Masks and Shadows
A wildly romantic historical fantasy novel full of alchemy, intrigue, opera and forbidden love…
The year is 1779, and Carlo Morelli, the most renowned castrato singer in Europe, has been invited as an honored guest to Eszterháza Palace. With Carlo in Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s carriage ride a Prussian spy and one of the most notorious alchemists in the Habsburg Empire.
Already at Eszterháza is Charlotte von Steinbeck, the very proper sister of Prince Nikolaus’s mistress. Charlotte has retreated to the countryside to mourn her husband’s death. Now, she must overcome the ingrained rules of her society in order to uncover the dangerous secrets lurking within the palace’s golden walls.
A hugely entertaining work of fiction, weaving real-life historical characters and locations into an engrossing and richly embroidered supernaturally enhanced stew… All in all, a terrific book that you’ll have trouble putting down once you start reading.
Cover illustration and design by Nicole Sommer-Lecht.
“Did I tell you Niko’s invited a castrato to stay?”
“What?” Charlotte von Steinbeck nearly spilled hot chocolate all across her silken sheets. She tightened her grip on the ridiculously fragile, overpoweringly expensive cup, and sighed. Her sister had done it on purpose, she was certain.
Sunlight streamed in through the open windows of Charlotte’s guest bedroom, sparking off the gilded leaves that edged every blue-and-white surface and turning her sister Sophie’s unpowdered blonde hair into an utterly incongruous halo.
“Oh, I suppose we ought to call him a musico, to be polite. But you know what they really are.” Sophie’s eyes glinted with mischief over her own raised cup. She sat on the edge of Charlotte’s bed, pressed against Charlotte’s knees with easy familiarity despite the many years they’d spent apart. “I’ve heard this one’s slept with half the grand ladies in St. Petersburg. Half the gentlemen, too, according to some gossip.”
“How—? No, never mind. I don’t want to know.” Charlotte set down her cup carefully on her bedside table.
Sophie had been teasing her all through the past week, ever since Charlotte had arrived at Eszterháza. She had to learn to hide her chagrin, or she’d be tarred as the naïve country mouse forever. When had her younger sister grown so sophisticated?
Still, Charlotte couldn’t help giving in to curiosity, even if it did allow Sophie to lord it over her even more.
“I thought that was illegal now,” Charlotte said. “Doctors aren’t allowed to perform the operation, are they?”
“You’ve lived in Saxony for too long, Lotte.” Sophie took a long, lux- urious sip of chocolate, sending the lace-trimmed silk sleeve of her neg- ligée sliding down her fair arm. “Oh, they aren’t allowed to say that’s why they’re doing it. But in Italy, they have all sorts of marvelous excuses. ‘Bitten by a swan’ … ‘fell off a horse’ …” She paused, raising her eye- brows innocently. “Aren’t you thirsty anymore?”
“Not really.” Charlotte topped up her cup anyway, with hot cream from the silver vase that stood on the little tray her maid had brought her. She needed sustenance to keep up with Sophie nowadays.
Not for the first time, she wondered whether it had really been a good idea to accept her sister’s invitation. The offer had seemed so appealing when it had arrived in a gilded letter, overflowing with scented ink and kind words. After twelve long years apart, she would finally be with Sophie again—and in a refuge far from Saxony, her overbearing step-children, and the chilliness of her new widowhood; a home, equally appealingly, that was far enough from her calculating, manipulative parents in Vienna that she might escape their new marital schemes for a year or two while she rested and regained her confidence.
Best of all, it was the palace of the greatest magnate in Hungary, and therefore an eminently respectable option.
From the moment she’d first arrived, it had been made abundantly clear to Charlotte that she’d been wrong about that last point.
“Ah, well.” Sophie abandoned the teasing with a shrug. “We should have beautiful, beautiful music at any rate. Signor Morelli is rated very highly. Niko’s kapellmeister is positively bouncing with joy at the news.”
“Herr Haydn?” Charlotte brightened. “Have you actually spoken to him? The concerts have been heavenly! I’ve played his sonatas so many times, I would love to meet him. If he ever has time …”
“He’s only a musician, Lotte. If you want to meet him, then Niko will command him to attend you.” Sophie rolled her eyes. “Honestly, the way you talk … it’s a good thing you aren’t in Vienna with Maman. You’d be eaten by the wolves there.”
“Or by Maman,” Charlotte murmured into her cup.
For a moment, their laughter mingled. It couldn’t last, though. The memory of their mother only brought the specter of her disapproval into the room. Charlotte couldn’t meet her sister’s eyes.
The one name that Sophie had never mentioned since Charlotte’s arrival was the single name Charlotte had most expected to hear. Char- lotte’s own husband had been too ill for her to make the long trip to Vienna for Sophie’s wedding to Friedrich von Höllner, three and a half years earlier. Charlotte had read reams of description from her mother, though, who had been more than contented with the match and eager to pass on all the details of their new in-laws’ social standing. Charlotte had received even more letters when Sophie was invited to live at Eszterháza as a lady-in-waiting to the Princess Esterházy while Friedrich took up an honorary post with the Prince.
Charlotte had never imagined, in her weeks of jolting coach travel across half the empire, that she would arrive at Eszterháza to find her brother-in-law mysteriously absent and her younger sister publicly ensconced as Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s acknowledged mistress.
“New visitors should liven things up, anyway.” Sophie yawned deli- cately and rose to her feet in a flutter of lace. “I must be off, Lotte. Dinner is in only three hours, and my maid hasn’t even started on my hair yet.” She narrowed her eyes at her sister. “And as for yours …”
“I’m sure I’ll find something to occupy my time.” Charlotte matched her sister’s stare evenly.
Charlotte might indeed be a widow, crossed into her thirties and living on her sister’s lover’s hospitality … but Sophie was in error if she thought her older sister could be bullied into complete submission.
“Of course,” Sophie murmured. “Perhaps you can practice your music.”
“Perhaps.” Charlotte took another deep sip of chocolate as she watched her sister waft out of the room. She could almost feel the weight of soft draperies lifting off her.
The end of her marriage, despite all its attendant grim misery, had felt as if it might signal her awakening at last from the long and clouded dream that her life had somehow become. Even now, Charlotte often felt herself only half-awake, as if some indefinable essence had disappeared, or wasted away from lack of use, and she no longer knew how to regain it.
Still, she knew enough to see that she’d never find her own way again if she allowed herself to become only her sister’s latest toy. This palace could far too easily become a gilded prison.
And now a castrato was coming to stay …
Charlotte shook her head ruefully as she set down the chocolate and rang for her maid.
Eszterháza was anything but what she had expected.