Revenant Eve by Sherwood Smith


  He relinquished her hand and indicated Aurélie. “May I present Lady Aurélie de Mascarenhas, and here is Domnu Mordechai ben Aaron Zusya.” And to the two, “Countess Irena Sergeyevna Trasyemova.”

  Irena had no interest in Mord at that moment. She lifted her brows and made a business of searching the air earnestly behind Aurélie, as if to spot an invisible train of respectability. “Donna Aurélie?”

  Again the accusatory tone.

  Jaska said, “Alas, Donna Aurélie’s maid—” He faltered.

  Margit took over without a hitch. “—is down the hill, with a delicate complaint. I shall have to make suitable arrangements, but leave such tedium to me, Irena. Why don’t you lead everyone back to the Golden Chestnut? Domnu Balik will require a number for ordering dinner.”

  Aurélie looked down at her hands in their masculine gloves and let the hood fall over her face. “Where have you come from?” Irena asked of Jaska. “Your mother—”

  “I beg your pardon,” Jaska interrupted, speaking in German. “But not everyone understands Dobreni. We will continue in a tongue comprehensible to all.” And for the next forty-five minutes or so, as they rode up the mountain from where the cavalcades had just come, Jaska spoke steadily, in German, about all the musical events in Vienna. Nobody got a word in edgewise.

  We rode past a stone plinth, which I took to be the official border into Dobrenica. Jaska’s music lecture ceased when the road widened, and the hard-packed ground gave way to stone flagging. A village of stone houses appeared, their walls cream-colored, the roofs sharply slanted. Window boxes were everywhere, including in the dormer and attic windows, giving the buildings a festive air.

  The mounted procession entered a broad plaza of patterned brick. Villagers stopped their wagons, carts, and conversations to stare, the men pulling off hats in salute as the columns passed.

  The biggest three buildings in the village were a town hall, a church, and an inn; the latter of two stories beneath a steep patterned roof, its third story with dormer windows—each with its flowery window box—punctuating that roof. The sign suspended from a graceful wrought iron pole depicted a bright yellowish chestnut.

  The two cavalcades blended into one and, at a lifted hand from Captain Danilov, rode around the corner in twos toward an enormous stable.

  Captain Danilov leaped off his horse and handed Margit down first, and then he moved to Irena. Aurélie, not knowing horse etiquette, began to throw her leg over, but Jaska held up a hand, one side of his mouth quirking into a grin.

  Aurélie regarded him in amazement but waited as he got Irena safely out of the way. He then held out his hand to her with an air, and she took that hand with exaggerated politesse and descended from the horse, careful to keep the cloak clutched tightly around herself.

  This by-play was observed by Margit, her mouth pursed.

  Unfortunately, the cloak’s hem settled into a puddle around Aurélie, which she hastily gathered up into both arms. Margit was tall and willowy, probably five nine or ten, an inch or two taller than I am. Aurélie was, I would guess, about five one in heels.

  Irena, on the other side of Jaska’s horse, saw none of this. She had refused to walk on her own but waited where she was, her arm held out expectantly to Jaska. As he put his hand under her elbow, she addressed Mord. “So you are the one who saved his life? We owe you our gratitude. I will introduce you to…”

  They passed up the steps and into the inn, Margit and Aurélie following.

  “This way,” Margit said to Aurélie, and indicated a sweeping slate stair to the right, as the others crossed into a parlor at the left.

  Margit led Aurélie to the second floor and down the hall to the end, where a liveried footman opened double doors. Aurélie walked into a beautiful room with deep set window embrasures on either side, revealing the thickness of the walls. The room was plastered in a soft cream color, with Dobreni folk patterns painted all around under the ceiling.

  Aurélie slipped off the cloak, gathered its folds together, and then held it out. “I beg pardon for the dust,” she said in German.

  Margit took the cloak, but dropped it onto a hassock embroidered with huckleberries and thistles. “You do have a pistol,” she said. “I thought I saw one.”

  “Yes.”

  “Can you use it?” Margit asked, her tone midway between challenge and distrust.

  “Naturellement! Why should I have such a weapon if I do not know its use?” Aurélie’s French accent was strong. “You desire to see my skill?” she asked, and I wondered if she was thinking back to those scornful midshipmen a thousand years ago.

  Margit put up her hands as if to stop a bullet, but Aurélie had already turned away. Two quick strides into the window embrasure and she flung open the window. There was a broad kitchen yard below. Adjacent to the yard, the stable, a weathervane on its roof. “See that?” Aurélie asked, indicating the weather vane. “Peste, I believe this weapon will throw that far. I had better aim high.”

  She leveled the pistol and fired. Below, chickens clucked and scattered at the loud report, and a man carrying a basket of cabbages looked up, startled. Otherwise the noise went unnoticed in the tumult resounding from the stable, as the King’s Guard went about unsaddling their horses, talking and laughing.

  Aurélie pulled her head back. “I was correct, it was almost out of range. But the ball hit it on its fall.”

  Margit gazed past her at the weather vane, which was lazily spinning, then back at Aurélie. Her expression had smoothed the way Jaska’s did as she said, “I obeyed my brother’s request, but I am trying to understand why he made such a request.”

  “Request?” Aurélie repeated.

  “You did not know?”

  “He told us only that he sent a message ahead. We were to be met, I thought because the road is dangerous. I am used to that. This is why I carry a pistol.”

  Margit walked a large circle around Aurélie, gazing at her from every angle, as if to penetrate inside her head. “He sent a message to Piotr, asking for a company to meet him on the road, but he included a note to me. The first since he, Mordechai, and Hippolyte de Vauban were taken prisoner in Prussia, seven years ago.”

  “Prisoners!” Aurélie exclaimed. “He did not tell me that. But all I know of his life is this terrible battle in Warsaw.”

  “He was taken prisoner after that and conducted to Berlin, where there was a diplomatic exchange over his hostage arrangements. But did he come home when we had paid? He did not. He sent us a letter about Polish reunification and vanished for three years. My mother heard from him next in Sweden. Gustav would not come to Poland’s aid, but we could have told him that. No further communication from Jaska except to our mother through our legation in Vienna, until he favored me at last with a note, saying he was bringing his savior of Warsaw and a young lady ‘who would require female clothes.’”

  “He did not have to do that. I can find myself some clothes,” Aurélie said. “I even brought a gown. It was ordered by Madame Bonaparte herself. But it was not right for Vienna.”

  Margit sat down on a chair. “Madame Bonaparte,” she repeated, her tone changing again.

  “Where—malédiction! My satchel is still upon the horse.”

  “The servant will have brought it in the back way.” Margit rose and crossed to one of the far doors.

  Beyond was another large chamber twin to the salon but for the curtained bed adjacent the fireplace. Set below a wardrobe was Aurélie’s ragged satchel, which she fell upon with a glad cry. She sat on a footstool, laid her pistol down, opened the satchel, and pulled out her gown. Wrinkled and stained as it was by rain and bits of gunpowder, its stylishness breathed Paris. “It was chosen by Madame Josephine herself.”

  Margit leaned against a heavy escritoire, arms crossed. “There is much I do not understand here, but it must wait. I owe it to my brother, or more correctly to the years we were close, to do as he asks. You will find a bath waiting through that door over there. All shoul
d be in readiness by now. And a small selection of my gowns, what could be put together at a moment’s notice by Viorel, who is young, but very discreet. I can see that the shoes will be completely wrong, but that cannot be helped.”

  “I also have one pair of my indoor shoes, at the very bottom,” Aurélie offered.

  “Excellent. Go and dress as quickly as you can. I will join the others and make excuses, but dinner will no doubt be served soon, and Irena will be impatient.”

  “Who is this countess? Why does she come when not expected, or I think, when she is not wanted?”

  “Because she has waited seven years for a crown, of course,” Margit said with a sardonic smile.

  “Pardon me, but a crown?” Aurélie asked. “Whose crown?”

  Margit put her head to one side. “Donnerwetter! Do you really not know?” She eyed Aurélie with unhidden suspicion.

  “Know what?”

  “Shall we begin with my brother’s full name? That he is Karl-Rudolph Alexander Jaska Dsaret, Crown Prince of Dobrenica.”

  THIRTY-FIVE

  “HE IS WHAT?” Aurélie jumped to her feet. “Then you are a princess?”

  Margit curtseyed mockingly. “Anna-Maria Elisabetta Margit Dsaret, older than my brother by half an hour, but alas, a mere female. Mother’s reward after four females was a son at the last.” She raised her hand toward the salle de bain. “I believe the French say, c’est fini, touche cela. Vite!”

  She walked out, leaving me wishing I could grab her—or follow her and hear what she was going to say to Jaska.

  Aurélie sat down abruptly on the footstool, the dress forgotten on her lap. She looked anything but gratified. I could practically feel my future unraveling as she said, “Did you hear that? Did you know?” Her brows twitched together as she sprang to the long elegant mirror and slapped it peremptorily. She scowled at me when our fingers touched on the glass. “You did know. Did you not? I remember what you said when James and I became betrothed.”

  “I knew it was a possibility,” I said cautiously. “You know the future is not sure until it becomes the present.”

  Her brow cleared. “The crossroads. Decisions. Yes, I remember. Nanny Hiasinte must have seen this. Is that why she sent you?” She turned away, wringing her hands. “No, that no longer matters. You’re here. You saved my life, I am convinced, when I was in Dieppe.” She turned back. “If it wasn’t for you, I would never have thought to go into that tavern. Did you know then?”

  I shook my head, happy to be telling the truth. “I had no idea who was inside that tavern. It was their music that drew my attention.”

  She let out a deep breath. “Such excellent music. And such excellent company as we traveled.” She put her hands to her flushed cheeks. “But a prince? It changes everything.”

  “Why? You would undo your friendship?”

  “No!”

  “If I knew, back then, who he was, what would you have done if I’d told you?” I asked.

  The scowl changed to a questioning look. She threw down the dress and went to the salle de bain, where an enormous copper tub waited, full of steaming water. Then she whirled around and faced the mirror. “I cannot answer that,” she said as she wrestled out of her male clothes. “I think it would depend on how I was told. Crowns! Do you remember when Bonaparte offered me a crown? I wonder if he was serious. Who gives his mistress a crown?”

  “He could give you a crown without the title or the land that usually comes with it,” I said.

  “Oh, ‘crown’ in the sense of a necklace or bracelet, the price for one’s favors. He has so many treasures from his wars, there must be crowns among them.” Aurélie peeled off her stocking and paused. “My necklace. It’s been so long on my ankle that I forgot about it. Should I wear it?”

  “Perhaps not yet.”

  She wrinkled her nose. “I’m thinking of finery and crowns because of this news about Jaska. There goes our ease! I wish I didn’t know. Our walk, our talks…I didn’t think about how much each day came to be more interesting than the last. How much I looked forward to talking to him, a fellow musician. We didn’t know one another’s past, because that didn’t matter. So I thought!” She crossed her arms across her chest and gripped her shoulders. “Why didn’t he tell me?”

  “Because there would go the ease, the comfort,” I said.

  “Parbleu! What should I do?”

  “Go on as if you don’t know.”

  “I should lie? Pretend this princess didn’t tell me who he is?”

  “No. I think you should act like you did before she told you. Don’t let his rank get between you.”

  “But it is between us.” She turned her back on the bath and picked up her travel-stained shirt. “I think I’d better leave. I could put on my student clothes and vanish back down the trail.”

  “Why?” I asked, alarm zapping through me. Though part of my motivation was selfish, it was only part. With real conviction, I said, “I think you’d make a perfect princess.”

  She grimaced. “You’ve forgotten that I’m not the daughter of a marquis.”

  I took another risk. “I told you once I got glimpses of your future. What would you say if I told you one of those glimpses was you and Jaska on your honeymoon? Here? In this country?”

  She stilled, head lifted. Then shook it. “A possible future, didn’t we agree? If he were not a prince, then I could believe it. You know they always marry their own kind.”

  “They certainly did in the past.” Again, ideas cascaded: Alec and our Princess Conversation. The first time we had it, he said, Surely you know by now that royalty is only a state of mind?

  I said to Aurélie, “One thing you must have learned in Paris is that crowns can be worn by anyone. Usually with an army backing them, but not always.” I was thinking of Désirée Clary and her Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who would be invited to be Crown Prince of Sweden. The Bernadottes are the ruling family of Sweden to this day. “Rank is an idea, like republicanism. You know that. You talked about it all the way from Strasbourg to Ulm.”

  “But…” Her graceful fingers fluttered from her forehead down her towel-draped person. “This is different.”

  “Because it’s personal. I understand that.”

  Aurélie gave a short nod. “Here’s another question. Do you think this Countess Irena loves Jaska?”

  “I am not certain.”

  “Personal. Do you think he—”

  “Cares for you? Oh, yes.”

  “So, here we are.” She retreated to the bath, took the fastest one of her life, and then returned to look at Margit’s trunk. Whatever her misgivings about her brother’s strange request, the princess had brought exquisite linens for underclothes and chemisettes, and two gowns of embroidered lawn, one for day and one for evening, both high waisted. The third outfit was a riding habit.

  There were ribbon sashes, and more ribbons for the hair. Stockings of the finest cotton and two shawls with knotted fringes completed the selection of clothes.

  Aurélie dug out her old sewing kit and pulled on one of the gowns. It was a basic tube, flaring out so that the skirt draped over the chemisette. She turned this way and that. The gown was too wide and long, dragging on the floor. She carefully placed her toes on the hem, then picked up several pins, put them in her mouth, pinched the fabric under her arm and at the ribs, and pinned the pinches.

  She slipped carefully out of the gown, loaded her needle, then used the place her toe had been to mark the new hem.

  As she began whipping up the hem with the speed of all those teenage years of sewing, she finally said, “There’s knowing that I’m as good as anyone else, and the facts of my parentage. It’s very well to say that I know I’m as good as anyone else, but that won’t matter much if everyone else thinks the way Aunt Kittredge did. And you know most people will.”

  “Do you believe, after you heard General Kosciusko, that Jaska would treat you that way if he found out?”

  “I don’t know,” she said
finally, as she began stitching the first of the tucks. “Ah, don’t speak, Duppy Kim. I must concentrate.”

  She scowled as she thrust the needle through the cloth.

  Gradually her tense brow cleared as she quickly transformed the dress. It was as if she transformed herself with the gown; she’d watched Leroy, Josephine’s dressmaker, and had learned the art of drapery. When she slipped the gown on again it had become a different dress. Her posture in it was straight-backed, her chin high. But her gaze was still troubled.

  She turned in a slow circle, then came to a decision. She pulled out her tiny sewing scissors and carefully trimmed some of the damp hair around her face. Josephine and her ladies wore theirs short in front. Aurélie fingered the locks, which sprang into what Josephine had called “kiss curls.” They were charming on her forehead and cheeks and neck.

  I watched, rejoicing at every primp and tuck, for each seemed to bring her closer to the decision to stay and tough it out.

  Finally she used one of the cherry-colored ribbons to bind up the rest of her thick, wavy black hair in the Grecian style, which accentuated the beautiful shape of her head and the graceful curve of her throat. She tied the cherry sash high, put on her old slippers, and glanced at herself in the mirror.

  “You’re a princess,” I said.

  She laughed, then curtseyed with mocking grace. “I won’t retreat. He must send me away. But I won’t tell him about my history just yet. I must determine if I’ll trust him that much, because he didn’t trust me enough to tell me who he was. There might be reasons. I’ll wait to hear them.”

  She swept out.

  The others sat in a private dining room, paneled and enameled in white and gold with intricate rococo frieze-work. Their faces were flushed. Aurélie sniffed. From the looks of things, she was taking in the sweet fumes of a double-distilled plum brandy called tzuica.

  She’d spent a year learning not only the intricacies of court etiquette, but how to move with the blend of balletic grace and allure that was so much a part of Josephine’s style. The men stopped talking and stared as she glided into the room.

 
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