, tender smile on her face as she kept her eyes on the child. “Don’t let us detain you, Biette.”

Biette, her fine, pale blue eyes opened even wider than usual, nodded. “Yes, your highness.”

Then she bowed, turned and left the room, her terrified nursemaid at her heels.

~*~*~*~*~
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