Coronets and Steel by Sherwood Smith

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  eISBN : 978-1-101-44285-2

  Copyright © 2010 by Sherwood Smith.

  All Rights Reserved.

  DAW Books Collector’s No. 1521.

  DAW Books Inc. is distributed by Penguin Group (USA).

  All characters in the book are fictitious.

  Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.

  The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal, and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage the electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.






  With a tip of the hat to Anthony Hope.


  My grateful thanks to various beta readers—especially Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury, Hallie O’Donovan, Marjorie Ferguson, Jodi Meadows, Tamara Meatzie, Beth Bernobich, and Rachel Manija Brown.


  TOO MUCH IMAGINATION was tantamount to lying, that’s what my grandmother taught me. So when I first got that sense that someone was following me, of course I ignored it. It was only my imagination. Who’d waste time following me?

  Here’s what happened.

  My first day in Vienna, Austria, I made an appointment with a genealogical research company in a fine old building in the heart of the city.

  “Guten Morgen, Fräulein Murray . . .” the genealogist greeted me in German.

  I replied in my university-trained German—clear and formal—“I am trying to track down my grandparents’ families. The name is Atelier. My mother was only two when she and my grandmother left Paris, but she thinks she might have been born here in Austria.”

  The woman picked up the first item in my meager evidence, which was a photocopy of a grubby, much-folded form typed on a manual typewriter that had had a fading ribbon. It listed my grandmother as Aurelia Atelier, age twenty-two, and my mother as Marie Atelier, age two, citizens of France—these forms were all many refugees had as ID. The next item was a photocopy of a portrait of my grandfather, a handsome blond man with a crooked, rakish smile. The woman looked from that to me and back again, her brows lifting.

  She was too professional to make personal remarks, but I already knew how much I resembled him: tall, slim build, pale hair, honey-brown eyes, crooked jaw with a single dimple in one cheek when I smiled. In the photo, my grandfather was wearing an old-fashioned military uniform with the brass buttons, the high collar, the epaulettes and gold braid all tailored like a second skin.

  She laid that aside and glanced at the last bit of evidence: two opera tickets for the Staatsoper in Vienna, date 1939.

  When the genealogist looked up again, pencil poised, she switched smoothly to French. “What is your grandfather’s given name?”

  “Daniel. We don’t know anything about his family, or where he was born.” It was a relief to use French, the language I’d grown up speaking with my grandmother. “The only thing my mother knows about my grandfather is that he flew a bomber against Russia at the end of World War II.”

  “This is not a German uniform,” she said. “It is not even Austrian from the period before Germany annexed it. I would say this design predates the First World War.”

  I leaned forward, my forearms pressing against the tension in my middle. “There is no record of him in the French army . . .” I paused, remembering a conversation with my mother from three months ago. We were sitting in the hospital waiting room, talking about Gran—and about how little we knew of her life. The only thing she ever told me about my father was his name, and that he flew against the Soviets at the end of World War II. I asked if he was a Nazi, and she got mad. “Not all German soldiers were Nazis.” She was seriously bent out of shape, and wouldn’t say any more. Ever.

  That was more than I’d gotten out of Gran. She never talked about her past.

  I looked up at the woman. “It’s possible he was a conscript in the Ostlegionen. You know, the foreign-born soldiers sent by the Germans to stop the Russian advance.”

  “We can research that.” The woman touched the photocopied ID paper with her pencil tip. “You mentioned Paris. Did you consult a genealogist or archive there?”

  “Yes.” My throat had gone dry. “I spent three weeks there. I found a million Ateliers, but none of them ours, and no French forces flew against Russia at the end of the war, at least that I could discover. Which is why I’m here.”

  As she told me what she could do and what the initial cost would be, I fought back the urge to tell her to hurry, that I couldn’t afford to stay. I didn’t want to sound like an obnoxious me first American and I suspected she wouldn’t care that my grandmother hadn’t spoken in four months.

  What, a sensible person would ask, had that to do with genealogy research?

  She photocopied the photocopies and wrote down everything I gave her. I plunked down an initial payment, thanked her, and left. I held in the impulse to urge her to hurry. Everyone wants their business to come first; it’s human nature.

  So I thanked her and left.

  As I walked out into the clear sunshine, I tried to shake loose of all that tension. I’d taken steps. I’d put a pro on the case. Surely they knew where to go and what to look for.

  I looked around at the pale stone and warm brick-accented buildings with their grand rows of tall windows and Palladian carvings. Not far away, a spire rose above the rooftops. Was that the famous St. Stephen’s Cathedral?

  I hadn’t done any sightseeing yet, so why not walk back to my pensione? I’d pass by the oldest and grandest monuments in the city, and I needed to sort through that oppressive fog of emotion.

  The problem was that I couldn’t explain the sense of urgency that drove me, even to myself. It had begun that day four months ago when my grandmother lay restlessly in her bed, a hectic flush in her thin cheeks, her eyes glittering with fever as she gripped my hand with fingers still strong after decades of piano playing.

  Retourne au pays, Aurelia Kim! Tu dois aller voir si ils sont en sécurité . . . Je dois savoir s’ils sont en sécurité, parce que . . . on ne peut pas se soulager la blessure . . . Ta mè

  “—your mother is too gentle,” she’d whispered. “I cannot send her to heal the breach.”

  What breach? With her family? His family? Surely not with my grandfather, as she’d kept that silver-framed picture of him by her bedside as long as I could remember.

  “Yes, the picture was there when I was a little kid,” Mom had said during another conversation, as we waited in another specialist’s office, hoping to find out why Gran had recovered from the fever just to sit there in her chair, staring out the east window.

  Mom cocked her head, her short frizz of blond hair the same shade as my long mane. “She wouldn’t talk about our life before we got to California. When I was little we read together. When I started school we talked about that. My schoolwork, my friends. Music, when we went to the Music Center—when we could afford the tickets. And later, we talked about all the recipes I was learning in the pastry school, before I hooked up with your dad.”

  Gran and I had been close, as she’d been my primary caregiver while my parents worked. I was named for her. When the weeks turned into a month, then two, then three, and the doctors did their medicalese versions of throwing up their hands, I made the decision to find her family myself.

  My parents agreed, Mom because she was preoccupied with worry about Gran. She didn’t do worry well, and she was desperate for something that would work. Dad agreed because he was Mr. Mellow, and if I felt I had to do it, that was good enough for him.

  Even if we had to go into hock to manage it.

  So here I was in Europe, and with nothing. Nothing. To show for it.

  I walked faster along the grand boulevards of Vienna, though I knew I couldn’t outpace my sense of failure.

  And that’s when I met my first ghost.


  I SET OUT without a goal, taking any turn that looked interesting. The buildings along the broad streets got bigger and finer, the aqua baroque domes and elaborate statuary giving way to a square that I recognized from pictures: I’d found my way to the Michaelerplatz and the grand arched entrance to the Hofburg, the imperial palace of the Hapsburg emperors.

  The gold and white entrance extended in a wide curve, flanked by mighty-thewed mythological statues. What did it feel like to live in such a place? For the first time in weeks the driving sense of urgency eased up a little.

  I paused, wondering if I should hunt up a tour or cruise the place myself when a waft of chilly air startled me; the sun was so warm. A young woman more or less my age walked through the huge arched entry, twirling a silken parasol over a roguish flat hat of the 1760s that crowned a high white-powdered wig of elaborate curls. Instead of a walking dress she wore a square necked sacque, the rich satin skirt divided in front and gracefully looped back over a brocade underskirt.

  She looked like a swan among the bobbing gray pigeons and busy brown wrens of people in modern clothes. It surprised me that no one paid her the least heed—but maybe Austrians were used to reenactment dress, or they were more sophisticated than LA students like me.

  As she passed, she cast a laughing glance at me, her eyes crescents of merriment, her cheeks dimpled on either side of a secretive smile, as if she knew a good joke—or was playing one—then the parasol hid her face as she tripped away, her skirts swaying.

  She had to be going somewhere interesting. I decided to follow her.

  The young lady minced along in her high-heeled shoes with diamond buckles. While I followed about fifty paces behind, I considered talking to her. If I saw her interact with anyone else, I’d know it was all right to talk to her; she might be like those Disney characters who walk around the park but they don’t speak, so as not to ruin the atmosphere.

  She stepped daintily across the Michaelerplatz at a drifting pace. I stopped once or twice to twirl around on my toes in an effort to take in the sheer enormity of the Hofburg, to banish the Disneyland feel and see the place as the private home of power it once was. Though I knew from years of reading history that power does not automatically bestow happiness, and royalty was not exempt from personal tragedy, the romantic sweep of royal palaces is inescapable. At least to someone like me who loves the stylish and romantic face of history.

  I was thinking over dramatic events that had happened in this very space when I discovered that the palace buildings were behind me. People streamed in all directions. When the crowd thinned, I found we’d reached a station for the red and white streetcars called “Bim.” This was the Schwedenplatz. A string of fast-moving people left the tram, dividing me from my quarry.

  Gone! So much for Supersleuth Murray.

  On the other hand, I was right before the underground station that listed Schönbrunn Palace along its route. Of course that woman would be going there. Schönbrunn had been the Versailles for the imperial family for two hundred years. There had to be either a reenactment or a movie being shot there.

  The ride to Schönbrunn Palace did not take long—but this is where I first got that twitch between my shoulder blades, as if I was being watched. Or maybe even followed.

  Too much imagination was tantamount to lying, that’s what my grandmother had taught me. So after a couple of glances at other riders, when no one met my eyes or looked like a creepy stalker, I tried to shake the feeling. It had to be my imagination—imaginary payback for my having followed that reenactment actor.

  Schönbrunn was smaller and brighter than Versailles. I paid for the German tour, figuring the swift speech of the guide would be good practice. As I walked from room to room and viewed the furniture the inhabitants had used, and the things they had touched, and the windows they had looked out of, I gained an odd, swift sense of substance or essence, not quite immanence. It was the visceral conviction that if I walked through the right door, or closed my eyes and breathed in the faint, complicated scents, I’d find myself in the same place but in a different time, and there would be the young Prince Joseph, or the restless, brooding Prince Rudolf. Or Napoleon, or Maria Theresia. Or the beautiful and unhappy Empress Sisi.

  When the tour ended, and I hadn’t found sign of a reenactment or a setup for a Hollywood-style shoot, I followed the crowd back down the marble stairs. Maybe something was going on in the gardens? Not long after the shadows of the geometrically tended maze closed around me I got that shoulder-crawling sense again, as if I were being watched from the many sun-glittering windows in the warm golden walls of the palace.

  No one in sight. Of course not! It was my imagination—spoiling my enjoyment. I got up, hoping to leave my overactive imaginings behind, and walked farther on, but the feeling stuck as close as my shadow as I neared the fountains.

  I sat down with my back to a wall and satisfied myself with a thorough scan. Nothing to see besides tourists, none of whom were the least bit interested in an American student in old jeans, a cotton blouse, and sandals, her blond hair swept up in a practical knot.

  A second scan away from the palace, and there was the actor again. She strolled on the Gloriette monument, her parasol twirling in the golden rays of the sinking sun, the heavy satin of her sky blue gown gleaming.

  The slanting afternoon sunlight limned the trees of the park with golden green light, casting the palace into shadow when I reached the Gloriette. I climbed up the stairs onto the roof of the belvedere, which is a triumphal arch with colonnaded wings at either end, topped with military trophies. Built on a hill at the other end of the palace’s extensive garden, it affords a view of the palace and the gardens. I wandered to the rail, trying to imagine its famed inhabitants standing there with the pride of ownership.

  When hunger reminded me of the long trip back to my pensione, I turned away from the balustrade I’d been leaning against.

  A short, dapper older man stepped toward me. I gained a hazy impression of a broad build, a short gray goatee, and a Tyrolean blue- collared gray suit before he smiled and addressed me in a vaguely Slavic-sounding language.

  Whether on purpose or inadvertently, his angle of approach had cut me
off from the rest of the roof.

  He stretched a hand toward my arm as he spoke. I jerked away and snapped in English, “Get lost, creep!”

  The man started back as if I’d slapped him, his face creasing in dismay.

  What’s up with that? I’d been propositioned a couple times in Paris, but that had been at night, when I was alone. I stalked away, furious at being hassled during broad daylight—and at a monument.

  My mood stayed grumpy until I got back inside the city and sat down to dinner at a small corner gasthaus. The Kurier, Vienna’s newspaper, had been left at the table. I picked it up while waiting for my food and discovered that the London Ballet was coming to the Opera House.

  I’d had to give up dance when Gran’s situation worsened, as we couldn’t afford for me to study two sports, and anyway I had to take my share of helping to nurse Gran when Mom was at work and Dad handled the household errands. A ballet . . . totally frivolous, when I had to make every euro stretch, but . . .

  The cloud of urgency, disappointment—failure—closed in until I compromised with myself. If I skipped a couple of meals, that would even things out.

  When I got back to my pensione and asked where I should go to purchase a ticket, the manager offered to arrange it for me. “Get me the best seat you can,” I said.

  If you’re splurging recklessly, at least do it right.


  THE NEXT DAY I took the Bim to the Staatsarchive to see how much detective work I could accomplish on my own.

  Zip. But I’d tried, so I left feeling virtuous, returned to my pensione to drop off my folder of evidence so I wouldn’t have to lug it around, and set out on foot to do some more sightseeing.

  Within three blocks of leaving the pensione, I once again got that sense that I was being watched.

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