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7

Summer was in full swing. It was cool and still smelled of spring flowers. Catherine lifted her head from the book she was reading and smiled: in the distance Alexander could be seen playing by the lake like a child with his grandchildren. They were playing and chasing each other, cackling and laughing. The queen shook her head in amusement. Henry had allowed them to move on vacation to the estate near the big lake. Claude had joined them for that occasion and Francis would arrive with his father that evening, while Mary was busy at court with Scottish guests. Neither Diana nor Kenna nor any other woman would stand in the way of this prospect of happiness.

- Is my queen getting bored? Philip asked her as he approached the bench on which the woman was sitting.

A sort of silent pact was sealed between husband, wife and lover: the relationship between the Florentine and the queen could continue but under Henry's control. Even though the situation could not have turned out better, Catherine felt that her feelings were more confused than ever.

- No- she answered her lover with a smile- I'm relaxing-

Philip sat down next to her and they remained in a sweet silence.

After about half an hour Alexander came to meet him, wet but happy.

- We have to go- he said cheerfully- We let the time slip by-.

Catherine nodded and got up to help her children get ready. Her brother waited until she had gone far enough and then turned to his friend.

- You better treat her well - he said between seriousness and a joke.

- Of course- Philip answered, observing the queen who was trying to put a clean shirt on little Henry.

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- Charles, darling, come out, dinner is ready- pleaded Catherine, exasperated.

- Not until Henry gives me back my slingshot!- the prince burst out from behind the bedroom door.

- Don't worry, mother, I'll take care of it - said Claude.

- Alright - exhaled the queen and went away. She was alone in the corridors when two arms grabbed her from behind. At first she suspected Philip, but that was another smell. Henry pinned her to the wall before giving her a warm kiss.

- Give me an explanation for this- the woman jokingly blurted out, pushing him away slightly.

- I missed you, mon chéri- the king justified himself by giving her another kiss.

- Henry...- Catherine began to complain but at the end she let herself be carried away by the kiss. Her husband's hands began to caress her possessively.

- Your Majesties- a voice interrupted them. The two sovereigns separated. A servant looked at them impassively.

- You better have something very important to say- growled Henry annoyed.

- The Duke of Florence sends for the Queen, Your Highness - explained the servant - It is something serious-.

Catherine did not let him repeat and separated from her husband to follow the servant.

She found her brother in his private living room, slumped in an armchair while violent sobs made him tremble. On the table in front of him a letter was open.

- Alexander! - exclaimed the queen, rushing to the Florentine.

- Dear what happened? - she asked worried to death. Nothing minor would have upset Alexander so much.

- They killed her- answered the man in despair.

- Who did they kill?" asked his sister again, as panic began to grip her.

- They found her in an alley, with a dagger in her chest- Alexander continued, not caring about the question. He barely seemed to understand what was being said.

- Who, Alexander, who did they kill?- repeated Catherine.

- Julie! - exploded the Florentine and then started crying again - My little girl... my little girl-.

The queen's heart sank: Julie, her brother's only daughter, was such a sweet and good creature. She had been.

- I'm sorry- the woman murmured, embracing Alexander with all the strength she could - I'm sorry-.

The Florentine sank into Catherine's arms, unable to stop crying.

- It was my fault, all my fault- whispered Alexander.

- Don't say that! - exclaimed his sister - Don't you dare even think it!

Alexander bent down again, desperate.

- You must go back to Italy - Catherine murmured, hesitating. She didn't want to leave her brother, to risk not seeing him again for years, but her daughter was dead and the queen knew what it meant to lose a child. But part of her hoped that her brother would deny the urgency of a return home. Alexander did not; instead, he nodded and stood up. He shook his sister's hand and looked at her with serious eyes, wiped with tears.

- Julie was killed for a reason, Catherine- he said, making the woman shudder. When this sentence was pronounced by an Italian nobleman there was something serious in the middle.

- Alfred de' Pazzi has sworn to exterminate the direct descendants of Lorenzo de' Medici, the Magnificent. I was legitimized and therefore shared the line of our great-grandfather but not the blood; Julie was only a threat to demarcate the intent of the Pazzis -

The duke's eyes were hard.

- As long as Alfred and his people don't die, it's you, great-grandson of the Magnificent, the target their efforts are going to- he continued- It's not the crown or the money they want, your children are safe unless they decide to do something to them to force you to surrender-

- So what should I do? Catherine asked.

Alexander's expression relaxed, changing from hardness to concern.

-Be careful and don't do anything stupid- he answered- Choose carefully who to trust and alienate the others, this is not an intrigue devised by some bored French nobleman.

- You know I know what to do in these situations- said the sister. She sneered. The Florentine reciprocated.

- Don't let your guard down either - the woman recommended.

Alexander sighed.

- My past drips blood, my lily, I...I will try to solve this as peacefully as possible.

- What do you mean? The queen asked with astonishment.

- We are living in a black period, of hate and rancor, of family members who raise their blades on each other, of immorality and pride - explained the Florentine - I do not want to contribute to this monster that is destroying us.

They remained silent.

- I am leaving tonight - said the man finally. Catherine held him in a tight embrace. She felt the tears threatening to come out.

- Be brave - her brother whispered in her ear - I'll be here with you for your next birthday.

- Hopefully even sooner- whispered the woman.

But her heart wasn't so sure when she saw her beloved Alexander greeting his nephews warmly. Even Henry shook his hand. After a last embrace, a kiss on the forehead and a promise of hope, the Duke of Florence got on his horse and together with half of his men left.

- I won't be here much longer, my love- Philip said to his lover shortly after Alexander had left.

Catherine caressed his face and gave him a long, sweet kiss.

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Catherine blinked several times before waking up. Philip slept with his face submerged in her hair, which lifted imperceptibly under the man's sleeping breath. The queen turned her head and spotted Henry sitting in his shirt and pants in front of the desk in his wife's room. He was writing something, glancing occasionally at papers scattered on the piano. The woman gently jerked away from her lover's grasp and stretched to a robe hanging beside the bed. She approached her husband and peered at what he was doing: letters from French ambassadors and counts. The king looked at her and then put her in his arms, clutching the middle from behind. Catherine took the feather from Henry's hands and corrected a mistake in the letter. She heard her husband chuckle softly. The queen leaned against her husband's chest and let him stroke her curls.

- You are thoughtful- said the king after a few seconds.

Catherine did not answer immediately and fiddled with the ring on the man's hand. That her head was clouded with reasoning and survival tactics was true, but she couldn't tell Henry.

- I'm sorry Alexander left so soon- he muttered. It was the king's turn to say nothing.

- Are you sure there is nothing to tell me?- he asked looking his wife in the eyes. Catherine kept her gaze with a smile.

- Yes- she answered.

Henry returned the smile and kissed her shoulder tenderly. Then he got up to get ready. The woman watched him walk away with a neutral face. She was reflecting.

She had carefully chosen her allies for this battle of survival. Her husband was not among them.