Excerpt from Midnight Fire, Jagiellon Mystery #2
Increasingly bored, I was about to turn to Maria, when the volume of conversations suddenly abated and heads turned toward one corner of the hall. A sense of anticipation filled the air, as if the gathering awaited the beginning of a performance by a troupe of players, lowering their voices but not stilling them, whispering to their neighbors, and pointing their chins toward the stage.
Except there was no stage; instead, as I followed their gaze, I noticed an iron-bound door I had not seen before, tucked next to the hearth. It opened from the inside, and a woman—alone—stepped across the threshold and into the hall. Dressed in a gown of cream and rose silk, with wide sleeves edged in delicate white fur and a pearl-sown bodice cinched around an impossibly small waist, she paused in the glow of the fire. The flames caught the brilliant shine of her dark hair, loose under a wine-colored velvet cap decorated with the same pearls as her belt. She stopped for just long enough to focus the eyes of the assembly on herself before proceeding, in a movement that was both fluidly graceful and demure, toward the main table.
It was Barbara Radziwiłł.
And she knew how to make an entrance.
I could not tear my eyes away, wondering what was so mesmerizing about this woman. For her outfit, although rich, was modest in comparison to some of the other ladies in attendance. Nor was she the most beautiful. With a pale complexion that was almost white, like the surface of an alabaster vase, a melancholy look in her large dark eyes, small, bud-like lips, and a willowy frame, she could not have been more different from the ruddy, robust, wide-hipped ideal of femininity so popular in these parts. What was it in her that appealed to a man who had been surrounded by the most voluptuous women all his life? Then I realized that it must have been that freshness, a certain exoticism, and a hint of fragility that attracted him.
“Isn’t she enchanting?” Maria’s voice in my ear jolted me back to the moment. When I turned to her, I saw an expression of naked admiration on her face. I would come to learn that that was the effect Barbara had on people: even if they believed the stories about her—and Maria certainly did—they could not help but be captivated by her.