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Opening of The Marshal's Lover

In the spirit of what I'm working on now, and because lesleysmith asked for another scene with Elza, this is the opening scene of The Marshal's Lover. The Marshal's Lover is the third book in the Wars of Revolution series, and it begins just at this time of year, in the season of Carnival in 1807. I finished the full second draft of this book in November and I'll start the third rewrite soon, expanding some things in the last third of the book that I think need more room to breathe. This is the scene that opens the book and introduces an old friend from the numinous world....

I would love to hear what you guys think of the opening!



"Colonel Corbineau and Madame St. Elme!" the major domo announced, and we proceeded through the door, my hand on his arm, to greet our host.

The ballroom was lit with a thousand candles, one of the finest houses of Warsaw thrown open for two nations to welcome the Emperor to Poland and to begin the season of Carnival. Chandeliers shone while beneath them on the elaborate parquet floor a hundred people swirled to the strains of music provided by a chamber orchestra. Gorgeous uniforms glittering with gold braid and brilliant color contrasted with white dresses worn by young women, with the rich velvets of the Polish nobility, with brocade frock coats and frothing lace. It was a magnificent sight.

No less magnificent was my escort, Jean-Baptiste Corbineau, now a full Colonel, whose splendor put mine to shame. He was with Klein's Dragoons now, rather than chasseurs, and had traded blue coat for forest green with scarlet facings. He also had rather a lot of gold braid on everything, though the crowning glory was his tall brass neo-Grecian helmet with a scarlet plume and a swatch of faux leopardskin.

I, on the other hand, wore my only presentable dress, the silver gray satin, but it was a color that suited me well and was the latest style from Paris, having been made as a knock-off of Leroy only the previous summer. The ladies of Warsaw were either madly making over court clothes of years gone by or driving their seamstresses to copy Parisian styles as quickly as possible. Many of them were quite lovely, but I preferred the ones who either adopted simplicity, as one cannot go wrong with white silk, or who unapologetically wore the splendors of the bygone era in all its charm, wide lace collars and velvets like something out of the Thirty Years War. There was something distinctly appealing about pale skin rising out of a square black velvet neckline…

At the base of the staircase our host waited. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, the Foreign Minister did not look the least put out by my presence, uninvited though I was, but rather amused. Dressed in an impeccable coat of dark red velvet that suited him well, he bent over my hand politely as I curtsied. "Madame," he said, his mouth twitching with what might have been a suppressed smile, "I am most pleased by your hair this evening."

"Thank you, Your Excellency," I said, with an answering smile. "But I fear it is nothing to what my hairdresser in Paris may accomplish!"

At that he did laugh. "Colonel Corbineau, you are a fortunate man."

"I am aware of that," Jean-Baptiste said gallantly, though he must have been utterly confused by the exchange. And so we passed within, as there was a press of guests behind us.

The ball was already in full swing, the Emperor present and chatting with Prince Borghese, his brother in law who was wed to his sister Pauline, and another man I did not recognize but that I guessed to be a Polish nobleman.

"What was all that about?" Jean-Baptiste asked me under his breath.

"A very long story," I said. Jean-Baptiste's brother Claude was over by the windows. "Dance with me and let us lay your brother's mind at ease."

"Claude won't be happy thinking I've an expensive mistress who takes all my pay," Jean-Baptiste said philosophically. "But I suppose it's better than the alternative. Hold on. I need to take my spurs off so that I don't catch your dress on the turns."

I waited while he sidled up to the wall and unfastened them. "Why are you wearing them anyway? It's not as though you need a horse at a ball."

"They lend a certain something," he said, standing on one foot and hopping about a bit.

I refrained from observing that what they lent was a certain aura of the ridiculous. That award should go to Marshal Murat, who appeared to have a leopard skin flung over his shoulders. It went well with his long pomaded curls.

"There." Jean-Baptiste dropped his spurs into the bucket of his hat, which he carefully arranged on a chair by the wall so that the plume would not be crushed. "Now we can dance."

"I do appreciate your care for my skirts," I said.

"At your service, dear sister!" he said, presenting his arm with a flourish and leading me onto the floor. "After all, you are here tonight to do me a service."

"Two services," I said. "Providing an escort your brother will find acceptable, and having a look at this woman you are so worried about."

"But I'm also doing you a service," he pointed as we made our way onto the dance floor. "After all, it's something to attend a royal ball in Warsaw, isn't it? Especially when you weren't invited and I was?"

"It is something indeed," I said. How many times would I have the opportunity to attend a gathering like this? Even after so many years of scaling and descending fortune's wheel, a royal ball was not a common occurrence in my life.

"Ah, there she is," Jean-Baptiste said more or less at my ear, turning me about in the dance. "The Countess."

She was not beautiful. From what I had heard I expected a breathtaking beauty, the kind of once in a century loveliness that launches a thousand ships. Her hair was dark honey, that shade between blonde and brown that comes when blond children's hair darkens with age, the color of my own when it wasn't bleached with sun or something stronger. She had broad cheekbones and a roundish face, clear fair skin with high color, a blush rising pink in the heat of the ballroom. She was a lovely young girl, but it was not true beauty, only health and youth that would pass far too quickly. At forty-something Josephine was beautiful still, blessed with good bones and features that aged well. At forty the young Countess would be nothing in particular to look at.

And yet. Watching her from across the ballroom, glimpses caught and obscured by passing dancers, there was a firmness to her pretty bow shaped mouth. There was a tilt to her chin, an expression…. She was nothing like Josephine, born to captivate as surely as any favorite of an ancient court. She was twenty, and yet her eyes were old. She watched. She measured. Behind wide blue eyes like cornflowers there was a mind wide awake. She was modest, her white gown simple, dressed like dozens of women there, and yet she shone like a star come to rest in a flower bed. Not a rose. She was not a rose, opulent and sweet. She was some more prosaic and sturdy plant, a morning glory that climbed the house and wreathed all in green leaves long after the blossoms of morning had closed.

"That one," Jean-Baptiste said. "That's Countess Walewska."

"So I see," I said.

"What do you think?"

I shrugged. She sat with the matrons, an embroidery hoop on her lap. Surrounded by old women she almost glittered. As of course she would know she would. Surrounded by maidens, she would be one blossom among many, one more fair haired, pink faced girl of twenty in a white dress. Surrounded by old women clothed in mourning, she illuminated. "She's pretty," I said.

Jean-Baptiste looked at me keenly. "And that's all you've got to say, Elza?"

"What do you want me to say? I think she should do something with her hair. Those ringlets are a bit too young for a married woman."

He snorted. "I got an oracle all the way to Warsaw to tell me that?"

"What do you want me to tell you?" I asked, reaching for a glass of champagne proffered by a passing footman. "I've seen her for five minutes across a crowded ballroom without speaking. You've got to give me a bit more to go on."

I turned so that I could at least see her across the room again, my gray satin skirts flowing with the breeze of passing dancers.

"The Emperor is in love with her."

I took a sip. "This week." Her head bent over her needlework, so serious, so matronly. "He has mistresses. Josephine knows that. They have an understanding -- actresses and singers, pretty and entertaining, and none of them very long. A few weeks, a month or two. He's generous and none of them are the worse for it. And neither is he." I refrained from saying that I should know. That week in Milan was more than six years in the past, and my relations with the Emperor now had little to do with it.

Jean-Baptiste shook his head. "You don't understand. This is serious."

"Because she's married? Because she's Polish?" I shrugged. "I don’t see how."

"She says no."

"Then what will come of it?" I had certainly never known him to force himself upon someone unwilling, and indeed I would find it most unlike him. Besides, why should he? There were a dozen women in this room who would delight in his attention on any terms, and as I said she was no great beauty.

"Would you?" Jean-Baptiste looked at me sharply. "Even given the Marshal?"

"That's immaterial," I said, lifting the champagne glass again. "No one is asking me." In truth, the situation would be very awkward. But I did not think it likely to arise. I was much more valuable to the Emperor in other capacities, and he did not mix war and love.

Jean-Baptiste turned, blocking my view again with his gold laced shoulder. "He's never carried on like this about someone before. Never. He's acting utterly ridiculous, making a fool of himself over her."

"Well, what does she say about it?" I tried to angle around again so that I could at least observe her. Another young woman had come in with a baby, a pretty child a bit less than a year old dressed in white lawn and blue ribbons and was leaning over her, the baby reaching out arms for her. "Is that her child?"

"Apparently," Jean-Baptiste said dryly. "Though her husband's seventy-five if he's a day. Very rich."

"Of course," I said. That went without saying. How else should a man of seventy-five have a wife of twenty? Now she was taking the child from her friend, holding it on her lap facing outward so that it could watch the dancers, raising pudgy hands entranced, her hair falling forward on her shoulders. A chill touched me, the familiar hint of the uncanny. A white gown, a little boy on her lap facing forward, knees squared, hair escaping from high pins and falling across her shoulders….

Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
cypherindigo
Feb. 20th, 2012 04:01 pm (UTC)
I am a rather patient person -- until I think of how long I am going to need to wait before I get to read these.

POUT
jo_graham
Feb. 21st, 2012 06:47 pm (UTC)
I hope it's not too terribly long! It's hard for me to wait too.
_illumina_
Feb. 20th, 2012 05:14 pm (UTC)
Argh. I am most definitely NOT a patient person.
jo_graham
Feb. 21st, 2012 06:47 pm (UTC)
Nor am I! I'm glad you like it.
queen_bellatrix
Feb. 20th, 2012 09:37 pm (UTC)
This scene is absolutely fantastic, and hints at so many things, not least of which, I am beginning to fear, is Napoleon's decline.

Let me get the smaller squee out of the way first: we got a mention of Michele! When she came in with Jeane-Baptist, the first thought in my head was this very fretful: But, where is Michele? Slowly, it began to occur to me (at least, I think I'm correct in this assumption) that Jeane-Baptist prefers men, and I relaxed a bit.

And then, we got this wonderful, casual mention of the marshall, and it was awesome to see them in this established relationship, with no drama...just this couple, acknowledged by all their friends and acquaintances, doing their separate duties for the republic. I will admit that part of my glee over this is that established relationships are my absolute favorite kind of romance; will they or won't they storylines are interesting, up to a point, but I want to see what comes after happy ever after.

Secondly, your descriptions of the ball are breath-takingly awesome. I love how you use costumes to say so much about the people there, and the faces they wish to present at an occasion like this, particularly the Countess. I get the distinct sense that the modesty thing is very deliberate, to contrast with Josephine, who is currently far away. Though, I could be wrong; I'm having this immediate, rather irrational dislike of the Countess; I'm sure it will pass, soon, especially as it should be Napoleon I'm disliking, as he's the one being an idiot.

And I love how Elza is beginning to have this circle of friends, with history and banter and shared goals...all the things, I get the sense, she never expected in the beginning of her story.

And Napoleon...what is he doing? Why is he making a spectacle over someone who's saying no? Btw, I know that's probably rediculously spoilery, and it's more rhetorical ranting at men who always fall for the same trap of a woman playing hard to get, or just get extremely irritated/testosterone driven because a woman is just not that interested.

I am a bit confused; I'm assuming the Countess is the old friend...but I can't pinpoint who she is...unless she's Dion?
Thank you so very much for this scene; I love getting glimpses like this, and getting so invested in the characters, to the point that Caps and exclamations are used, frequently.
jo_graham
Feb. 21st, 2012 10:11 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much! I always love to hear your thoughts.

Yes, Jean-Baptiste is very gay, which is established in the second book. They're just going to this party as friends. She'd like to go and Michel isn't here, and he'd like a date so his brother would stop nagging him!

Michel and Elza are an established couple, but it's complicated. Oh so complicated! :) I love writing established relationships, and I'm glad you like reading them.

I'm so happy you like the ball! Elza does have a circle of friends, and that's something that happens in the second book. It's not just about Michel. It's about being a part of something, being one of the team, being somewhere she's valued and has peers.
cadenzamuse
Feb. 20th, 2012 09:43 pm (UTC)
Is she Cleopatra to his Ceasar? That bodes ill...

(I love her notes on the clothes, and her unashamedly ogling the girls as well as the boys. :D )
jo_graham
Feb. 21st, 2012 10:12 pm (UTC)
Oh yes! You nailed it! Cleopatra, and all that entails....

I'm glad you like her notes on clothes. The trailing leopardskin is definitely a look! And she's very clear on liking girls as well as boys!
dbalthasar
Feb. 20th, 2012 11:11 pm (UTC)
I love this scene - the details are so glorious! The over-the-top uniforms, and Corbineau's spurs, and Tallyrand's crack about Elza's hair. And then Maria, who is something else entirely.
jo_graham
Feb. 21st, 2012 10:13 pm (UTC)
Thank you! The uniforms are so over the top, but every last piece is completely real!

And Maria is indeed something else entirely....
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )