Book Title: The Importance of Pawns
Series: Chronicles of the House of Valois
Author: Keira J. Morgan
Publication Date: 10th March 2021
Publisher: French Historical Fiction/ Fiction de la renaissance Française
Page Length: 380 pages
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Based on historical events and characters in sixteenth-century France, this timeless tale pits envy, power and intrigue against loyalty and the strength of women’s friendships.
Although the French court dazzles on the surface, beneath its glitter, danger lurks for the three women trapped in its coils as power shifts from one regime to the next. The story begins as Queen Anne lies dying and King Louis’s health declines. Their two daughters, Claude and young Renée, heiresses to the rich duchy of Brittany, become pawns in the game of control.
Countess Louise d’Angoulême is named guardian to both girls. For years she has envied the dying Queen Anne, the girls’ mother. Because of her family’s dire financial problems, she schemes to marry wealthy Claude to her son. This unexpected guardianship presents a golden opportunity, but only if she can remove their protectress Baronne Michelle, who loves the princesses and safeguards their interests.
As political tensions rise, the futures of Princess Renée and Baronne hang in the balance, threatened by Countess Louise’s plots.
Will timid Claude untangle the treacherous intrigues Countess Louise is weaving? Will Baronne Michelle and Claude outflank the wily countess to protect young Princess Renée? And can Claude find the courage to defend those she loves?
Praise for The Importance of Pawns:
“Love, revenge, deceit, valour, struggle and bravery. These are the keystones of Keira Morgan’s fascinating new novel, The Importance of Pawns. Historical fiction at its best.”
Thank you for inviting me to your blog to share a short excerpt from my novel The Importance of Pawns. These two short pieces come from Chapter 2.
The Importance of Pawns by Keira Morgan
4 January 1514, Late afternoon
Château de Blois
Countess Louise d’Angoulême
In the Countess Louise’s presence chamber, crimson drapes blocked the icy late afternoon chill that would have penetrated through the mullioned window. She played tarocchi against herself as she awaited her daughter’s arrival.
When her gentleman usher threw the door open, Louise hurried to Marguerite and stood on tiptoe to kiss the duchess on both cheeks. Then she took a step back to admire her. With her smooth olive skin and dark eyes, Marguerite looked remarkably like her late father and every inch an Orléans. Her dark hair was tucked back into a golden snood. Today she looked elegant with her coloring enhanced by the dark-green bodice, checkered red and green overskirt and matching great, red sleeves. God be praised, Marguerite did not have the beaky nose that made François look like a bird of prey.
“Bonjour, ma fille. Did you attend the queen this morning?” Taking her arm, she led her to a leather chair near the fireplace.
Marguerite rose from her curtsey and answered, “I was reading my stories aloud to my godmother and my cousin.” So like her. She favored her father’s side, too, in her poetic talents, so unlike Louise’s practical nature.
She pulled a chair close to Marguerite and sat. “Have you been enjoying the Christmas court?”
Marguerite’s eyes sparkled. “It is delightful to be at the center of things again. Alençon is so provincial and my mother-in-law disapproves of my writing. And it is always a joy to spend time with you and François. And with people who read and write. Who talk about books and ideas.”
It was true, Louise thought. Though the royal court was a barren wasteland compared to her cultured court at Romorantin — whenever the king permitted her to live there. Only fourteen years separated her daughter and her, and people said she looked young enough that they could be sisters. Among the queen’s ladies there was a greater age range.
She said, “Have you spent time with your brother?” Marguerite brightened. They both adored him.
“He dances with me at every ball. I see him in the afternoons composing love songs.” She snickered. “They are very bad; the kind full of ‘love’ and ‘dove’ and ‘lips and wine’ and ‘mine and thine.’ But his voice is melodious, and his eyes are soulful, so the ladies swoon.”
They both chuckled. They had been watching him lure damsels since his first growth spurt shot him taller than they.
“I hope he has been taking care with his choice of hussies to bed,” his mother said. “I worry about him.”
“He does not have to choose harlots, Maman, with all the court ladies willing to accommodate him.”
“Do not be an innocent, my dear. It is not only the sluts who are diseased these days.”
Marguerite looked worried. “I hope he is careful.”
“He will join us for dinner. He went with the hunt today.” Louise picked up the tarocchi cards from the table and shuffled them as she arranged her words. “Have you seen his new armor?
Marguerite fussed with the red velvet oversleeves of her gown, refusing to meet her mother’s eyes. “He is the best jouster in France. A good suit of armor is not a waste. He will not lose it being tumbled off his horse. Especially not if it is of the finest quality.” Then she sighed. “Is he badly indebted again Maman? Every time I see him, he is wearing another gaudy doublet or extravagant hat. And he gambles for the highest stakes.” She met Louise’s eyes. “Have you seen his helmet decorated with peacock feathers?” She giggled. “I know it isn’t a laughing matter, Maman, but the thing is absurd.”
Louise understood her daughter’s attitude. She found it hard to deny her son, her precious César, the luxuries he needed to shine, especially. Especially now that he was heir to the throne. Yet her husband had left enormous debts. They still threatened to engulf the estate almost a decade later. And the dowries for his illegitimate daughters, not to mention Marguerite herself, had added to the burden.
“I have arranged an excellent marriage for Souvereine. Or I shall, if I can find the dowry.”
“I see.” Marguerite became serious.
“I need your help.”
“What can I do?”
“The betrothal to Claude. We must secure it immediately. The queen is dying. She must be persuaded to agree before she does. François does not care. I need your help to persuade him.”
4 January 1514, Evening
Château de Blois
Baronne Michelle de Soubise
When Michelle entered the queen’s private rooms Queen Anne had already retired, although her bed curtains remained open.
She leaned propped up against her pillows.
“My back aches as if someone was stabbing it with daggers. I cannot possibly sleep,” Queen Anne turned her head towards Michelle. Her troubled face was pale as milk.
Michelle ordered servants to set up screens around the bed and to bring braziers and candelabra to trap the warmth inside.
“I shall prepare you a willow bark tisane to ease your pain.”
The queen shook her head.
Michelle examined her expression. “Is something bothering you, Mme. la Reine?”
“Bring a stool and sit by my bed.”
Michelle complied. They sat in silence for several minutes before the queen spoke. “My daughter, Claude, came to talk to me after Vespers.”
Michelle had not seen the princess since they returned from their ride that afternoon. Princess Claude had her own small court in one wing of the Château with her gouvernante, demoiselles-in-waiting, and household. Mme. Jeanne, Countess Louise’s married stepdaughter, had been Claude’s gouvernante since her birth. The appointment had surprised Michelle since the queen and the countess detested each other. But Princess Claude had been born at Countess Louise’s domain of Romorantin because of plague at Blois. King Louis had been away fighting in Milan and appointed Countess Louise’s stepdaughter when he returned. The wily countess knew how to coax him.
Queen Anne twisted the rings on her fingers one after another. “Claude pleaded with me to permit her to marry Duke François this spring. Before Easter.”
Michelle sent a silent prayer for Claude heavenward. “What did you say?”
“I asked her why she wanted to marry him.”
Finally. The marriage was so hateful to the queen that she had long since forgotten to consider her daughter’s sentiments. At first, Michelle had understood. Princess Claude was only six when the king and his advisors confronted the queen. But at fifteen, the princess was past the age that many princesses married. “Did she have a good reason?”
Queen Anne contemplated her embroidered emblem on the canopy. Michelle followed her gaze. The divided shield combined the ermine tails of Brittany on one half with the golden fleur-de-lys of France on the other. Above it sat a royal crown. The thick, golden cord of the Cordelières, the women’s order founded by the queen, wrapped around the crest. Michelle understood. The emblem symbolized the joining of Brittany to France, the union that tormented Queen Anne.
Queen Anne closed her eyes. “Claude said she did not want to go to a foreign country where she would be lonely and illtreated. In truth, she said much more.” Michelle saw tears brimming under her eyelids. “She said, ‘Maman, I have seen foreign brides come to our court. Most are scorned and isolated; mocked for their odd ways. I am fat, and plain, and have a limp. If I marry outside of France where I am unknown and do not speak the language, I will also be treated unkindly for I am not charming, and I do not learn languages quickly. Even if I am queen and bring my great dowry. Here, Duke François will treat me with respect. So will the court and the people. I will live where I am loved, and I will be content.’”
Queen Anne’s lips quivered. “Claude knows what is required and understands that happiness is not the lot of royal women. I doubt she will be happy with Duke François, but she chooses him for sensible reasons.” Pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve, she blew her nose. “When I left Brittany at fourteen to marry the stranger who had conquered my duchy, I prayed daily that none of my children would have to suffer such a fate. I hoped—”
“Shush, shush, shush,” Michelle murmured, capturing the queen’s fluttering hand. “Enough talk.” She stood. After bathing the queen’s reddened eyes with cool lavender water, Michelle persuaded her to swallow some willow-bark tea, and rest against the sturdy pillows. But the queen pushed away the jellied broth Michelle offered next.
When Queen Anne spoke again, she had calmed. “When Louis and I married, I prayed we would have many sons so that when we chose husbands for Claude and Renée, we could consider their wishes as much as their duty. The Lord has not granted my prayers. But I will no longer oppose this marriage. I gave Claude my blessing.”
Michelle said a quick, silent prayer of gratitude. Conflict within the royal family unsettled her — and everyone at court. She was about to say so when the queen spoke again.
“But I cannot permit Brittany to become part of France, Mme.
Michelle. I cannot. Claude has an enormous dowry already with Milan from Louis and with my French counties and baronies. I must bequeath Brittany to Renée. Although if Louis discovers my plan, he will do all he can to prevent me.”
Keira retired from training and management in the Canadian Public Service to follow a career as an author. She now writes from Mexico where she lives happily with a husband, two cats and two dogs. Her doctoral level studies in Renaissance history underlie her historical fiction. She writes about the turbulent sixteenth-century French Renaissance. Her stories tell of powerful women who challenged tradition to play crucial roles in French affairs. Find out more at KJ Morgan — Writer
She also maintains a non-fiction website, All About French Renaissance Women, [https://www.keiramorgan.com] where she writes about the lives of Frenchwomen during the era. She plans to collect their biographies into a book.
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