The central kitchen of Eszterháza boiled over with activity. Black smoke billowed out of the open ovens, choking the air. Anna squeezed her way through the mass of shoving bodies and noise, fighting to keep her tray steady in her arms. Unbidden, a song rose up through her chest, a reaction to her panic. She forced it down with a gulp. Singing here, in public — that was the last thing she needed! She’d been teased enough for it back in Saxony, where at least everyone knew her and understood what she was like.
“Watch where you’re going!” A big footman slammed straight into her shoulder, sending her reeling.
She scrambled to right her slipping tray. Her feet skidded on the floor. The empty silver vase teetered on the edge of the tray.
“Here.” Another maidservant grabbed her arm, steadying her. Anna jerked the tray upright, just in time.
The footman who’d slammed into her strode ahead and out the great doors, still balancing his two trays perfectly.
“Ass.” The other maid shook her head. “Don’t worry about György. He’s like that with all the visitors.” She stepped back. “You’re all right now?”
Anna had to think through the woman’s thick Hungarian accent before she could answer. Anna couldn’t tell, yet, what the minor variations in the Esterházy livery signified. Was this woman a housemaid, part of the cleaning staff, perhaps? Or another personal maid, like herself? “I’m fine, thank you.” She managed a weak smile, feeling her heartbeat flutter against her chest. She would not humiliate herself and her mistress. She would not.
The other woman’s eyes narrowed. “Are you new to service?”
“No!” Anna flushed, tightening her grip on the tray. “I’ve been a maid for six years — since I was ten! But I only arrived here last week. I’ve never seen so many people before.” She ducked her head, avoiding the other woman’s gaze. “I worked for a baron in Saxony, in the countryside. There were only thirty of us working there.”
And I knew them all… She swallowed down homesickness, as sudden and sharp as glass in her chest. It had been her own decision to follow her mistress after Baron von Steinbeck’s death, rather than stay on and work for the new baron’s wife. It had sounded like such an exciting adventure…
“You’ll grow used to it soon.” The other woman smiled. “I’m Erzebet. You can always find me if you have any questions.” She began to turn away, but stopped. “Oh, and you shouldn’t have any more trouble from György – as soon as I tell him you’re from the middle of nowhere, not Vienna, he’ll leave you alone.”
“Doesn’t he care for Vienna?”
“Care for it?” Erzebet snorted. “He’s jealous to the teeth of anyone who actually lives there. Our prince only visits for four months a year, so we’re trapped out here the rest of the time.” She rolled her eyes. “It’s not as bad here as György makes out, though; don’t worry.”
She disappeared into the bustling crowd. Anna pushed her way through, gritting her teeth, until she could finally deposit her mistress’s breakfast dishes. The clock began to toll as she set down the trays. Only two hours until the ladies went down to dinner, and she hadn’t even laid out her mistress’s clothing yet!
Tears blurred her vision as she plunged back into the dimly lit servants’ corridor. Barely two feet wide and hidden within the thick walls of Eszterháza, the corridor ran along the edges of the nobility’s halls and salons, offering discreet entrance to rooms filled with beauties and oddities. Late at night, when the nobles were finally abed, Anna had walked through those rooms, barely daring to breathe as she gazed at Chinese figurines, exotic fans, textured paintings made entirely from crushed sea-shells, and sculptures that gazed with impassive eyes across the marbled floors. Now, she raced through the stifling passageway, past the doors that led to the Silk Room, the Cedar Room, the Greek. There was no time to run the whole circuitous route behind the walls that would take her, unobserved, from here all the way to the servants’ staircase. She emerged, head down in her rush, into the corner of the Blue Salon —
— And slammed straight into a gentleman’s brocaded chest.
“Oh, no!” She leapt back and sank down into a deep curtsey. “I’m so sorry, sir! Oh, please forgive me!” Prince Nikolaus had his own executioner, they said, and his own dungeons — and —
“Don’t worry, lass!” Warm hands pulled her up. “I’m no great gentleman to offend, only another servant like yourself.”
Anna let her gaze rise up from the floor. He wore a gorgeous brocaded red coat — but, yes, now she saw it: on his apple-green waistcoat, expensive though the cloth might be, the Esterházy insignia was clearly embroidered.
Gray eyes twinkled at her from a pockmarked, gnome-like face. “You see? Not so frightening.”
“I am sorry, Herr—”
“Haydn, my dear. His Serene Highness’s humble kapellmeister. On my way back from an excellently productive meeting. And you?”
“Annamaria Dommayer, sir, personal maid to Baroness von Stein- beck.” Anna backed away. “But I am late, so — ”
“On your way, my dear, on your way.” He strode off toward the next room, whistling an unfamiliar melody. It sounded bright and jaunty, like a child’s skipping tune.
Anna hurried the rest of the way, keeping her eyes warily fixed ahead of her and slipping as quickly as possible back into the safety of the servants’ passageway. Inside her chest, though, excitement bubbled up.
Herr Haydn — her mistress’s favorite composer! The man whom she was so anxious to meet — and Anna had spoken to him herself!
A song pressed against her chest, pushing to be let out. Not now, she told herself. But – later!
The stage of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s opera theater was filled with singers, but only anxious, muffled whispers sounded from any of their throats today. Franz Pichler, second tenor in the Eszterháza opera troupe, leaned against the back of a painted wooden throne from last night’s performance, kept his own mouth firmly closed, and refrained from joining in any of the closely huddled, gossiping groups.
“Excellent news!” The stage door burst open, and the kapellmeister strode inside, cutting off all the whispers at an instant. “A worthy opportunity! A chance to shine! Not only is the most famous musico in Europe on his way to our palace at this very moment, my friends, but the Emperor’s own nephew comes to visit us in only nine days! We are called upon to create a new opera for his arrival, to amaze him and send news of our glory back to the capital. We…we…” The kapellmeister ran out of breath, blinking at the unexpected lack of response.
Franz watched Herr Haydn take in the scattering of averted faces among the gathered singers. He stifled a snort at the look of bewilderment on the kapellmeister’s face. It shouldn’t be amusing. It certainly wouldn’t be amusing, if anyone found out his role in this adventure.
Whipping, imprisonment, expulsion …
No. Franz had been an actor and singer since he was ten years old. He could play the part of an innocent in his sleep.
Marianna and Antonicek were safe and far from here, free to seek their own happiness at last. He’d played the part of a hero as well as a loyal friend in aiding their escape.
And oh, what a sweet moment of vengeance for Franz to savor…
“But what’s amiss?” the kapellmeister asked.
Franz cleared his throat, recalling himself to his role. “Madame Delacroix,” he said succinctly. He jerked his head at the figure of Monsieur Delacroix, the theatrical director, who stood, wigless, his white hair disordered, glowering into the empty air. “And our leading tenor. Gone.”
“Gone?” Herr Haydn sagged, his face wrinkling. Only in moments such as this, when Haydn’s masterful energy deserted him, did the kapellmeister suddenly appear small and aged. “When? Where?”
“Eaten by the bloody wolves, I hope.” Delacroix whirled around and slammed his gloved fist into the pillar at the side of the stage. “I taught that bitch everything!”
Their leading alto singer coughed gently. “Not quite everything, perhaps,” Madame Zelinowsky murmured, just loud enough to be heard by all. “Apparently our young Herr Antonicek still had a few new tricks to teach her.”
The kapellmeister leapt forward to pull Delacroix back. “Patience, my dear sir! Patience. Does anyone know when the two eloped?”
“Who knows? Sometime in the middle of the night.” Franz kept his voice light and uninflected. So far, no one had seemed openly suspicious, but he’d noticed Madame Zelinowsky watching him a few times with an amused glint in her green, cat-like eyes. She played the humorous maternal roles in their company’s productions, but her own wit was as finely honed as a nobleman’s sword — and at least as biting. Franz looked away from her as he continued. “No one realized they were really gone until nearly an hour ago.”
Herr Haydn frowned. “Even you, Monsieur Delacroix? You never noticed when she left?”
Delacroix ground his teeth audibly. “I am a…sound sleeper, sir.”
A drunken fool, more like. Franz stared down at his hands to hide the contempt in his eyes. Delacroix had drunk away half the singers’ earnings in the past several months. Oh, he’d behaved with admirable decorum in the first year after Prince Nikolaus had hired the troupe, but once they’d settled in, he’d fallen back into his old ways. Franz had been a fool to trust Delacroix’s promises and sign the contract of employment. He should have trusted in the power of his own singing voice and dared to try his luck in Pressburg or Prague — or even, with truly wild hope, in Vienna itself. Instead of wasting away in the middle of nowhere, he could have been a star in the Habsburgs’ Burgtheater by now. But once the contract had been signed …
A nervous tremor twinged in his gut. Within the million and a half acres of Esterházy land, the Prince wielded absolute authority. Once contracted into his service, no servant could leave of his own accord or disobey the Prince in any manner. Within his vast lands, the Prince could choose what punishment he desired for any infraction, from public whippings to executions, with no voice raised against him.
“But you must surely have more ideas for us, Herr Pichler,” Madame Zelinowsky purred. “You and Herr Antonicek have kept so close lately. All that whispering in corners …” Her cat eyes narrowed. “Are you certain he gave you no clues at all?”
“All we ever discussed was our lack of pay,” Franz said evenly. “Perhaps he required the funds for their flight, but if so he never men- tioned it to me.”
“How dare you goad me, sirrah, at a time such as this?” Delacroix puffed himself up, cheeks reddening. “There is no call to air such petty complaints in front of the kapellmeister! Have you no respect for the injury to my honor?”
Madame Zelinowsky snorted softly. Franz couldn’t help meeting her gaze for a moment of mutual appreciation.
“His Highness will be most seriously displeased.” Herr Haydn’s dark complexion had paled to a sickly green. “He will certainly take it as a personal insult.”
“It is an insult to me!” Delacroix snarled. “I will petition His Highness for redress. He must send riders after them at once! He — ”
“I’m certain that he shall.” The kapellmeister reached beneath his wig to scratch his head. He sighed. “It was a terribly rash act, I’m afraid. His Highness’s soldiers will find them by nightfall, and then…”
“Punishment,” Delacroix gritted. “For them and any who abetted them.”
The kapellmeister looked at him with open distaste. “I’ve no doubt of it. Come, we must alert His Highness now, before he goes to dinner. And …” His gaze passed over the group of actors. “Herr Pichler, if you please? His Highness will want to hear your account of Herr Antonicek’s conversations in the past few days.”
“Certainly.” Franz pasted a smile onto his face. He was, after all, experienced at handling stage fright. “I am always happy to serve His Highness in any way.”
He stood up, avoiding Madame Zelinowsky’s knowing eyes, and followed the two men out the door.
Friedrich von Höllner, honorary lieutenant of the Esterházy Grenadier Guards, and even-less-than-honorary husband of Sophie von Höllner, woke with a throbbing headache to the sound of his own name.
“Uhh!” His tongue felt too thick to speak. He levered his head up off his folded arms, off the table — God, he was still in the Fertöd tavern, nearly five miles from Eszterháza. Where were all the others?
Bloody Easterners. They splashed down gallons of the local fire-water as if it were milk. Impossible not to at least try to keep up without looking a fool — but their heads must be as hard as the oak table that propped him up.
They’d probably all cracked jokes about soft city Westerners as they’d tromped out at dawn in their great heavy boots, on to their next adventure.
“Lieutenant von Höllner?”
Friedrich swiveled around. The cramped muscles in his neck screamed protest.
“A letter, sir.” The servant who held it out looked unfamiliar. Friedrich blinked twice and took in the courier’s uniform. “From the capital, sir.”
Friedrich fumbled for coins, but the courier shook his head. The insignia on his uniform looked oddly familiar. Where had Friedrich seen it before?
Friedrich accepted the letter and dismissed the mystery. He let the envelope drop onto the table as the courier backed out of the room.
“There you are!” Anton Esterházy breezed into the room, brushing past the retreating courier. “Might have known it, you dog. Do you have any idea what time it is?”
“Almost time for breakfast?” Friedrich ran his hand over his face and found it greasy with stubble. Anton, of course, looked perfectly groomed. “Why didn’t you wake me up last night before you left?”
“You think I didn’t try?” Anton buffeted his shoulder, grinning. “City boy …”
“Bloody barbarian.” Friedrich grinned back, even though the effort hurt his head.
“Ah, I’ve been out shooting all morning. We’ll have a feast in the barracks tonight. It’s a beautiful day. You should be outside hunting!”
“I know, I know.” Friedrich pulled himself up, away from the table, feeling his mood brighten. No duties but hunting and gaming and drinking… Ah, that bargain he’d made with the Prince had been worth it, after all. “Tell me all about what you’ve been doing. Skinned six more wolves today? Bedded ten more peasants?”
“Bastard.” Anton started to lead him away, then stopped. “You’ve forgotten something.”
“Oh, that.” The letter. From Vienna. Friedrich’s stomach twisted.
Bloody creditors. They were supposed to send all his bills to Prince Nikolaus. That had been the agreement.
“Aren’t you going to read it?”
Friedrich twisted his lip into a smile. “Why not?”
Sophie would throw a fit if he had to interrupt the Prince in public to hand over the bill. He could almost hear her complaints already. How much he had embarrassed her. The humiliation of her husband’s appearance in public. Why couldn’t Friedrich just take the Prince’s money quietly, and stay out of his and Sophie’s way, as he’d agreed?
It was hard to remember, nowadays, how lucky he’d felt as he’d stood with her at the altar of the Michaelerkirche in Vienna, swearing to honor and protect her, and meaning it with all his heart.
God, he’d been stupid.
Friedrich ripped open the dark red seal of the envelope, as Prince Nikolaus’s cousin watched with blatant curiosity.
It wasn’t a bill.
Brother Friedrich. The black ink spiked across the page in unfamiliar writing. Friedrich’s stomach dropped.
Brother Friedrich. It brings me the greatest delight to inform you that your time for action has come at last. You have been granted an invaluable part to play in our great quest, based on the oaths and sureties you gave us last December.
“Friedrich?” Anton stared as Friedrich sank back onto the bench. “Is everything all right?”
“Fine,” Friedrich said blankly. “Only…”
Last December? His thoughts whirled. Last December…
Prince Nikolaus and his court always spent the months from mid-November until the beginning of March in Vienna. Not as long a season as any of the other noble families spent in the capital, but still, thank God for it. Four months of civilization, drinking, gaming…
Oh, God. Friedrich let out a moan, ignoring Anton.
It had happened in a tavern. He remembered it now. He had made a new friend. He’d been dizzy with the excitement of the capital, the crowds… His friend — what the hell was his name? Had Friedrich known it even then? — kept buying him drink after drink, asking him more and more questions about his life. His position at Prince Nikolaus’s court. Even, after a certain number of drinks, the embarrassing, unusual cause for that position…
Friedrich squeezed his eyes shut against the glare of sunlight through the window. The memories played against his closed eyelids.
They’d gone to another tavern; he remembered that much. And then a third and a fourth, and, finally, down a long and twisting alleyway, with the sound of a string quartet leaking out of a nearby building. Down a trapdoor. Down slippery steps.
He’d been so drunk. So stupidly drunk. He’d convinced himself it was a wonderful game, a perfectly safe adventure.
“Friedrich!” Anton shook his shoulder. “Wake up, man!”
“I’m awake,” Friedrich muttered. He opened his eyes to finish the letter.
One of the great ones of our order will be arriving at Eszterháza soon, where he will reveal himself to you by secret signs. Your time is at hand.
Friedrich wouldn’t even recognize any of the men he’d met if he ever saw them again. They’d all been wearing dark robes. In the guttering candlelight, their faces had looked like black voids beneath their hoods.
And some of the men there — some of them, he could have sworn —
No. Friedrich swallowed down the taste of bile. He’d been drunk. Too drunk to know what he was swearing to. Too drunk to tell between men and…and…
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Anton said. “What the devil does that letter say?”
“Nothing.” Friedrich crumpled it into a ball in his fist. “It’s nothing.”
“But — ”
“Forget it.” Friedrich pushed himself up from the table, avoiding the Prince’s cousin’s eyes. No use trying for help there. Nausea clenched his stomach as he felt his wonderful, comfortable life dissolve around him.