Judith Merkle Riley

Judith Merkle Riley by The Master of All Desires

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Authors: The Master of All Desires
limit, and his living head is condemned to serve whoever possesses it.”
    “Cosmo, if you knew about this all along, why did you never get it for me before?”
    “Your highest and most glorious Majesty, the Undying Head of Menander the Magus may grant your every wish, but from all accounts, it is not a happy object to possess.”
    “I am not a happy woman, Cosmo. Curses, damnation, or Satan, I want you to get me that head.”
    When the door had closed behind the backward bowing sorcerer, a thought occurred to the queen. If that despicable man ever gets possession of that thing, he’ll get his wishes first. Then he’ll ration out my wishes, and charge me for every one of them. That undying head is clearly not here, or he’d be boasting of having it. He must be having it sent from somewhere. I think I’ll just have him followed, and have it intercepted before it gets to him. Why, if it’s as good as he says, I’ll just wish my way free of his treachery, after I’ve dealt with the duchess.

    “Beware the House of Guise! They will strip your children to their waistcoats and your poor subjects to their shirts.”
    King Francis I on his deathbed
    to his son and heir, Henri II
    It is time, my lords, to join the ladies.” Henri II, King of France, tall and grave, led his courtiers to the queen’s chambers. The king was a man of great courtesy and permanent gloom. A childhood spent as a hostage in a Spanish prison had left him forever joyless. Around him spun the farces, practical jokes, and intrigues of a pleasure-bent court, but he never took notice. High wit and low humor had no hold on him. Music, drink, ribaldry all passed him by. He diverted himself with hunting, combat, and his aged mistress, who reminded him vaguely of his long-dead mother. He scheduled his days like a clock wound up by duty. No one had ever seen him laugh.
    On his left hand, slightly behind him, strode his chief advisor, the Old Constable, Anne de Montmorency, Grand Master and Constable of France, who held in addition, either within his own hands or those of his family, the Colonelcy of the French Infantry, the Admiralship of France, and the four great Governorships of Provence, Languedoc, Picardy, and the Isle of France. Square-set and gray haired, the Constable walked with the confidence of one who had known King Henri in the cradle, who had been advisor and friend to his father the great King Francis, and to whom no human treachery was surprising.
    On the king’s right walked the Old Constable’s chief rival, the Duc de Guise, head of the second great family of the realm. Tall, hard-eyed, elegant and remote, one side of his face had been smashed in by a lance, causing him to be known as “The Scar.” His permanent favor in the royal court was assured by his alliance through marriage to the king’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, as well as by his link to the Dauphin himself through the boy’s betrothal to his niece Mary, who had inherited the crown of Scotland in her infancy. Behind The Scar walked his younger brother, Charles, the Cardinal of Lorraine, in the full red silk robes and pectoral cross of a cardinal of the Church of Rome. The Guise brothers had a great enterprise in the making: the unification of the Kingdoms of France, Scotland, and England under their power, to be followed by the purging of the Protestant heresy from all of these realms by fire, sword, and the noose.
    The cards were already in play: Mary, the girl queen of Scots, was, through her mother, the eldest sister of the Duke and the Cardinal, a Guise. But through her dead royal father, the King of Scots, Mary was a direct descendant from Henry VII of England. This made her the last legitimate Catholic heir to the throne of England once Edward, the sickly son of Henry VIII, and Mary, the childless daughter of Henry VIII’s first, Catholic queen, were dead. The English Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, was the darling of the English

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