her. “My lord,” she said, trying to find a place where their disparate interests might join, “have you read this strange new book of prophecies by this Doctor Nostradamus? There are many curiosities there, about the future of the realm.”
“I do not take political advice from soothsayers,” said the king. “That was sufficient for the pagan emperors of Rome, and led them into misery. We are fortunate to be a Christian kingdom.”
“Still, I have here the book, and it might be considered a curiosity,” she said, showing him an open page. Slowly, the king read the verse to which she had pointed.
Le lion jeune le vieux surmontera
En champ bellique par singulier duel:
Dans cage d’or les yeux lui crèvera:
Deux classes une, puis mourir, mort cruelle.
Behind him, the courtiers shifted. “The young lion will overcome the old in single combat—” The lion was a king, no doubt of that. Books of prophecy were quite the vogue these days, and this one was something of a scandal. There were those on the street who said this very verse prophesied the death of Henri II. Yet wasn’t prophesying a king’s death treason? “This doesn’t mean anything,” said the king. “If a man’s going to be a prophet, he should say it straight out. Look at these verses. Mixed up Latin and French, with anagrams and dialect stirred in for good measure. He just wants to be cryptic so he can claim he was right after the fact. And who can say no? Nobody can figure out a word he’s said.”
“My Cosmo says it prophesies danger which you must avoid.”
“Your Cosmo?” said the king, his voice scornful. “That ghastly quack magician you brought with you?”
“The Ruggieri have served the Medici well for generations,” said the queen.
“Ever since they took up pawnbroking and peddling,” whispered Diane de Poitiers to her little protégée, the Queen of Scots, who snickered. Catherine heard, but the only sign was a brief flicker of her eyes sideways toward the source of the comment.
“Still, how does he propose to interpret this verse? It is far too cryptic for me ,” said the Old Constable, an ally of Queen Catherine’s in the secret struggle against the Guise, trying to smooth over the situation.
“He says that the king bears great danger of being killed in single combat. My lord, this verse has troubled me so much that I sent to the celebrated Guaricus in Rome to inspect your horoscope.” The king sighed. Horoscopes, diviners, cards, anything foolish and superstitious diverted his wife. That and those horrible Italian comedies everybody else laughed at. Didn’t she have any normal interests?
“Very well, did he inspect it thoroughly?”
“He sent this letter, which M. de l’Aubespine has put from Latin into French. He says in particular to ‘avoid all single combat in enclosed spaces, particularly around the forty-first year, because in this epoch of the king’s life, he is threatened with a head wound that will lead rapidly to blindness or death.’” The queen handed the king the translation of the letter from Italy, and the monarch’s somber gaze rested a moment on the offending passage. He was silent for a long time before he spoke, not to the queen, but with a turn of his head to the Old Constable.
“Well, just see that, my friend, how they all predict my death,” said the king. It was said in a sardonic tone, but the Old Constable smelled the despair that lay beneath. The king did not need to be encouraged in his natural gloom and pessimism.
“Ah, sire! Do you want to believe these boasting, lying quacks? Throw that stupid letter in the fire.”
“My old friend,” said the king, his voice weary, “sometimes these folks tell the truth.” The King Who Never Laughed shrugged his shoulders and spoke again. “I don’t mind one kind of death more than another; but I’d prefer, no matter at whose hand I die, that the man be brave and valiant, and that the glory would be mine.”