"Pardon me, my love, I'm late. But don't worry, I'll be ready in a minute," Henry explained before head h even passed the threshold of her chambers. He closed the door and took off his right boot. "You should have seen young Henri and Charles. They were in their element. Henri is such a natural in the saddle. Like his parents."
He struggled with his second boot, hopping on one leg and at the same time bumping against her desk with his shin.
"Damn it!" When Catherine didn't respond, he let his eyes wander through the room in search of his wife. "Caterina?"
Only now did he espy his spouse in the back of her chamber, where two women were busily plaiting tiny braids into her loose curls. Margot and Hercule were sitting at her feet, playing with little horses carved of beech wood. When he approached her, Catherine looked up at him.
"There you are at last. I was beginning to wonder whether you were trying to dodge out of the ball." Despite her reproach, Catherine was smiling, prompting Henry to bent down and kiss her hello.
"I wouldn't dream of missing this ball." He put his sweaty shirt over his head while talking to her and carelessly dropped it on the floor.
One of the maids hurried over to him and prepared a basin with fresh water. Meanwhile his valet brought his costume and neatly laid it on the bed while Henry washed the sweat and dust off his body.
The anthracite trousers and the leather jacket had been designed and tailored especially for this occasion and were elaborately scrolled with Scandinavian symbols, while his heavy boots and the collar were decorated with fur. An axe completed his outfit.
When Henry looked at his reflection in the mirror, he nodded at himself with a self-complacent smile on his face. The beard he had grown over the last few weeks gave his alter ego the expression of a temerarious Viking. On closer inspection, he discovered slight traces of dirt on his cheeks, a result of the short ride with his boys. Since he thought that a dirty face was quite fitting for a wild Viking warrior, Henry decided against wiping it off but rather rubbed the dirt all over his cheeks. Once he was satisfied with the way he looked, the King of France returned to where his wife was sitting.
The girls were finished with her styling at last. To his secret delight, Catherine was wearing her hair down. Her golden curls were now adorned with lots of small braids and a headband. This was an unusual, wild look for her, but Henry thought it suited her well.
"By Odin, how beautiful you are," he whispered when Catherine raised, giving him the opportunity to let his gaze wander over her entire body. She was dressed in a brown, long-sleeved robe that hugged her every curve. Delicate glittering golden filaments graded up the fabric. Her neckline was low - almost daring - and adorned with golden embroidery. Around her waist, Catherine wore a brown leather belt that resembled the harness of a warrior.
One of the servants hurried over with a light cloak of matching color that was covered with fur just like his own collar. Henry insisted on placing the cape on his wife's shoulders himself.
"Thank you. You also have dressed up quite nicely." With her right hand, Catherine tenderly stroked his cheek. Her touch made Henry shiver with thrill and excitement.
"I have to look presentable next to my gorgeous shield maiden." With a mischievous grin, Henry bent down to steal another kiss.
"You look more than presentable." Catherine assured him, and the loving smile on her face warmed Henry's heart.
Only when the governess entered the room did Henry release his wife for them to wish their children goodnight. These two were too small to attend the festivities and their nanny would put them to bed instead. Henry petted their little heads in an uncertain gesture. Although he was spending more and more time with his children as of late, he often enough felt awkward in their presence. Nevertheless, there was no question that he would continue his efforts to get to know his children. And with Catherine's help, he would succeed sooner or later.
"Are you ready?", he asked her as soon as they were alone and gallantly offered his right arm to his wife.
"You mean, am I ready to present ourselves in public as a couple for the first time in ages?"
Catherine's reaction surprised him. Normally she was a pro at hiding her true feelings from him and usually she was on guard to avoid giving him insight of what was really going on in her head. "Maybe I should ask you that question", she added after a short pause and looked up at him. There was a skeptical undertone in her voice while her eyes scanned him attentively.
"There could be no better opportunity than this masked ball to show France how much I love you. Don't you ever doubt that, my love." Henry didn't want Catherine to think that he felt uncomfortable regarding their upcoming public appearance – not even for a second. Quite the opposite was the case. He wanted to commit to her before god and his people.
"This means you're going to ask me to dance?" A coquettish smile lay itself upon Catherine's lips.
"As often and as long as you want," Henry announced generously, remembering the countless balls of their youth, where he and his newly wed wife had floated across the parquet floor until dawn. Drunk on wine and drunk on the beautiful creature in his arms, he had only stopped dancing when the first rays of sunshine had dazzled his tired eyes and reminded him that a new day had begun.
"And you feel, that you love, for you dance and you fly. For you laugh, for you cry, for you love," Henry whispered, lost in the thoughts of one of his sweetest memories.
"And you dance, and you sing, and you kiss. Kiss me with closed eyes. Until dawn devours us both, devours us with our eyes closed," Catherine finished the verse.
"You still remember that poem?" Henry asked her in awe. For until that very moment, he seemed to have forgotten the words he had once written for Catherine. '
"How could I ever forget it? You wrote this poem for me." Catherine gently ran her fingers down his arm. "I fell in love with you that moment," she admitted quietly. Her words made him pause to look at her.
"Don't act surprised. I confessed my love to you that day," Catherine reminded him and Henry could do nothing but wordlessly stare at her.
She was right. Even back then, his wife had been much braver than him. And breathtakingly beautiful.
"I know. It's just... we were so young, Caterina. So very young."
"Yes, we were," Catherine agreed and raised her hand to stroke his cheek with her fingers. "And full of illusions. Full of hope."
Henry saw a sad smile flittering across her face. Thus he hurried to reach for her other hand and brought it to his lips to kiss the knuckle of each finger.
"And then I screwed it up. But..." He stopped to make a meaningful pause. "...you gave me another chance. I won't screw it up this time, my love." With a valiant tug, he pulled Catherine into his arms and kissed her.
It was a long, an intimate kiss. That kind of kisses that only couples could share who had known each other forever. Who had experienced highs and lows in their relationship and whose love had not weakened but grown over the years. When Henry released Catherine again, his heart was racing and he could hear his own blood pounding in his ears.
"I love you."
"I love you, too. May god help us all," she admitted with a sigh, prompting Henry to chuckle.
"Or Odin," he added mildly amused and reached for her once again. Hand in hand, they continued their way to the throne room.
A few minutes later the couple entered their festively decorated throne room. And even though their reconciliation and their latterly re-inflamed love had already provided impetus for discussion at court during the last couple of weeks, surprised whispers went through the rows of those present at their joint appearance nevertheless.
Henry did not mind. Should they all act surprised and stare at them, for all he cared.
And rightly so, after all, the most beautiful woman in the room was the one he was leading towards their thrones.
After his allocution, Henry kept his promise and opened the ball together with Catherine. And even though it's been a long time since they had danced together, his body still remembered what it felt like gliding across the ballroom with his wife in his arms. It took their bodies only a few tones before they became one on the dance floor, gently swaying to the soft melody the orchestra played. Henry looked neither to the right nor to the left, his entire attention was solely focused on his wife. On Catherine.
Never before had he noticed how perfectly her small hands fitted into his, how perfectly her body nestled up against his. Or how perfectly and right his hand felt on her lower back while gently guiding her around other couples.
The glow in Catherine's eyes, the happy smile on her face and the way she blindly confided in his guidance sparked a feeling of euphoria in Henry.
"I could go on dancing like this forever," he whispered into Catherine's ear and moved his arm for her to spin underneath. After another elegant turn, his wife returned into his arms and he felt her hand stroking his chest.
"A very tempting idea, but I'm afraid I will be starving to death if I don't get something to eat - soon." Her reaction made Henry laugh out loud. It was just like his wife to disenchant one of the rare moments when he was showing his romantic side with a remark like that.
"And we wouldn't want that," the King of France replied with a dry sense of humor, directing her towards the large table where a sumptuous buffet had been dished up.
While Catherine was loading her plate with all kinds of delicacies, Henry caught himself turning his whole attention upon his wife and not on the food in front of him.
"I thought you don't like oysters," she asked in surprise, prompting him to check his own plate where he had indeed piled up several mussels.
"You're right, I don't." With a disgusted look on his face, he tried to sweep the oysters off his plate, but Catherine beat him to it by moving them from his to her plate.
"You're distracting me," Henry complained with feigned indignation.
"Am I?" Catherine raised her right brow and looked at him with a knowing sparkle in her eyes.
"Yes," Henry confirmed, feeling a broad grin spreading all over his face.
With their plates heavily loaded with finest delicacies, the couple took their seats in a quiet corner of the room. Henry called one of the servants over to pour them some wine while Catherine started devouring her food. There was no other woman on earth who enjoyed good food as much as Catherine. It was a real pleasure watching her celebrate each of her bites with relish, with closing her eyes in delight while putting a particularly delicate piece into her mouth. Especially when a blissful "Mhm" noise was coming over her lip.
"I thought you'd disinvited Kenna," she remarked after a while. Henry's eyes followed hers in shock and at the other end of the room, he indeed spotted his former mistress.
"I did. In fact, I advised her to marry Lord Albert and leave French Court," he replied with an uneasy feeling. "I can send her away if you like." Catherine made a dismissive gesture and put a date wrapped in bacon into her mouth.
"Don't bother, Henry. I don't care about that girl."
Despite or because of Catherine giving in so quickly, Henry scrutinized his wife, searching her face for a possible sign of infuriation. But Catherine looked relaxed and at ease.
"You don't care about her?" he asked cautiously.
"No, I don't. And you shouldn't care either."
"I don't. I couldn't care less. I just don't want her presence to ruin our night." Henry frowned at his former mistress, hoping to persuade her to leave by staring at her in anger. But Kenna just threw back her long hair and demonstratively turned her back on him.
"It's up to you, dear. Don't let her provoke you."
Catherine was right. This selfish girl wasn't worth having their mood spoiled for. He should let her do whatever she wanted. For she was no longer his problem.
"Will you dance with me, Caterina?" Henry asked the only woman whose opinion really mattered to him and offered her his arm. Without hesitation, Catherine accepted his invitation and let him lead her back to the dance floor. Henry waved his lord stewart over and whispered something into his ear. A few seconds later, the sweet melody of one of her favorite songs filled the ballroom.
"Pavane et gaillarde si je m'en vois. My dear husband, you're full of surprises today. "
They had danced to this song at their wedding. And countless times thereafter. During the recent years, however, this particular song had only been played once or twice.
With a satisfied grin on his face, Henry took his wife's hand and pulled her closer.
"I hope you like surprises. For there will be more to come – you'd better get used to it." To Catherine's amazement, Henry stole a kiss from her in plain sight, then he bowed and started to dance. Once again, the couple melded in perfect harmony, inevitably attracting the attention of everyone present.
But neither Henry nor Catherine cared about that, for they only had eyes for each other.
We're done – I actually can't believe it. Many thanks for reading and thanks for the countless reviews you have written. I love and appreciate each one of them.
Thanks for joining me on this journey. I hope you liked this bumpy little ride.
Until next time, bye bye.
Take care and stay safe wherever you are.