5

Catherine was reading in her room. Alexander was fine, the wound was fortunately superficial, but the blood loss had necessitated a few hours' rest. The French queen's heart was in pieces, as much from anger as from sadness and fear. What if Henry had tried to get rid of Alexander once and for all? It would have been simple, he was the king. But why was he so violent? Didn't he have Diana and Kenna? Why did she have to ruin his life at any cost?

Catherine looked away from the book, devastated.

There was a knock at the door. The queen turned around. Maybe it was Philip. No, the lover was busy calming down the Italian guests after the king's shameful conduct.

- Catherine, may I come in?- asked Henry. The woman held her breath. What did he want now?

- Go away! - she said - I have no intention of speaking to you.

In reply her husband opened the door and approached her. Catherine stood up and looked him straight in the eyes.

- Did I tell you to come in?- she asked sharply.

- Catherine- exclaimed the other, exasperated.

- Catherine, what? What else have you got to tell me, Enrico? What else do you want to invent to ruin my life?- asked the Queen as she went towards him.

The king took her hand, holding it firmly. He dragged her to him. The woman tried to free herself, but Henry knelt at her feet and buried his face in her belly.

- Forgive me, Catherine, please- he murmured into the fabric.

The queen was stunned. What was she doing?

- You know why I behave like this,' the man continued.

- No, I don't know, Henry, I don't know why you do this to me- said Catherine, distressed. Her husband made her bend down to face him.

- Because I love you,' he said, kissing her softly. Catherine broke away from the kiss.

- It's not true...- she began to protest, but the man kissed her again and again.

- My love, light of my eyes, mon chéri - she murmured with each kiss.

- Henry that's enough - the queen interrupted him softly but firmly. Her husband looked at her expectantly.

- You have no idea how much I would like to believe you- said Catherine - but I cannot...

- Catherine- her husband begged her.

The queen looked into his eyes. She was almost afraid to finish the sentence. But those last weeks had turned her world and her feelings upside down. Philip was now in her heart.

- I cannot because I have stopped loving you- she murmured.

A flash of deep sorrow crossed the king's eyes, soon replaced by anger. He stood up suddenly, taking his wife with him.

- Who took you away from me?- he growled, shaking her.

- No one, Henry!' exclaimed the queen, freeing herself from his grasp.

- Don't lie to me, Catherine, I know very well that there is someone else!' cried the man, pointing his finger at her. 'All I have to do is to find out who it is, and you will see what I can do!

- You don't understand! - Catherine shouted in her turn - It is you who forced me to stop loving you, you and your pathetic arrogance and rancour! You can't expect to come here after twenty-five years of humiliation and say "I'm sorry", not after trying to kill one of the few people who love me back!

- Is that what you doctors do best?! Is that what you Medicis do best? Blaming others? You and your pride have ruined the Valois! Curse my father for being so fond of you!

- You see?! You see, Enrico? We talk for five seconds about our marriage, and you put the Valois crown and honour in the middle!

- These matters are closely linked, woman, and you know it!

- Catherine's eyes filled with angry tears. She began to storm her husband's chest with her fists - It's not true! Damn it, can you admit your mistakes for once?! I was wrong, I admit it, but you are not even man enough to do it!

They stared at each other for a few seconds in silence, then Catherine turned away in tears.

- I don't love you any more, Henry,' she said, 'Now get that into your head, get out of this room and never set foot in it again.

The king did not hesitate for a moment and marched away. The queen fell to the ground crying.

- Do you remember when my father moved us to the papal court and we used to play dress-up in our clerical robes to pass the time? He was lying in the infirmary with Catherine resting her head on his chest. His sister smiled in turn.

- They were ten times bigger than us," she recalled, eliciting a giggle from the man. They remained silent, the fresh air from the window bringing with it the smell of cherry trees.

- If Hippolytus had been there, we would have had ten times more fun - Catherine said bitterly.

- The beautiful and delicious Hippolytus- said Alexander -He was your fiancé, if I am not mistaken.

The queen giggled.

- Sometimes I think it would have been better if you had married him- said the Florentine at a certain point. Catherine raised her head in amazement to look her brother straight in the eye.

- Why do you say this?- she asked. Alexander shrugged his shoulders.

- You would have stayed with your family- he answered-and you would not have suffered so much for a man like Henry- .

- If I had not married Henry, I would not have had my children- said the queen.

- That's right- grumbled her brother.

Catherine leaned back against Alexander's chest.

And then we don't know how it would go- he added bitterly. They remained silent.

- But sometimes I feel that I can't do it anymore- the queen murmured.

The Florentine said nothing and remained looking pensively at the ceiling.

- I remember that in the period before your birth, when I lived with your father Lorenzo and your mother Madeline, she used to tell me a sentence - he said - "The life of a person is written by the love he feels for those around him".

- They always told me that my mother was wise to be young- commented Catherine, smiling.

- She was different from the French ladies I was allowed to know- said Alexander.

- She was different, her sister repeated, different from the world.

That night the moon was shining in the sky more than usual. The fresh wind made the red curtains of Henry's room sway slightly. The man was standing, thoughtful. He scanned the gardens bathed in darkness with somber eyes. Behind him, Kenna slept soundly, dizzy from the amount of wine she had drunk. She was too young to hold so much. The king, between lucidity and drunkenness of mind, felt restless and incomplete. He stroked his chin. He felt sick, but struggled to admit it. The thought of another man in his wife's heart troubled him, for surely Catherine had a lover. But who? Who had taken the Medici queen from him? Who had dared to challenge Henry de Valois? There was only one way to find out. The man drew his sword and marched out of the room. It was the moment of truth.