“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.
“This is wild country indeed.” The English traveler, Edmund Guernsey, lifted a scented handkerchief to his nose and leaned away from the car- riage window with a shudder. “I wonder that you gentlemen would brave such dismal surroundings for pleasure. The smell alone is torture!”
Carlo Morelli, the most famous castrato in Europe, looked out his own window at the clusters of straw huts that dotted the harsh brown landscape. In the distance, high walls surrounded Eszterháza Palace, home of the wealthiest nobleman in Hungary. The contrast was … instructive, to say the least.
Only two nights ago, in Vienna, an idealistic young poet had ranted at Carlo for an hour about the wonders of the shining new Enlightenment that would soon make all of Europe a paradise. That news had plainly not yet reached the Esterházys’ serfs. The men and women who worked outside looked like skeletons, digging hopelessly for roots in the dry, arid ground, their thin frames bent by the wind that swept across the plains. Carlo had never seen such wretched poverty, even in the village where he’d grown up. Yet it was only the smell of the pigs’ filth that bothered Guernsey?
Across from both of them, Ignaz von Born let out a short laugh that twisted his thin, ascetic features. “You’ll find Eszterháza rather different from the rest of the Hungarian plains, my friend. It is quite the Versailles of our empire … apart from the Empress’s own Schönbrunn palace, of course.”
“Every prince has his own Versailles nowadays,” Carlo said quietly. “I’ve sung in most of them.”
“And better, I’m sure.” Guernsey leaned forward eagerly. “You’ve sung for the Sublime Porte in Constantinople, have you not?”
Carlo leaned back slightly, keeping his fixed smile. “And the tsarina in St. Petersburg.”
“A happier choice.” Von Born fixed Carlo with his glittering gaze. “Our co-regent, Emperor Joseph, is none too happy with the Turks, these days.”
“Really?” Carlo said. “I thought he’d be happier than ever, now that they’ve displayed such weakness before the Russian armies. The gossip in St. Petersburg was that he and the tsarina together might well carve up a new Ottoman Empire for themselves … if only they can create an expedient political excuse to do it.”
“You’re in Habsburg lands now, my friend.” Von Born wrapped his bony hands around the elegant, ornamental walking stick that he held even while sitting in the carriage—an odd affectation for a man who seemed otherwise uninterested in fashion. “I would judge your words well.”
“Yet I am no Habsburg citizen, and music knows no borders.” Carlo met his gaze and felt, more than saw, the flinch that ran through both men at the high, sweet tone of his voice.
A freak. It was how most saw him. Every bone in von Born’s aristo- cratic body probably felt the twinge of repulsion, yet his face retained its normal hauteur. Guernsey, on the other hand … Carlo had met his type too often to be surprised any more. That sort of man couldn’t hide the fascination that matched the repulsion. Left to his own devices, he would probably ask to see if there was still a scar left from the operation, all those years ago.
Carlo thought back to the scarecrow farmers toiling outside. Better to be a freak, and fêted by kings, than to lead that life. If his parents hadn’t listened to their village organist and taken the risk, he might well be dead by now of starvation or any one of the creeping diseases that ran amok in poor farming communities. Who would want the ability to bring more children into such circumstances?
He met von Born’s gaze full-on and smiled gently. Von Born might be an aristocrat, but Carlo’s voice had carried him into greater palaces than the old man’s noble birth ever could.
Von Born coughed and looked away. “Is this your first visit to Eszterháza, Signor Morelli?”
“You’ll find it a wonderland of culture after this dreary countryside.” He raised his walking stick to gesture at the massive building taking shape before them. “Operas and concerts beyond compare, and one of the finest art collections in the world.”
“And are you here on business or pleasure, Herr von Born?” Carlo asked gently.
Von Born stiffened. “I beg your pardon?”
“Our friend Mr. Guernsey is writing his book of travels, are you not, sir?”
Beside Carlo, the little man twitched. “It has been my dream for a long time to surpass Dr. Burney’s memoirs. He wrote well about music, but he could not understand the cultures.”
Carlo kept his lips firm with an effort. Guernsey—if that was indeed his name—must have worked long and hard on his English accent. It was exceedingly rare to find a German native who could mimic it so well. Carlo, though, had spent a year in London, singing at Kew Palace and at the Haymarket Theater. He would swear on his kingly salary there that this little man had never set foot in England in his life.
King Frederick of Prussia had spies already scattered throughout most of Europe. Had the Esterházys attracted his rapacious attention now, as well?
“So.” Carlo inclined his head politely to the aristocrat across from him. “We have all, I’m sure, heard stories of your amazing feats of alchemy, sir. I only wondered whether your trip was purely for pleasure, or if you were planning a—shall we say, professional retreat?”
Von Born’s lips thinned. “The philosophical quest is a matter of passion, sir, not ‘business’ … much like the pursuit of great music, I would imagine.”
“Of course,” Carlo murmured. He noted to himself, however, as the carriage slowed, that von Born had refrained from answering his question.
The title of “alchemist” covered a multitude of sins, in Carlo’s experi- ence. Von Born presented himself as a natural philosopher and student of minerology, and in earlier life had become famous for his scientific experiments…yet his fingers, now wrapped around his ever-present walking stick, no longer displayed the tell-tale stains of laboratory work.
Perhaps his passions were leading him in other directions, nowadays.
“We’ve arrived!” Guernsey nearly bounced in his seat. “Eszterháza itself!”
Marble pillars soared high into the air around them. Uniformed ser- vants pulled open a wrought-iron gate to reveal the palace itself, opening before them. Eszterháza’s golden body and front wings formed three sides of a giant square, enclosing a front courtyard filled with rippling fountains, a wide reflecting pool, and classical statues that gazed coolly down at the approaching carriage. Carlo leaned back in his seat and smiled as the golden walls of the palace closed around them.
The most notorious alchemist in Europe and a probable Prussian spy rode in the carriage with him.
This might well be an interesting visit, after all.
Inside the walls of Eszterháza, at the end of a corridor through which only the most trusted servants were allowed, a plume of dirty gray smoke escaped under the crack of a closed door. It rose up into the air, twisting and contorting until it formed a snake-like, coiled mass. Deep within its roiling center, eyes opened and flashed red.
Its gaze fixed on the end of the corridor and the opening that led to the rooms beyond. Uncoiling, it flowed forward in a smooth, predatory glide.
Inside the room, a deep voice began to chant. The words rolled out, following the smoke down the corridor. It twisted and turned, fighting their grip.
The voice hardened. The smoke lurched gracelessly backward, still struggling. It clung for one last moment to the ornately carved beveling around the bottom of the wooden door. The voice rapped out a single word.
With a hiss of anger, the smoke released the door and disappeared into the room.