Anne was winnowing the gossip her ladies had gathered when Boulogne threw open the door.
“Mille pardons, madame.” The painter's heavily accented words belied the sketchiness of his bow. He displayed his arms, bent upright at the elbows, as the excuse for his tardiness: “It takes time to wash the stuff of my labors from my hands.”
The cleanliness of Boulogne’s hands never failed to amaze her; unlike Maistre Roux, whose extravagant dress only accentuated his paint-rimed nails and unkempt hair, Boulogne was a model of fastidiousness. Slight as a switch and hardly a thumb’s length taller than she, every pleat of his somber tunic neatly tucked into a plain leather belt, the master painter might have passed for a simple clerk, save for the dusky pearl, large as a swallow's egg, that dangled from one ear. With his bulging eyes and reedy voice, Boulogne found himself dismissed by courtiers without consequence, by ladies without longing. But his hands—those slender, fluttering hands that never bore the stain of his toil—attracted Anne like no others. François’s hands ruled a kingdom, but Boulogne’s held time in their thrall.
She shook off an image of the painter's hands on her skin. If she’d ever entertained thoughts of pursuing the experience, François’s thinly veiled threats had banished them. “Don’t let them dry," she warned Boulogne, ”for your reprieve will be short. The King grows impatient with the unfinished state of the pavilion.”
Boulogne flicked his hands in the air, unleashing a plaint that accompanied them to her private chamber. “It is not I, but the Florentine who delays us! I paint the ceiling bice, he tells me it must be smalt. ‘Change those primroses to carnations,’ he orders, ‘the satyrs to centaurs. And the sky, we’re no longer looking north, but south. Those constellations are wrong, wrong, wrong!’ I erase and adjust and cater to his whims while he dines with the king and turns His Majesty against me. Le Roux treats me worse than a lackey, I who trained at the side of the great Giulio Romano in the Palazzo Te!”
Anne’s hands settled on her waist. “Le Roux’s primacy might seem unassailable, yet there is a way to win the king’s favor, if you’re willing to try.”
“And what way is that?” His tirade had displaced a lock of lank hair; he smoothed it back behind his ear. “The royal bedchamber, the baths, these very walls—I’ve surpassed myself with each new task, yet still His Majesty overlooks me.”
“It is simple. You must offer the king something Le Roux cannot.”
He contemplated her, his lips pursed, dark eyes intent. “Something tells me you have discovered what this thing is.”
“Of course,“ she said, her eyes never leaving his. “A portrait. Of me.”
Boulogne snorted. “With all due respect, madame, Maistre Clouet has taken your likeness many times.”
What she envisioned had no comparison to the elder Clouet's staid renderings. She placed a hand on Boulogne's arm. “A portrait of me,” she repeated, and paused to lean in close. “Bathing.”
(copyright Julianne Douglas, 2011)