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The Marshal's Lover -- Old Grudges

One of the things I love about writing Elza, the main character of my Age of Revolution books, is that she's a trickster. It's really rare to see a female version of the trickster archetype front and center. We can think of lots of male examples -- Captain Jack Sparrow, Lando Calrissian -- but there are a lot fewer female examples. Like Jack and Lando, Elza can fight when she needs to, but her weapon of choice is always her mind. She'd rather talk her way out of a situation than shoot things, and she's always got a back up plan up her sleeve. She does discover that there are people she's loyal to and things that matter more than her own life, but you can still never be entirely sure what she's up to. Elza comes by it honestly. The daughter of Age of Mozart adventurers, she was raised in the game. No matter how straight she goes, it's never all that straight!

This is a flashback section from the third book, The Marshal's Lover, so it's not spoilery for the first two books. In which there is Pompeii, and Charmian wakes....




We had gone to Naples when I was six. It was the season of Carnival, in 1783, and my father had a scam. Some old gentleman he knew intended to con rich Englishmen, and he wanted a continental noble to provide his bona fides, to play the wealthy student who was likewise investing in his schemes. The Englishmen were not to know that the wealthy student was no real noble and was also in on the scam.

I was entirely unclear on what the English thought they were spending their money on, but I understood my role. I was Elisabeth Tolstoy, the pampered and spoiled daughter of a Hungarian count. My brother, Charles, was likewise a prop, albeit one without a speaking part, as he could not be counted on to remember what he was supposed to say and what he wasn't. I was to describe my beautiful home in Hungary and the gardens and white pony that I had there, and to decry the filth and heat of Naples at every opportunity. Perhaps I overdid it with the descriptions of my ten dogs and my horse that looked like a moonbeam, but people took me for a fanciful child.

"I don't speak Hungarian," I said to my father.

He grinned, his brown hair falling out of his queue at the sides, a handsome man still only in his early thirties. "All well-bred girls speak French," he said. "And if you have to, just say something in Polish. The English won't be able to tell the difference."

How could this bright young man, this enthusiastic family man, be a con artist? Of course Count Tolstoy was a wealthy student whose single-minded pursuit of knowledge led him to come to Naples with his Master, bringing his lovely family with him!

His master was a fake. My father said so. He said there was nothing occult, nothing frightening. It was a game, he said. A scam. A play put on for the gullible English who would give them lots of money. And in the meantime we were the guests of one of them. Sir William had a beautiful villa almost on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius, a charming place full of airy rooms and lovely views with a long loggia where children could run up and down even on days when it rained. Charles and I ran races there.

Once, we felt the earth tremble. We might have been afraid, but we weren't. "It's just warning us," I said. "It's just reminding us that it's only sleeping." I put my arm around Charles. "There is a monster down there in the dark and sometimes it rolls over in its sleep." His eyes were very wide. "It won't wake up today," I said. "Not today."

Sir William was a widower. His wife had died the year before. Her rooms were quiet and cool, just as she'd left them, but with the furniture shrouded with dust cloths and her clothes packed neatly away. I liked to walk through them and pretend they were mine, the big canopied bed and the dressing table with Dresden shepherdesses, the mirrors framed in white. I never stole anything. Elisabeth Tolstoy didn't steal. She was a very rich little girl and her parents could buy her anything she wanted.

It was Carnival and there were parties. Charles and I didn't go. We were much too young. I loved to watch my mother get ready, to stand behind her at the dressing table and watch while her maid powdered her fair hair, sweeping it up into grand styles held with dozens of pins, while she affixed a little patch in the shape of a heart at the side of her mouth and dusted her bosom with rose scented starch.

At night Charles and I shared a little room on the second floor that faced the back of the house, its one small window framed in ruffled curtains that matched the ones on the bed. We curled together like puppies in the warm night, watching the stars rise bright and thick over distant trees. Perhaps it was the sound of music that woke me. Perhaps I was merely curious and wanted to see the party. Downstairs a hundred guests were finishing a midnight dinner, masked and glittering with jewels paste and real.

I wanted to hear the music, and I heard my mother's voice, so I went to the top of the stairs. Below, the diners were coming from the dining room, laughing and stumbling, talking of cards and dancing. The music was thrilling, bright arpeggios that rose and fell, mingling with laughter.

There were other revels, of course. There was a party on the slopes of the mountain and one that I was allowed to attend as being suitable for children, an illumination of the buried city of Pompeii. The empty streets were lit with torches and came in a procession through the long-buried avenues to a house lit up with a hundred lamps, the colors of the paintings on the wall vibrant and real and living. Men and women in evening dress walked through fine peristyle courtyards sipping wine and looking at the frescoes while a string quartet played in a Roman dining room with crimson walls.

I behaved myself. I pretended I was a great lady myself and walked through the rooms looking at the pictures, monsters swimming in a green river with little boats upon it, palaces crowding the shores.

One of the other Englishmen was talking with Sir William, their voices low but carrying. "I don’t understand what you hope to accomplish," he said.

"My dear fellow, how can you look on all this and not see it?" Sir William asked. "This is nothing compared to the contemporary splendors of Rome or even a provincial capital! This is Rome's Brighton, not London! And yet you see what is here. Pompeii has shown us artistic triumphs that we can not yet equal. Can you claim that there is any modern sculptor who approaches the perfection of the art we have found here? Any Reynolds or Romney who can equal what these gentlemen had on their dining room walls? We can aspire, my friend. And aspiring, we can make it manifest -- a new Augustan Age!"

They paid me no mind. I was a child. I do not even think they saw me properly.

"These workings will simply nudge the course of history into the correct path, an act of restoration rather than change, actually."

"Pax Romana?" the other man asked, a note of cynicism in his voice.

"Say rather Pax Britannica," Sir William said. "An orderly, sunlit Age of Silver in which all arts and industry shall flourish, each thing in its proper place."

I did not like things that were orderly. That was the simplest explanation as to why it made my skin crawl. After all, I had never heard of Augustus.

"And the Sibyl?"

Sir William shrugged. "She's not very cooperative. Perhaps Count Tolstoy's wife will be so kind as to step in."

"Much more charming," the other agreed. "If reluctant. Ignorant Italians may be picturesque, but there is only so much picturesque one wants!"

They moved away, and I did not follow. They wanted my mother to do something she didn't want to do, and I could not quite imagine what. It gave me a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach to think about.

If I were grown up, I thought, and for a moment it was as though a grown up woke up inside me, someone bright and kind who knew what they were talking about, someone who had walked through rooms like these and who was unintimidated by the splendors they described. If I were grown up, I thought…. I would kill your world before it began. I am your enemy, and I do not sleep. I am still here, still following you, and I will best you yet!

I ran my hand along the wall, feeling paint two thousand years old under my fingers, the plaster cool against my hand, painted river and painted crocodiles and painted boats. You will have your Roman peace over my dead body.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
cadenzamuse
Feb. 26th, 2012 04:48 pm (UTC)
♥ ♥ ♥
jo_graham
Feb. 27th, 2012 06:50 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
lc59
Feb. 26th, 2012 05:44 pm (UTC)
Oh neat...that description of Elza just made me realize that Vala's a trickster. Thanks for that insight.
jo_graham
Feb. 27th, 2012 06:52 pm (UTC)
Yes! Vala is absolutely the trickster archetype! She's one of the few female examples I can think of. Even when she's decided that she's staying with the Stargate program and deeply cares about her friends, you still know who to look at when Cam can't find his wallet! Elza is very much that way. And boy do you want her on your side when she's pulling a scam!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )