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A Woman of the World

A little while ago lesleysmith asked me for a preview of the sequel to The General's Mistress, The Emperor's Companion. The General's Mistress is out October 23. The second book isn't bought yet, though I hope it will be. But here, for you, the very beginning! Spring, 1804




The dark bulk of the Chateau de Vincennes reared up across the sky ahead of me, and I shivered for reasons that had nothing to do with cold. "Vincennes?" I said.

In the seat across from me, the big man said nothing, his arms crossed on his chest. He swayed a little with the movement of the carriage as it shifted, the sudden difference in the rhythm of its wheels evident as it turned off the cobbled streets of the town of Vincennes onto the differently shaped pavers of the Chateau's drive. I had not really expected an answer. He had shown no inclination to answer my questions since we'd left Paris an hour before.

I could no longer see the castle. We clattered across the bridge over the dry moat, the carriage slowing as we came up to the guard post at the curtain wall. I stilled my gloved hands in my lap.

I could hear the other man, the one who was sitting beside the driver on the box, exchanging words with the guards, joking about something. The light of the torches at the guard post did little to illuminate the interior of the carriage.

"…for Senator Fouché," I heard one of them say, and clamped my hands together more tightly. I was not surprised.

I had been leaving the theater after a performance when the two men had been waiting at the stage door. "You are coming with us, Madame," one of them said, flashing papers in front of me. "We have a special warrant." One on either side, they had escorted me to the carriage standing ready, and before five minutes were passed we had been blocks away.

"Will you not tell me where we are going?" had met with no answer, nor had any other question.

At one point, as the carriage stopped in heavy traffic on one of the bridges, he had reached forward, taking my hand from the door. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," he said, and any notion I'd had of leaping out screaming into traffic died. I could not escape them, and any attempt to do so would make it worse. He would break my arm before I had gotten ten steps.

Instead I leaned back against the seat and attempted to marshal my thoughts. Vincennes was not good. It had not even been two months since the Duc d'Enghien had been shot there, part of some complicated plot to kill the First Consul and reestablish the Bourbon monarchy, a plot that unfortunately a former lover of mine had been implicated in. I wished I could believe he'd had nothing to do with it, that he was innocent. However, I knew Victor Moreau too well to believe that.

The carriage rolled forward past the guard post, and I was surprised to see a working portcullis raised. We passed beneath, and I heard the groan of the ropes as it was lowered again. "Very dramatic," I said, hoping I sounded arch rather than panicked.

The big man said nothing.

There were not, after all, so many pleasant reasons for being hauled off to meet with the Joseph Fouché in a fortress in the middle of the night. Though he was no longer Minister of Police, he was still perhaps the most dangerous man in France. And his use of the Chateau de Vincennes suggested that he had nothing to fear from the First Consul. Indeed, he had probably been instrumental in the shooting of Enghien.

The carriage stopped in an interior courtyard. After a moment, the door opened and the man who had ridden on the box held out a hand for me. "Madame?"

I took it and stepped down. Above, the pale walls of the keep blocked the stars. They escorted me, one before and one behind, though neither of them touched me again. My heart was pounding by the time we had gone up one flight of stairs.

The room on the second floor of what had been the medieval donjon was spacious. Candles gleamed in wall sconces and from a massive iron floor stand beside a carved desk. At the desk, in a green velvet chair, sat Senator Fouché.

Joseph Fouché steepled his long, bloodless hands and regarded me. He did not stand, and there was no other chair in the room.

"Madame," he said.

I made my best courtesy, hoping that he had indeed left his Jacobin past behind. The setting seemed to indicate so. "Monsieur."

"You may go," he said, and the two men nodded, closing the staircase door behind them.

I stood perfectly still, hoping he could not hear my heart.

He studied my face, and after a moment put his head to the side as though I were a curiosity. "You have no idea why I have sent for you, Madame?"

"I assume it has to do with General Moreau," I said, and was pleased that my voice did not shake. "But I have nothing that I may add to your case against him. My relations with Moreau ended six years ago, and since then I have not had his confidence."

His voice, a light tenor, was pleasant, as though we were merely discussing some matter of art at a party. "You were not surprised by his arrest for conspiring with the Royalists?"

"Not surprised, no," I said carefully. "I know he has never liked the First Consul. But six years ago things were very different. At the point where Moreau and I ended, the First Consul was in Egypt, and the Royalists in disarray. Any plot which Moreau joined necessarily began much later."

"You seem very certain of that," he said.

"It is only logical," I said. "And what plot should remain secret for six years?"

"What indeed. You have no loyalty to Moreau?"

I met his eyes quite squarely. They held no expression whatsoever. "If you have investigated General Moreau's past thoroughly enough to bring in his mistress of six years ago, you will also doubtless know the terms upon which we parted. Moreau treated me very badly. I have not spoken with him for six years. My loyalty is to the Republic, not Moreau. If I knew anything that would be helpful to you, you would only have to ask for my assistance."

"I am glad you are so helpful, Madame," he said, reaching for a paper on the desk before him and pretending to consult it. "Because you see, I know that Ida St. Elme does not exist. And unfortunately I have before me here a warrant for the arrest of one Elzelina Ringeling, and an order for her extradition to Holland." He looked up at me, his gray eyes milky under thin brows. "It seems the poor woman is mad, and that her family has been searching for her for many years. I have here the sworn statement of one Claas Ringeling, her father in law, who intends to remand her to the gentle concern of the experimental hospital of one Dr. Kuller, who has had great success in curing hysteria and other ills through the application of electrical currents to the brain." He laid the paper upon the desk. "You would know nothing about this poor woman, I assume?"

I said nothing. I could not speak.

"You are pale, Madame," he said. "Could it be that you do know something about this Madame Ringeling, who left her husband for Moreau all those years ago?"

"Moreau told you that?" I whispered.

Fouché's lips twitched in what might have been a smile. "Moreau had no reason not to. As you say, you have not been on the best of terms."

"That bastard…." I murmured.

"He did no more than give me your real name. The warrants have been outstanding for some time, unservable because the lady could not be found."

"Since the business over my husband's will, no doubt," I said.

He spread his hands. "No doubt. But your problem remains, Madame."

I lifted my chin, trying to keep my voice from shaking. "Are you going to send me back to Holland then?"

"That remains to be seen," he said. "You do see my difficulty. You are at present an illegal alien living under an assumed name. At best, you are a runaway wife. At worst, you may be criminally insane like the poor Marquis de Sade, who spent so many years locked up within these very walls." He looked up, as though de Sade still dwelled somewhere in the corners of the ceiling. "He's back in prison, you know. He really should have known better than to dedicate Juliette to the wife of the First Consul."

"How very indiscreet," I said.

Fouché smiled as though I had said something clever. "However, it is possible that I may be able to assist you in finding an alternative that will please everyone. You wish to stay in France?"

I bit my lip. "Yes," I said. If it was that he wanted me, I could think of worse. I could do it. I could do him if I had to. I made myself smile at him coquettishly. "If you think you could help me."

"Not in that manner, Madame," he said shortly. "I do not share General Moreau's well documented tastes in vice."

I felt the blood rise in my face, wondering exactly what he had heard, and from whom.

"I have need of an agent with certain talents," he said. "A former merveilleuse would be ideal. A courtesan, yes, but also a woman who can handle a pistol and who can travel discreetly." He looked at me over the documents. "Your exploits traveling with the army are not as secret as you might wish, Madame. Very little is secret from me. I am quite aware you have papers that the naïve General Ney procured for you, stating that you are a handsome Dutch youth named Charles van Aylde. But for now you will not need them. The plans I have for you do not involve leaving Paris."

"And what would those plans be?" I asked. My hands were sweating, and I could feel a trickle down my back as well.

"Then you are amenable to my offer?"

I unclasped my hands, letting them fall at my sides. "I have no reason not to be," I said. "I presume I will be paid?"

Fouché nodded as though satisfied. "Of course. All of my agents are reasonably compensated for their work. Am I to understand that you consider yourself for hire?"

I tossed my head. "If you know so much about me, then you know that I have no patron at present. Work is work, Monsieur. If I am, as you say, reasonably compensated, then you have no need for threats. I must pay the bills, Monsieur."

"Then I believe we understand one another, Madame," he said. "You will be paid upon completion of your first assignment. Which will begin now."

He searched among the many green paper folders on the desk, then laid one open before me. It was a drawing of an elderly man, well dressed, with the white wig of the last century. He had a square face and a nose that had probably been broken more than once, a clean face running to fat. "Do you know this man, Madame?"

I could answer entirely honestly. "I have never seen him before."

Fouché spread his hands as if to say, well it could not be that easy. "The gentleman is Dr. Alasdair Fraser, a Scotsman and a Jacobite who was resident in Paris for many years. I want you to find him for me."

I looked at him in confusion. "But surely you can find this man much better than I, Monsieur! I've never seen him before, and I am only one woman, while you must have dozens of agents who can…."

"Find him, yes. But not without arousing suspicion. You, however, can do so with utmost discretion."

"Why?'

"He's an abortionist."

I clamped my mouth shut. Surely Fouché….

"A woman of the world such as yourself might have good reason to seek him out without any suspicion at all, whereas my agents...." Fouché spread his hands. "Let us say we do not wish to alarm the good doctor. All I require is that you find him and make an appointment, to which you may be escorted by a gentleman much concerned for your welfare."

"I see," I said. I looked down at the drawing again, and wondered what he had done to merit this attention from Fouché. "That seems simple enough."

"Then we have a bargain?"

"Yes," I said. He had a point. I could inquire after this doctor reasonably enough, among theater friends and various connections.

"Good," he said. "Maurice will contact you and make sure you are progressing in your work."

He snapped the folder closed and handed it to me. "Take this with you. And do try to remember his name." Fouché rang the small bell on the corner of the desk. The stair door opened immediately. "Maurice, please escort Madame St. Elme back to her lodgings. She will be playing with us now."

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
cadenzamuse
Jul. 10th, 2012 08:02 pm (UTC)
EEEEEK! And also kind of awesome. The way she keeps her composure and looks for all possible strategies is awesome.
jo_graham
Jul. 12th, 2012 11:52 am (UTC)
Thank you! That's very Elza. She never stops looking for an angle. And usually she finds one!
stephanieburgis
Jul. 15th, 2012 01:44 pm (UTC)
Oh, very cool, and very ominous! I really, really hope that this sells soon. I want to read the full book!
jo_graham
Jul. 15th, 2012 04:54 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I hope it sells too. I probably won't actually know anything until the end of the year.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )