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2

Fire burned in Florence. Screams of battle came from outside the windows. It was a bloody night. A little girl Catherine ran through the corridors of the Medici palace.

- Alexander!- she cried. Her beloved brother had disappeared. Would he ever return to save her? Soon the sumptuous rooms gave way to dark, narrow corridors of dirty white marble. The little girl heard laughter. Horrible, evil laughter.

Someone grabbed her by the arm.

The queen of France woke up screaming. Immediately the faithful Charlotte rushed to her bedside.

- It's alright, my lady - she said - It was yet another nightmare.

- I want you to call me the Duke of Florence - exhaled the queen trembling.

- How, Your Majesty? - asked the astonished servant.

- I want the duke! - repeated the other one.

Charlotte went out of the room and came back in a little later.

- Catherine!" exclaimed Alexander, running to her.

The feeling of emptiness that was gripping the queen's heart vanished. Her brother embraced her, holding her to his chest.

- Monsieur...- Charlotte tried to protest, but Catherine interrupted her.

- Leave him, it doesn't matter. You may go.

The servant made a bow and walked towards the door. Turning for a brief second, she saw Alexander cradling his sister in his arms. Without really knowing why, he smiled and went out.

- Again? - asked the Florentine.

Catherine nodded, exhausted.

- You went away! - she sobbed - You left me alone in Florence.

- I would have liked to go back - said the other - But the Pope had imprisoned me in Sant'Angelo Castle.

The queen clutched her chest even tighter.

- The day I knew what those dog soldiers had done, I cursed myself a hundred times and more - Alexander kissed her head.

Catherine nodded between the fabric of his shirt. She wiped her tears.

- Don't go away - she murmured.

- I won't - her brother reassured her. He put her down on the pillows like a child and lay down beside her.

- Sleep, little sister - he whispered - I'll protect you.

Catherine hugged him and almost without realizing it she went back to sleep.

The gossip was flying. Within a week, all the servants knew that the queen had spent the night with her brother. No incestuous assumptions had been raised and everyone was impressed by the connection between the two.

When word reached Henry, the music changed.

Catherine was beyond annoyed that the king had summoned her so abruptly. When she entered his office, her husband was sitting in his armchair, clearly in a rage.

- Well, Henry? - Catherine asked with her usual coldness - What was the reason for sending for me so urgently?

Henry sprang to his feet and walked towards his wife.

- I have heard rumors - he said, towering over her - Apparently, last night you invited the Duke of Florence to your rooms.

Catherine arched her eyebrow.

- My brother kept me company, yes- she said.

She didn't understand how this could be wrong. Then she widened her eyes.

- Oh, my God, Henry! - she exclaimed - What are you thinking?

Henry huffed and turned his back on her to head for the desk.

- What is obvious, Catherine- he said, hiding a hint of bitterness in his voice.

The queen approached him.

- Now a little affection is considered an incestuous relationship? - she asked indignantly.

The king looked her straight in the eye.

- Your servants found you in his arms- he said.

- I have not seen my brother for years and you know very well how close our relationship is - replied Catherine.

- How close? - asked Enrico sarcastically.

The woman looked for the words to retort but could not find them. That situation was ridiculous. She decided to play on the personal.

- You always do this: as soon as another man gives me some of his kindness and attention, even the smallest, you sulk and behave like a child defending his toys - she said.

- Who knows from how many men you have received attention- said the king, provocatively. Catherine shook her head.

- You are pathetic- she said- and I do not intend to continue this conversation-.

She was about to leave but Henry grabbed her by the wrist and made her turn around.

- I don't want to hear anymore that the Duke has entered your rooms - he growled approaching his wife.

- My brother (Catherine underlined the word with care) will be where I need him the most.

- Even in your bed? - asked the king in a hoarse voice.

The queen shrugged and turned to leave.

- I will visit you tonight," Henry told him, "Don't let me find any nasty surprises.

Catherine slammed the door behind her. She was furious. And she was tired of her husband's childish behavior.

Walking down the main corridor, she saw Alexander in the gardens playing with Carlo, little Enrico and Margaret. He seemed to be catching on. Catherine smiled.

- Mother! - a voice called her. Francis was coming towards her.

- Darling- said the queen hugging her son. Then he noticed that the dolphin's clothes were dirty.

- What have you done to get so dirty?- she asked looking at him from head to toe.

- Uncle pulled me into the game and I got a little carried away- replied Francis laughing.

- Oh, Alexander, he'll never grow up- said the Queen of France, snorting.

- He's a wonderful man, mother- said the dolphin- The children adore him. The other day he started to do some amazing magic tricks and I think Charles will love him.

It was true. Alexander had turned out to be a wonderful uncle: when he wasn't busy running Florence's long-distance business, he spent all his free time with his grandchildren. Catherine had discovered that he had been corresponding with Elisabeth for a long time and that a close friendship had formed between them.

After greeting her son, the queen went down to the gardens to meet her brother. Her duties could wait.

When she arrived at her destination, she saw Alexander in the company of another man. Without recognizing him, Catherine found him very handsome. He had light brown curls gathered into an onion, green eyes and little beard.

- Your Majesty - he greeted her with a bow.

- Philip? - Catherine asked in amazement. The man smiled.

- I see that you recognize me- he said.

- I think so - said the queen - You and my brother were inseparable as children.

- Come on - Alexander intervened - You are ridiculous to call each other "you".

Philip laughed. His laughter was harmonious.

- I respect the queen- he said. Catherine put her hand on his shoulder.

- It doesn't matter - she smiled.

- Philip is my right arm - said Alexander - I don't go anywhere without him. He's my lucky accessory.

- You could have saved that last part - joked the other.

All three laughed.

- When did you arrive?

- A few minutes ago, in fact - replied Philip - I ask forgiveness for not having announced myself.

- Oh, no - replied Catherine - My husband invites unexpected guests every day, let's say you're... my little revenge, that's-

- Mom! - shouted little Henry running towards them.

- What's wrong honey? - asked Catherine.

- Can I eat the Italian chocolates that uncle brought? - asked the boy.

- Alexander! - exclaimed the queen - Don't tell me that you have enchanted my children with the delicious Florentine pastries.

Alexander shrugged with a smile.

- Maybe - he admitted sadly.

They started laughing again.

- Father! - shouted little Enrico.

The three adults turned around. The king, followed by Bash and two guards, was coming towards them.

- Catherine - said Henry - You did not warn me about the arrival of other guests.

He was looking at Philip. Catherine, who still felt hurt by the conversation she had had with her husband a short while before, was delighted to see how the king seemed to feel overwhelmed by the beauty of the other man.

- It's my fault, Your Grace - Philip justified himself - I arrived a little while ago and I didn't have time to announce myself.

- Philip is an old friend of mine - said Catherine - He is part of Alexander's retinue, so he is my guest.

The king glared at her. Yes, he was definitely jealous.

- Good - he blurted out.

He left without saying goodbye.

- Sebastian de' Poitiers- Bash introduced himself. He and Philip shook hands.

- So Bash, how are you doing? - asked Alexander politely.

- I'm quite well, thank you - replied the boy - but now I have to go.

He took his leave. Philip remained with a smile on his lips.

- Is that the son of Diana de' Poitiers? - he asked.

- That's right - the two brothers answered in unison.

- As you can see I have many problems to think about- added Catherine bitterly.

- Are you talking about your husband or his favorite? - asked Philip.

- Both - blurted out the queen.

She noticed, to her great satisfaction, that her brother's friend was looking at her with admiration.