"What, in heaven's name, is that?" The Milanese ambassador to the court of His Majesty, Louis XIV, King of France, raised his lorgnon to his eye, the better to inspect the curious figure that had just been shown into the room. The woman who stood on the threshold was an extraordinary sight, even in this extravagant setting in the year of victories, 1676. Above an old-fashioned Spanish farthingale, a black brocade gown cut in the style of Henri IV rose to a tight little white ruff at her neck. Her ebony walking stick, nearly as tall as herself, was decorated with a bunch of black silk ribbons and topped with a silver owl's head. A widow's veil concealed her face. The hum of voices at the maréchale's reception was hushed for a moment, as the stiff little woman in the garments of a previous century threw back her black veil to reveal a beautiful face made ghastly pale by layers of white powder. She paused a moment, taking in the room with an amused look, as if fully conscious of the sensation that her appearance made. As a crowd of women hurried to greet her, the Milanese ambassador's soberly dressed companion, the Lieutenant General of the Paris Police, turned to make a remark.
"That, my dear Ambassador, is the most impudent woman in Paris."
"Indeed, Monsieur de La Reynie, there is obviously no one better fitted than you to make such a pronouncement," the Italian responded politely, tearing his eyes with difficulty from the woman's fiercely lovely face. "But tell me, why the owl's-head walking stick? It makes her look like a sorceress."
"That is exactly her purpose. The woman has a flair for drama. That is why all of Paris is talking about the Marquise de Morville." The chief of the Paris police smiled ironically, but his pale eyes were humorless.
"Ah, so that is the woman who has told the Queen's fortune. The Comtesse de Soissons says she is infallible. I had thought of consulting her myself, to see if she would sell me the secret of the cards."
"Her mysterious formula for winning at cards-another of her pieces of fakery. Every time someone wins heavily at lansquenet, the rumor goes about that the marquise has at last been persuaded to part with the secret of the cards. Secret, indeed..." said the chief of police. "That shameless adventuress merely capitalizes on every scandal in the city. I believe in this secret about as much as I believe her claims to have been preserved for over two centuries by alchemical arts."
Hearing this, the Milanese ambassador looked abashed and put away his lorgnon.
La Reynie raised an eyebrow. "Don't tell me, my dear fellow, that you were considering purchasing the secret of immortality as well?"
"Oh, certainly not," the ambassador said hastily. "After all, these are modern times. In our century, surely only fools believe in superstitions like that."
"Then half of Paris is composed of fools, even in this age of science. Anyone who loses a handkerchief, a ring, or a lover hastens to the marquise to have her read in the cards or consult her so-called oracle glass. And the damned thing is, they usually come away satisfied. It takes a certain sort of dangerous intelligence to maintain such deception. I assure you, if fortune-telling were illegal, she's the very first person I'd arrest."
The Marquise de Morville was making her way through the high, arched reception hall as if at a Roman triumph. Behind her trailed a dwarf in Moorish costume who carried her black brocade train, as well as a maid in a garish green striped gown who held her handkerchief. Around her crowded petitioners who believed she could make their fortunes: impecunious countesses, overspent abbés and chevaliers, titled libertines raddled with the Italian disease, the society doctor Rabel, the notorious diabolist Duc de Brissac and his sinister companions.
"Ah, there is someone who can introduce us," cried the ambassador, as he intercepted a slender, olive-skinned young man on his way to the refreshment table. "Primi, my friend here and I would like to make the acquaintance of the immortal marquise."
"But of course," answered the young Italian. "The marquise and I have been acquainted for ages." He waggled his eyebrows. It was only a matter of minutes before the chief of police found himself face-to-face with the subject of so many secret reports, being appraised with almost mathematical precision by the subject's cool, gray eyes. Something about the erect little figure in black irritated him unspeakably.
"And so, how is the most notorious charlatan in Paris doing these days?" he asked the fortune-teller, annoyance overcoming his usual impeccable politeness.
"Why, she is doing just about as well as the most pompous chief of police in Paris," the marquise answered calmly. La Reynie noted her perfect Parisian accent. But her speech had a certain formality, precision-as if she were somehow apart from everything. Could she be foreign? There were so many foreign adventurers in the city, these days. But as far as the police could tell, this one, at least, was not engaged in espionage.
"I suppose you are here to sell the secret of the cards," he said between his teeth. Even he was astonished at how infuriated she could make him feel, simply by looking at him the way she did. The arrogance of her, to dare to be amused by a man of his position.
"Oh, no, I could never sell that," replied the devineresse. "Unless, of course, you were considering buying it for yourself..." The marquise flashed a wicked smile.
"Just as well, or I would have you taken in for fraud," La Reynie found himself saying. Himself, Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie, who prided himself on his perfect control, his precise manners-who was known for the exquisite politeness he brought even to the interrogation of a prisoner in the dungeon of the Châtelet.
"Oh, naughty, Monsieur de La Reynie. I always give full value," he could hear her saying in answer, as he inspected the firm little hand that held the tall, black walking stick. A ridiculous ring, shaped like a dragon, another, in the form of a death's-head, and yet two more, one with an immense, blood red ruby, overburdened the narrow, white little fingers. The hand of a brilliant child, not an old woman, mused La Reynie.
"Your pardon, Marquise," La Reynie said, as she turned to answer the desperate plea of an elderly gentleman for an appointment for a private reading. "I would love to know where you are from, adventuress," he muttered to himself.
As if her ear never missed a sound, even when engaged in mid-conversation elsewhere, the marquise turned her head back over her shoulder and answered the chief of police: "‘From'?" She laughed. "Why, I'm from Paris. Where else?"
Lying, thought La Reynie. He knew every secret of the city. It was impossible for such a prodigy to hatch out, unseen by his agents. It was a challenge, and he intended to unravel it for the sake of public order. A woman should not be allowed to annoy the Lieutenant General of the Paris Police.