Revenant Eve by Sherwood Smith

  “If I may compliment you on yours,” she returned with a laughing glance, then sobered. “Am I to start bowing to you now? Saying ‘Durchlaucht’ with every sentence?”

  “Don’t,” he said quickly. Then caught himself and sighed. “In public, where we are observed, yes.”

  “Duppy Kim was right.”

  “In what regard?” he asked as they started down the hall toward the queen’s rooms.

  “That you have a very public private life.”

  He gave a crack of laughter and then lowered his voice, going on in English. I wondered if English had ever been spoken in those halls as he said, “One of the reasons I went to Poland was to get away from the people who had planned out my life, right down to my marriage.”

  “The Countess Irena?” Aurélie asked.

  “Yes. We never got along as children. She and my sister squabbled every time they saw one another. But the Duke of Trasyemova wanted a royal grandson and because he commands the Guard, my mother, as regent, placated him by promising to consider it, though she maintained she would make no decisions about either of us until we reached the age of understanding. Between that and the Ysvorods’ bitterness about my birth—” He stopped. “What did Fielding say in Tom Jones? ‘By thunder!’ That sounds foolish. The German is better, Donnerwetter! German swearing is altogether preferable. Teufelsblut! I’m beginning to sound bitter all on my own.”

  A few paces more, and the footmen sprang to open the doors to the queen’s receiving antechamber.

  Aurélie gave her court curtsey as Jaska bowed to his mother. Margit came forward to greet them, and I saw Aurélie watching. Margit did not bow to her brother, but inclined her head to him as she greeted him, and a slight nod for Aurélie.

  The queen rose. She was dressed in a robe d’anglaise, which I already knew was her favorite style. It was strange to think that I dressed in a copy of one of her gowns for a masquerade ball in this very palace, two centuries farther up the timeline. This gown was peach and silver, with green ribbons. She held out her arm to Jaska, who took it with his free hand, leaving Margit to walk beside Aurélie into the adjoining chamber.

  The table was set for four. At least that many servants came and went as fine porcelain and real gold implements were brought out. Aurélie was served some kind of a pie thing that appeared to be baked cheese, with layers of hot-house tomatoes, onion, and some type of herb that looked like shredded basil.

  “This dish,” the queen said to her in slow German, “was introduced to us through the Chevalier de Vauban. It was actually in the form of a soup, comprised of those browned onions, with the cheese atop. He said it was the food of the people, though I cannot imagine that nobles didn’t also partake. It is delicious, I find.”

  Aurélie took a cautious bite and agreed.

  “Excellent. My cook has been experimenting with the basic form, as you see. We have relied on that particular dish during the Lenten season. My son.” The queen turned her head. “I hear that young Elisheva finds your friend Mordechai rude, irreverent, and nearly uncivilized.”

  “And he found her altogether astonishing,” Margit said. “He was almost affronted to discover that her scholarship is superlative. I don’t understand.”

  “You would have to know the Jewish traditions of Poland, perhaps,” Jaska said. “Some of the customs of our Jews diverge from those of the Polish Jews.”

  “I thought Mordechai Zusya followed the strictures of the Baal Shem Tov,” the queen said. “Rabbi Avramesçu has disclosed that much in a report to me.”

  “He does, and yet not altogether. You know how traditions say that the Jews wrote to Maimonides after Dobrenica rejoined the world five-hundred years ago?”

  “Yes. Tell me something I do not know.”

  “And it happened again a couple of centuries ago, when they wrote to the Ari-Hakadosh and were taught that the scattered sparks of the Divine Light must be regathered—”

  “The tikkun olam, which is doing the great work of fixing the world’s peace, which aligned the Jews even more closely with Dobrenica. Son—”

  “Bear with me! One more: When Rabbi Yosef Ridotski came back from studying with the Ari-Hakadosh, he had learned that teaching women to study Talmud and other holy texts was to gather those sparks of knowledge and do holy work.”

  “His three holy daughters, before he had a son,” Margit said.

  “And that’s where we diverged. In Poland, Jewish women are not part of the study of sacred texts,” Jaska said. “In some circles they’re not even supposed to make music, because it’s not considered modest. So here’s Mordechai, questioned by a girl several years younger than he, who can return a quotation—three—to every disparaging, angry remark he makes about the absurdity and evil of the world. I gather that Mord was undone.”

  The queen gave a lady-like sniff, and flickered her beringed fingers as if brushing the subject of Mord aside. “So what were you doing while being rude, irreverent, and uncivilized, these past few years? I have your letters, which were remarkable for what you did not tell me,” the queen said. “Except that you were still alive,” she added quickly. “And I understand about fearing that they would be opened, but there is surely no fear now. Here we are at dinner, completely free of Russian, Prussian, Imperial, or French spies.”

  Jaska looked down at his hands. I felt sorry for him—I could have told them all that he and Mord seemed to be poster boys for PTSD but that concept was a couple centuries away.

  “I believed that duty and honor obliged me to help determine what Bonaparte was doing with the Poles,” Jaska said finally. “But it became plain that no agreement is to be found there. Many believe him sincere and will fight for him willingly, because he is undoubtedly a great commander. As for his promises for Poland? General Kosciusko does not believe them. Neither do I.”

  “We will discuss Bonaparte anon. And before that?”

  “Mord and I were dispatched by Prince Poniatowski to learn the semaphore system if we could, with an idea to establishing it in Poland.”

  “And?” the queen asked as she signaled to the waiting footman to pour more watered wine for the ladies, and wine for Jaska.

  “Line of sight, sun, problems with lanterns and weather—there are many drawbacks,” Jaska said, using a piece of bread and a pointing finger to demonstrate each problem. “Above all, the Poles would need the kind of control over people and countryside that Bonaparte is busy establishing.”

  The queen set her fork down, her frown formidable. “Bonaparte supports Polish freedom, does he not?”

  Jaska looked away. “He says what the Poles wish to hear. He says what everyone wants to hear. But he does what he wants.”

  “Which is?”

  Jaska indicated Aurélie. “Her ghost told us that Bonaparte would declare war on England a week or so before he did it. She also said that his next battle will not be north into England, in spite of this war. It’ll be east, into the empire.”

  The queen had picked up her fork again, but she dropped it to make a warding gesture. “Poland fallen, and the empire soon engaged with the French. It will be worse than it was a few years ago.”

  “Yes,” Jaska said. “From what I heard at the legation, we won’t be able to look to Sweden for aid.”

  “My sister does not write well of Gustav,” the queen said, nodding in agreement. “He’s violently opposed to Bonaparte and insists that he, Gustav, must lead any efforts against him.”

  “It was a mistake to ask Gustav for help. And to offer my services, after having been trained under Kosciusko.”

  “Oh, Jaska, I’m certain Gustav regarded you as a foreigner, and with distrust,” the queen said. “He talks wildly about how he would’ve fought the Russians in seventeen ninety-four and won if only this, if only that. No matter. The situation in Sweden is not as dire as our own. We need peace all the more, if we’re not to be overrun from either direction.”

  Her emphasis on the word peace caused him to still, and I knew exa
ctly what she was talking about: the Blessing. Supposedly, it would magically close off those roads into the valley.

  Of course. The Blessing. I’d forgotten all about it. Well, I’d never believed it was real.

  Xanpia, if the Blessing really works, why do you need me? Or was that a roundabout way of saying that though vampires walk, and magic exists, and seraphs fly around Paris, the Blessing is really only symbolic?

  As always, no answer.

  The queen had been watching Aurélie, whose table manners were neat and graceful. She signaled for the next course to be brought in, each dish on heavy silver platters, then said, “I fear we are boring our guest with our chatter of international politics.”

  “It was a frequent topic in Paris,” Aurélie said as the footman took away her old plate and set down a new one with a layered pastry. “I am accustomed, your majesty.”

  “Did Bonaparte ever talk to you?” the queen asked as she dug her fork into her pastry. “From what I hear, he talks and it is the part of all in earshot to listen, your majesty.”

  Aurélie flashed her quick, crooked smile. “Vraiment! He’d never ask our opinions. Our part was to listen, and to cheer when he made a pronouncement.”

  “I feel sympathy for Madame Bonaparte,” the queen said lightly. “Hers cannot have been an easy life, either before he seized power or now.”

  Jaska said, “Madame Bonaparte sent Donna Aurélie to the Piarist Sisters in Vienna for a magical solution to her problem of begetting an heir.”

  The queen’s eyes closed briefly. “That poor woman. How very desperate she must be, to send a young girl in secret. We will leave her problems, though, as we are not asked to solve them. Come! Tell me about this mysterious ghost of yours who can predict Bonaparte’s next war, but cannot help his wife?”

  Jaska said, “Perhaps we ought to postpone these questions until after the meal, whence we can confront a mirror. It’s much easier to talk to this ghost when she can be seen.”

  “I cannot see her,” Margit said.

  “I probably won’t either,” the queen stated cheerfully, and saluted them with her watered wine. “Never have seen one.”

  But you, as a ghost, will seek me out in Vienna, I thought.

  “I am far more interested in discovering how to avoid the threat to Dobrenica that seems poised in all directions. Ghost? What say you?”

  Maybe this was the danger after all.

  I began to speak, Aurélie repeating my words: “You know from the seers that predicting the future is problematical.” When she agreed, I said, “Then you will understand when I put my statements in the form of conditions. If I am correct, next March, Bonaparte will have the Duc d’Enghien arrested and shot.”

  “Condé’s son!” the queen stated. “He works hard to raise the royalists’ standard. He is said to be determined.”

  “If that happens, then look to Bonaparte to declare himself emperor,” I said.

  “Emperor! Not king, but emperor,” the queen repeated. She set down her fork. “And so the war to the east. For an emperor must have an empire. France is not enough. How far will he go, then?”

  “If all these things come to pass,” I said, “then look for him to push all the way to Russia.”

  That hit them all hard. Dobrenica was squarely in the way though not on the main roads from east to west. But armies were notorious for not sticking to roads, especially when they needed to forage. And when you had armies of hundreds of thousands of men and horses, that forage basically meant sacking every town, village, farm, and dovecote within raiding distance. And they all knew it. They had grown up hearing their grandparents’ horror stories, told them by their grandparents during the Thirty Years’ War.

  “This is terrible,” the queen said. “This is terrible. Yes, I hear what your ghost says about conditions, Donna Aurélie, but the wise would take that as a serious threat. Son, you know what must be done. But we will say no more about that now.”

  “With respect,” Jaska said, “I will make this suggestion: that we recall our legation from Vienna. We are small. The Emperor will take little notice. All his attention will be westward.”

  “I agree. We must get you crowned and on the proper day. At least we have until September, but we would be unwise to dally. We shall together summon the Grand Council tomorrow and fête them afterward, in honor of your safe return.” She looked at her empty plate, and without glancing at the others to see if they were done, she rose. “If we are finished, we shall go downstairs. Minister Ridotski was going to bring your Domnu Zusya to us, that we may hear this music my daughter praised so extravagantly. Donna Aurélie, I trust you will favor us with your talents?”

  Mord gave Aurélie a brief bow when he saw her, and Jaska a brief smile, but he seemed preoccupied until they began to play. Then it was like always, the three separate voices threaded together until Mord, eyes closed, took off into his amazing flights. There was a different quality to his extemporaneous solos, a tender, searching, questioning sense.

  Margit kept wiping her eyes, and the queen sat as if carved in stone, her chin in her hand. She was so still the diamond on her hand glimmered only with its own gathered light.

  When Aurélie looked up, it was to discover that the audience had increased slightly. The queen’s household music master, an elderly gent, had joined them. With him sat Shmuel Ridotski and a young woman in a pearl gray gown. She also wore a beautiful patterned scarf in shades of blue from cobalt to midnight, with golden threads woven in the amaranth pattern. This scarf draped over her head and down her back. She had to be Ridotski’s wife.

  On the wife’s other side sat Elisheva, arms crossed, head slightly to one side. The Ridotski pair were silent. When the concert was done, the music master’s attitude toward Mord was respectful bordering on awestruck, and the queen’s voice rang with sincerity when she praised the trio. But she kept looking back at Mord as if a hopping robin had entered her music chamber and metamorphosed into a phoenix.

  “We must do this again. Soon,” the queen declared.

  Mord bowed, his gaze straying beyond the queen to Elisheva. As the others stood in a group, talking, he looked down at his hands as though surprised to discover them attached to his wrists.

  When we were alone, Aurélie said, “What was the queen talking about? Twice she said that Jaska must do something, and she made reference to September, but she didn’t say what. I think she didn’t want me hearing it.”

  “Think of it like your necklace, a secret kept because of vows and long habit. Its magic will only work, protecting the borders, if everyone in Dobrenica is living in peace with one another.”

  “But this Duke Benedek has not a peaceful demeanor.”


  “And Irena was very angry when Jaska sent her home with the duke.”


  “So if I were not here…?”

  “I don’t think anything would be different,” I said quickly. “Living in peace with one another means acceptance. It doesn’t mean everyone has to be great friends.”

  She sighed. “You want me to stay,” she observed, “and I want to. I think. Ah, I’m so confused. But Kim, that dream I told you, where I saw you and me side by side? It was not in this place.”


  I WAS GLOOMY WHEN AURÉLIE WENT TO SLEEP, and the gloom was still there when she woke. Viorel brought breakfast, after which the army of seamstresses hauled in a ton of clothes. While Aurélie was in the midst of a personalized retail blowout, a note was delivered.

  She read it with surprise, then said, “There’s to be some sort of party for someone who is getting married. Princess Margit begs me to play for them.”

  That sounded friendly enough. Aurélie spent the morning practicing, since she was not accompanying anyone, and the hours flew by uninterrupted. At noon, she bathed, put on one of her new day dresses, and carried her music case out into the hall. She asked the footman to take her to Queen Karolina’s salle—by my time it would
have long lost that name—where she found Margit with a lot of other ladies between sixteen and thirty.

  The first sign of trouble was the way Margit introduced her after taking her to a beautiful piano and ordering a servant to set a branch of candles near so Aurélie could see her music. The rest of the women were gathered at a long table next to a bank of windows looking out over the terrace and beyond that the garden.

  When Aurélie had set up her music, Margit said, “Donna Aurélie de Mascarenhas, the musician from Paris, will entertain us now.” Then she sat down at the table and resumed eating and drinking. And talking.

  I think it hit us both at the same time that Aurélie was back in lady-in-waiting status. I could see her mental shrug. This was what she had done for Josephine.

  The windows were open to let in the balmy spring air. Some ladies talked, others listened as Aurélie began her performance. At first, she played softly, as she and her fellow musicians had done when providing background music in Paris. But gradually she became more involved, the volume rising when the music required it and softening naturally. At the end of one of her fae songs, a couple of people applauded lightly.

  Then Irena called out, “Play something by Haydn. He is my favorite.”

  “Oh, Mozart,” someone else said. “I love Mozart.”

  “It is Gabrielle’s day. She must choose,” Margit said, and everyone called out, Mozart, Mozart.

  Aurélie began to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 3, and the party went right on. Except for Gabrielle, a slight young lady in a lacy gown of different shades of yellow that complemented her auburn hair. She slipped from her place and came up to the piano, her head swaying back and forth as the treble rippled up and down, her forefinger tapping in time to the dancing rhythm.

  At the end she gave Aurélie a sunny smile. “Oh, thank you. That was truly good. How I tried to master that and never did.”

  “Now it’s time for Haydn,” Irena called.

  Gabrielle glanced her way, tucked a curl back, then flitted restlessly to the window, reminding me of a butterfly as Aurélie began Haydn’s Sonata in C.

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