Revenant Eve by Sherwood Smith


  “Gabrielle?” someone called. “You should hear what Burinka said to the baroness…”

  Gabrielle fluttered back to the table, obviously distracted by the romantic, moody music.

  At the end, Irena said, “Margit, get her to play Haydn.”

  Aurélie flushed. The message was loud and clear: Irena and Margit had undercut the interloper socially with one effective stroke. A lady-in-waiting was a fancy word for servant, and these snotty women were treating her like one.

  Aurélie plunged into Beethoven’s Serenade in D Major, which she and Jaska had bought in Vienna. Mord had begun practicing it the first night out of Eisenstadt. It was not written for piano, but Aurélie adapted the violin and cello parts, the melodic line evocative of trumpet flourishes.

  As before, the party paid little attention—until, through the open windows, sounded the flute accompaniment, sweet and clear.

  One by one the party people became aware of the flute. Then they realized it was not in the room.

  Gabrielle flitted to the window to peer out.

  Her jaw dropped, and she made a hasty curtsey. The others flocked to the window, peacocks in pastels. Aurélie had known within three notes that Jaska was playing, and brought her hands down on the keys, sending those flourishes ringing.

  At the end, the ladies clapped wildly, but he apparently vanished inside, for they all bent forward, a couple of them almost falling out the window as they tried to track him. They walked back to their seats, sat down, talking in Dobreni, mostly wondering what oddness his highness was up to—must be a joke—then the door opened, and there was Jaska, dressed elegantly in his silks, flute in hand.

  The ladies shot to their feet to curtsey. “Go on talking,” he invited. “Gabrielle, in your honor.”

  Gabrielle turned scarlet with pleasure as Jaska lifted his flute to his lips. He started one of their French airs, and Aurélie began the accompaniment. After playing it through three countries, she had no need of the written music.

  Gabrielle listened with eyes closed, and the others perforce in silence. You don’t talk while a prince is playing.

  Jaska thus made them sit quietly through six long pieces, and at the end he said, “We will compose an air for your wedding gift, Gabrielle. Come, Aurélie, let’s begin.” He held out his arm.

  “My music.”

  “Leave it,” Jaska said. “Margit can have it sent to your room later.”

  Aurélie placed her fingertips lightly on the crook of his arm, the warm brown of her skin contrasting with the ice blue of his satin. Was it the first time they had touched? It was the first significant touch. A quick look made it clear they were both aware of it.

  Jaska bowed to the guest of honor, nodded to the rest, and as they curtseyed, he led Aurélie out of the room.

  When they reached the hall, she lifted her hand. “I’m not quite certain what happened in there, but I thank you for the duet.”

  “In war, I would call it maneuvering,” Jaska said. “I don’t know what the women call it. Perhaps my manners leave something to be desired. I learned all the outward forms of etiquette before I left for Poland but only practiced in Warsaw. Since then,” he cast her a rueful glance, “my closest companions for the longest time were only lice.”

  “And Mord.”

  “Who falls short of the ideal as a dance partner.” When she laughed, he said more seriously, “The Eldest, who has the greatest Sight, is very old. He lives in a village on Mount Dhiavilyi. Fritzl von Mecklundburg, my sister’s son—but we’ve always thought of one another as cousins, being the same age—he will invite you to Gabrielle’s wedding, which will take place at the Eyrie at the week’s end. We can visit the Eldest quietly during the merrymaking.”

  “But surely people would notice and ask questions if we leave.”

  Jaska laughed. “Wait until you see the Eyrie. You’ll understand. It’s like a fortified city, only everyone lives under four connected roofs, instead of numerous separate ones, the servants tucked away in corners with their own warren of halls that no one else sees. Everyone says the first duke who built it was a madman, and once you try to find your way around in there, you’ll agree.” He leaned against one of the deep inset windows and began describing the Eyrie, while outside, a series of pretty little pony carts lined up along the garden path below one of the side doors.

  Jaska glanced out, interrupted himself, and said, “Margit’s bride party has ended. That means it’s later than I thought. I must get to the Riding School and review a parade.”

  “Will you have to do those weekly, now?” she asked as he started away.

  He turned around, laughing, his expression tender. The sunlight slanting under approaching clouds caught his eyes, turning the light brown to topaz. I heard Aurélie’s breath catch as he said, “Weekly! Bonaparte did that, didn’t he? I’d forgotten. Proof that the man is mad. What could be more boring? I should know, I’ve ridden in enough of them.” He kissed his hand to her and strode away.

  Alone, Aurélie went out to explore the garden with a quick glance skyward. “How horrid, to watch a military parade in the rain,” she began, addressing me as she passed under an arched trellis laden with roses of three different shades.

  “Talking to your ghost?” Margit appeared from the other side of the trellis.

  Aurélie paused then curtseyed silently. Her manner was grave, the gesture so formal.

  “She’s a duppy, not a ghost,” Aurélie said. “Your highness.”

  The clouds were boiling up fast, big splatters of rain began falling. One hit Margit on the cheek and Aurélie on the hand. The two turned instinctively toward the gazebo nearby, as the palace was a ways downslope.

  “A duppy. What kind of word is that, ‘duppy’?”

  “I think you could call it Creole, as the language we used was made up of parts of many languages. That’s my understanding of Creole, a whole made up of parts.”

  “It sounds heathen,” Margit stated.

  Aurélie did not answer.

  “Do you really practice heathen ways?”

  Aurélie stepped up into the gazebo, followed by Margit. She said, “My practices, such as they are, are mine, your highness. I hope you’ll pardon the liberty I take in observing that they can be of no interest to anyone else.”

  “Speak plainly, please. As for no interest, that will no longer be true if you—if you stay.” Margit stood in the middle of the gazebo, arms crossed.

  Thanks to Madame Campan, Aurélie knew the etiquette of royalty. One did not sit down in the presence of a princess without invitation, though all eight sides of the gazebo sported unoccupied benches. So she walked along the perimeter, looking out as the rain began to fall in earnest, a silvery sheet.

  When she looked back, she said, “What is it that you find objectionable, since you know nothing of me? Was it my wearing breeches?”

  “If I said it was, I suppose Jaska will be the first one to claim I’m a hypocrite, as I used to steal his clothing when we were small. I did not want the constraints of a princess. I wanted a boy’s freedom.”

  “So did I,” Aurélie said. “When I first met them, I took great care not to reveal myself to Jaska or Mord. The second trip, the masquerade was a matter of necessity.”

  Margit looked away, Jaska’s same gesture when uncomfortable or disturbed, as Aurélie walked around and around the perimeter, looking out at the rain obscuring the garden. Far away, over the Dsaret mountain, lightning flashed, and on the other side of the garden, perceptible as silver etched against the slanting gray rain, ethereal figures danced.

  When the long rumble of thunder died away, Margit said, “Jaska is angry with me. I’ll have to make my peace with him, but I’m angry with him for returning all these years late and bringing what we might be forgiven for assuming was…”

  “Was what, your highness?”

  Margit grimaced slightly. “One of those females.”

  “Those what?”

  Margit made a gesture. ??
?I scarcely like to say. Adventuress, perhaps.”

  “Are they not women, too?” Aurélie asked and passed her hands over her eyes as the wind shifted direction, blowing a draft of rain into the gazebo. “Perhaps my once being so very close to starvation renders my morals suspect, but the only difference I see between a woman who sells herself for an hour in order to get enough to eat and one who sells herself for a crown is the amount of material wealth handed over for the transaction.”

  Margit was silent, then said slowly, “Sometimes the woman who is sold for a crown—I use your words, though I don’t think I would put it that way—has little choice in the matter.”

  “Do you think the starving woman has more choice?”

  “I think—oh, I don’t know what a starving woman faces.”

  “She faces the very real possibility that the drunken lout offering her a livre or two for an hour might, after she completes her part of the transaction, beat her senseless instead of paying. No one will help her. They’ll say, ‘She’s getting what she deserves.’ Though there were two in the immoral act.”

  “You think the woman forced against her will to marry because she carries a great dowry or her marriage secures political gain between two men—do you think she gets a better opportunity if she sits down to a poisoned meat pie or is thrust from behind to tumble down the castle stairs, once the dowry changes hands?”

  Aurélie started to pace in the other direction, an abrupt alteration that shifted my perspective. And there, outlined against the climbing roses, stood Pewter Hair the seraph, smiling directly at me as Aurélie said, “I condition only for a different word. Something merciful, perhaps? That doesn’t condemn those forced between terrible choices? But I’ve yet to learn of such words in any of the languages I’ve studied.”

  “I’ve no answer to make to that, but only an observation to offer. Here in Dobrenica, there are poor people, but no one starves. The churches and the temples see to that. My mother once said that there is a kind of competition among the religions, but as it benefits all, why interfere? Those who are poor are so for many reasons, just as there are also women who sell themselves here, though they do so not because they starve.”

  Aurélie lifted a shoulder. “And so there are in other places. I met one younger than I am who intrigued Bonaparte. I also met women who, once they secured a husband, took as many lovers as they liked. I ask again, why is it that nothing is said about the male’s part in any of these transactions? Why should men keep the moral advantage, just because they have the stronger arm?”

  “Because they make the laws.” Margit spread her hands.

  “And women’s social laws? The ones unwritten in any law book, but in force all the time? What of those?” Aurélie asked. She lifted her hands. “Perhaps it’s too large a question. When I was twelve, my Nanny Hiasinte made me promise never to sell myself, and I kept that promise. Out of ignorance when I was starving, for I didn’t know then how desperate women earn money. Now, I wouldn’t sell myself for any crown. And I was offered one, by Bonaparte himself.”

  She whirled around and ran out into the rain, leaving Margit standing alone in the gazebo.

  Aurélie reached the palace drenched to the skin and shivering. When she got upstairs, she asked Viorel if she could have a bath. The maid took one look and dashed off to fetch her fellows to make a hot bath and fetch something warm to drink.

  They hadn’t lit the fires, as the day had started so nice. Viorel took care of that. Aurélie sat on the hearth shivering and staring into the fire until the bath was ready. When she had warmed up in the steaming water, she let out an extravagant sigh then said, “Kim, I don’t think I can stay here.”

  Chill gripped me, though I can’t tell you how. “You’re going to surrender to Margit’s pettiness?”

  “Won’t everyone say what she said?”

  “You don’t know that.”

  “This queen—”

  “May surprise you.”

  Aurélie frowned at the window. “It hurts, the things she said. She despises me.”

  “I think some of that is her natural demeanor. But a lot of it is because she’s angry with her brother. She can’t strike out at him, so she’s striking at you instead.”

  Aurélie ran to the mirror and looked into my face. “Angry with Jaska, yes. So she said. Because he was gone? But for such an important reason, having such dreadful experiences!”

  “They are twins, and he left her here. I know and she knows she would never be permitted to go with him to war, but feelings are often illogical. And then, to make matters worse, he didn’t communicate with her. He still doesn’t.” How to explain post traumatic stress disorder? “His experiences were so terrible he can’t talk about them to anyone who didn’t share them, and so there’s a gulf between brother and sister.”

  “That grieves me,” she said. “One thing I can do: avoid their mother. I feel certain she, too, thinks of me as an adventuress.”

  When she had dressed again, the rain had cleared up, and afternoon light slanted in.

  Viorel came back to say, “Donna Aurélie, I am bid by Her Majesty the Queen to request that you honor her with your company on the ride to Mount Dhiavilyi tomorrow morning.”

  As soon as Viorel left, Aurélie leaned against the mirror and whispered, “It seems the last blow. Duppy Kim, I think it better if I leave now.”

  “If you do, you’ll never see Jaska again,” I said, my last-ditch argument. “Royal invitations are commands, and to leave when a queen invites you.…You know this. It would be perceived as the worst sort of insult.”

  Her chin came up. “Very well. But if she insults me directly, I will jump out of the carriage, and I don’t care what they say or think.”

  FORTY

  AURÉLIE ATE WITH THE ROYAL FAMILY that night. The conversation, led by the queen, was about music. The twins were largely silent; Margit subdued, and Jaska distracted.

  Afterward, at the queen’s invitation, they walked down to the private theater, where a concert had been arranged. A small chamber group and five singers. The only piece I recognized was something by Scarlatti, otherwise the choral pieces were Russian, complex, and interesting.

  After that everyone parted, the queen admonishing them to rise betimes. What in my time was a few hours’ drive would take two days.

  Viorel had Aurélie all packed up by the time she woke. There was nothing to do but eat breakfast and get ready.

  Aurélie walked out in her new traveling cloak and halted when she caught sight of the coach and six waiting in the morning chill, people’s and horses’ breath steaming, collars turned up. A company of impeccably dressed King’s Guard also waited, plumes on their helmets. The queen emerged, walking with stately dignity, a sturdy footman at either side.

  As she took the first step into the carriage, the queen paused, looked around, saw Aurélie, and beckoned.

  Aurélie made her curtsey then skimmed down the broad terrace steps and climbed into the carriage, where she took up the backward seat, cramming herself into the corner in expectation of being joined by an entourage of royal servants.

  But when the servants got the queen settled nicely in the middle of the seat opposite, they backed out again. The queen leaned toward the door and said, “Depart.”

  Trumpets blared, and horse hooves clattered as the guards at either side began moving. A lurch of the carriage, and there Aurélie was, alone with the queen.

  Except for me.

  “We can speak at leisure without interruption or interference,” the queen said.

  Aurélie bit her lip as she bowed from her seat. “I am honored, your majesty.”

  “What do you think of the city?” The queen indicated the cathedral sliding by on one side and its park on the other.

  “Very fine, your majesty.”

  “And our weather? I understand you took a walk in our garden yesterday and ended up drenched.”

  “I should have been more watchful, your majesty.” Aurélie
glanced out at Prinz Karl-Rafael Street, along which Dobreni of every type had gathered. They were waving hats or handkerchiefs and cheering.

  The queen smiled broadly out one window and then the other, until the houses got older and smaller and more scattered, and finally the road turned sharply to avoid the swamp where the city’s branch of the river dumped into the main flow. In the future, the sewage treatment plan was here and the high road planted with hedgerows to hide the swamp.

  The horses picked up the pace. They were heading down into the broad plain of the valley with its many farms.

  The queen sat back. “Your answers are properly demure but reflect my words back at me. This gives me no portrait of you. Did you learn that from Bonaparte’s lady?”

  “From my aunt, your majesty.”

  “Your aunt. We will leave that for the time being. My daughter tells me you are a heathen. Is that so?”

  “Heathen, your majesty,” Aurélie repeated. “Who claims to be heathen? I understand it to mean evil, or rather, to worship evil things, which I do not. The Great Creole includes all religions that look to the goodness of le bon Dieu.” She slipped from her careful German to the French of the islands.

  “Let me ask this, then. First, the circumstances. I was born and raised as a Lutheran. To marry the man I wanted—king of a land so tiny my parents had to summon a cartographer from the university to find out where it lay—I first had to become a Roman Catholic. If the renowned Bourbon, Henri IV, could do so, could I do less? And I try to be a good Catholic, but in my heart of hearts I still think like a Lutheran. So does that make me a woman who sells herself?”

  Aurélie colored deeply. “Did you feel you had sold yourself?” She seemed unsettled enough to have forgotten the honorific.

  Nor did the queen remind her. “I never did. Here is my second point. Do I feel that it is the only true church, as I attest when we repeat the Credo? Again, in my heart of hearts, I adhere to the Lutheran understanding of ‘apostolic’ that includes all forms of Christianity. It seems that you have an even wider interpretation of the sacred mysteries, am I to understand that?”

 
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