01 March 2012

Excerpt Thursday: The Sister Queens by Sophie Perinot

This week on Excerpt Thursday, we're welcoming historical fiction author Sophie Perinot. Her debut, THE SISTER QUEENS is set in 13th century England and France.  Join us Sunday, when Sophie will be here to talk about the novel and give away a copy. Here's the blurb:

Raised together at the 13th Century court of their father, Raymond Berenger, Count of Provence, Marguerite and Eleanor are separated by royal marriages—but never truly parted.

Patient, perfect, reticent, and used to being first, Marguerite becomes Queen of France. Her husband, Louis IX, is considered the greatest monarch of his age. But he is also a religious zealot who denies himself all pleasure—including the love and companionship his wife so desperately craves. Can Marguerite find enough of her sister’s boldness to grasp her chance for happiness in the guise of forbidden love?

Passionate, strong-willed, and stubborn, Eleanor becomes Queen of England. Her husband, Henry III, is neither as young nor as dashing as Marguerite’s. But she quickly discovers he is a very good man…and a very bad king. His failures are bitter disappointments for Eleanor, who has worked to best her elder sister since childhood. Can Eleanor stop competing with her sister and value what she has, or will she let it slip away?

**An Excerpt from The Sister Queens**

Before my mother took her leave of me at Lyon, she gave me the most rudimentary idea of what would happen on my wedding night.  “There will be pain,” she said earnestly, holding my two hands in hers as we sat side by side turned slightly together so that our knees just touched, “just as there will be when you bring forth the heirs of your husband’s body.  This is the price for the sinful pride of Eve.  But in it also lies a lesson: almost everything that you will take joy from in this life starts first with sacrifice.  Happiness must be paid for.”
I am a married woman.  Our vows were exchanged this morning on the steps of the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne while the carved figures of the ten virgins watched from above the central door.  And now I stand, virgin myself, trembling at the center of a bedchamber in the Archbishop’s palace.  It is richly hung with silks and strewn with flowers, just as the whole city is bedecked for the occasion of my marriage, yet I barely noticed.  Word has come from the King that I am not to be undressed.  My ladies think this strange.
“Perhaps,” I hear Alix de Lorgues murmur to the others as they open the door to depart, “he wants the pleasure of unwrapping her himself.”  The thick oak door falling shut behind them barely muffles the laughter this comment evokes.
I have nothing to do but wait in terror, and that will not do.  “The women of Savoy are prized for their serenity.”  I can hear my mother’s voice in my head admonishing Eleanor on the subject.  A frequent occurrence.  Would that my mother was here now, to hold me in her arms and soothe me.  I have missed her daily since we said our goodbyes, but never more than this moment.  Taking a seat on the edge of the bed I am determined to busy my mind with a closer examination of the room.  It is in most respects ordinary.  It does, however, contain the most elaborate prie-dieu that I have ever seen.  The prayer stool is heavily carved with extraordinary tracery and biblical scenes.  The carvings on the left side portray scenes from the life of the Virgin.  In the largest, a gilded holy spirit dips low over a swooning Mary.  Her hands are clasped and her eyes are closed, whether in joy or fear I cannot say.  At the moment the two emotions seem perilously close.  The right side has carvings of an all together different nature.  They offer scenes of the apocalypse and, as they provide no help for my nerves, I quickly turn my eyes elsewhere.
The door creaks.  My heart is in my throat.  Yet even so, I am aware of a strange sensation in a more private region, as if my blood is rushing there as well.  Louis smiles at me from the doorway.  He is so handsome.  I feel as if I know a secret or as if I have drunk too much of Father’s good wine, as Eleanor and I did once hiding beneath a table in the great hall at Aix. 
Rising quickly from my seat I drop low to a curtsey.  The effect of these rapid movements in combination with the wine I took at my nuptial dinner is to make me dizzy.  My unsteadiness must be noticeable for Louis comes forward quickly with gentle concern in his eyes and takes both my hands.  He touches the gold band that he placed on my third finger this morning.  “My lady wife you are unwell?”
“No, Your Majesty, only tired.  There has been so much excitement.”  And then, worrying that I might be mistook, and my comment taken as complaint, I quickly add, “In all my life I have never beheld such wondrous things as in the last hours.”
“Your life, Marguerite, has not been very long yet,” replies Louis with an indulgent smile, “I trust that today will be but the beginning of many ‘wondrous’ occasions.”
“With God’s grace, Your Majesty, I pray that I shall indeed have many years to prove myself a faithful wife to you and a worthy Queen to your kingdom.”
The earnestness of my tone is not lost upon Louis and serves to light up his face in a manner I have never yet seen.  He literally glows.  Pulling me to him, he whispers in my ear, “You must call me Louis when we are alone.”  Then his mouth finds mine.  Fear is driven back by the pressure of his lips.  As his tongue suddenly enters my mouth I find that I want him to touch me, even if there will be pain.  But as I press myself closer to him his mouth leaves mine and a groan like that of a man in agony issues from him.  What have I done?
Louis pushes me to arm’s length with great effort.  Gone is the radiant look.  Instead his eyes have a hungry and beseeching quality. “Will you pray with me?”
“Of course Louis, if you wish.”
Turning from me, my husband lights one of the tapers from the prie-dieu at a wall sconce then uses it to ignite the others.  Taking my hand again, this time touching only the tips of my fingers, Louis leads me to the kneeler.
Together we kneel down and my husband leads me in prayer.
Hours later I hear the bells of the Cathedral where we were married chime thrice.  Louis, who like myself has for some time been praying in silence, crosses himself and says aloud:  “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you. . . .”
It is the prayer for Matins, we are half-way to dawn.  When he is finished, he rises stiffly.  “I would be in my rooms for Lauds,” he says by way of leave taking.  It is not clear whether he offers this information as explanation or excuse.
When he is gone, I get off my knees with great difficulty.  My legs are stiff and my feet nearly without feeling.  I stagger rather than walk to the great bed and fall upon it face first, fully clothed.  I am asleep before I can call for someone to undress me.  Asleep before I can even roll over.