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Education for an Adventuress

Since The Emperor's Agent is on sale for $.99 this week, I thought I'd share one of my favorite bits. Elza is the daughter of Age of Mozart adventurers, and this is a flashback section to her childhood, the backside of the gilded Georgian world of the last days before the French Revolution. I'd love to hear what you think!



In my earliest memories he had been a fencing master -- sometimes. Sometimes he had been a gambler and made our way at the gaming table, my father, my mother, my younger brother Charles, and I. It had always been only the four of us, the four of us against the world. But sometimes he had been a fencing master, giving lessons for pay to guardsmen and children alike. He had taught us together. Charles needed someone to practice with, and after Charles had died there had been only me.

My father had laid the saber in my hand, spreading my fingers a little and laying my thumb over the pommel. “Like this, princess. Don’t clutch it. Hold it firmly and lightly. It’s not heavy.”

It wasn’t, even for my childish hands. It was a practice saber, thinner and lighter than a real one, but it curved just as a saber should, with a basket hilt to protect my hand. Even with my left arm held straight out in front of my body and the foil extending outward, it was no strain to hold it. I straightened my body in my boy’s clothes, eight years old and tall for my age.

My father smiled. He was a big man with brown hair pulled back in an untidy queue. He shaved in the evening for the gaming table, and so morning always found him with a prickle of beard along his chin and across his upper lip. He smelled of sweated velvet, brandy, and tobacco smoke. “Get the feel of it. You move from the wrist and shoulder, not from the elbow. The elbow just flows along.” He took my right arm and moved it down and low. “Now when I was learning they were doing this silly thing of holding your off hand up in the air next to your shoulder. It ruins your balance when you’re using a real sword. And now the fashion is to tuck your off hand behind your off hip. It minimizes your profile in a duel, but again, it throws you off with a real sword.”

“Have you used a real sword?” I asked. I had seen him fence with students and with friends often enough over the years, but never with anything more than a dress epée.

A shadow crossed his face. “I was a hired sword for five years before I went to Amsterdam,” he said. “Yes, I had a real sword.” He took my right hand and positioned it low again. “Keep your off hand natural. It helps your balance.”

We were in the garden of a house in Genoa. It belonged to some friend or other of theirs, smaller than the place we had had in Rome, but exquisite, all rosy stone and gardens with antique bronzes. We had left Rome as soon as we could travel.

My father and I had recovered well from the fever that had killed Charles, though my mother was sick for weeks, and when at last the fever broke she was left so thin and pale that her skin seemed little more than paper stretched over bones. Her glorious platinum hair had been cut, and it made her head look like a skull.

She would not believe that Charles was dead. She had not seen him die. She had not seen his body, and a gravestone could belong to anyone. My father explained over and over that Charles had died while she was so ill that she could not attend him, could not see to the funeral. She did not believe him, or for that matter anyone else. She was certain that Charles lived. Now she stayed mostly in her rooms, walking a bit about the house and gardens, eating little and regaining little of her strength.

My birthday had come in September, and I was as strong and active as before. And I had my father to myself.

There were no parties here, just card games for a few gentlemen that broke up well before dawn, sometimes leaving my father flush with coin and sometimes not. There were no masques or balls. My mother had no friends here. And there was nothing to remind her of Charles.
Nothing but me.

My father was correcting my stance, moving my breeched knees into the right pose, when she called out from the door of the house. “Charles! Dear sweetheart! Come here right now and give me a kiss!”

My father and I looked at each other. I dropped my point, and my father took the practice saber. We walked to her together.

“Adeline, this is Elzelina,” my father said quietly. “You know that Charles is gone.”

She seized me in a hug and kissed my brow and my cheeks. “Dear, darling boy! Oh my sweet boy!”

“Adeline, this is Elzelina,” my father said again, one hand on my shoulder, his voice low and urgent.

She glared up at him. “Leo, it’s unkind to play games with me. You know I hate to be reminded of our lost angel. Elzelina died in Rome.”

A chill ran down my back and I stood stock still while she caressed me.

My father took her hands and drew her up, searching her face. “Adeline, dearest, this is Elzelina. Charles died in Rome. We lost Charles.” His face was white beneath his tan.

“We didn’t,” she said, and her face was paler than his, a fine film of platinum down covering her head, a finger’s length long. “We lost Elzelina, and it was better that way. I could not have stood losing Charles.”

I don’t know what my father said, because I broke from them and ran out into the gardens, running until I found the most remote corner. There was a place where the rosy bricks of the wall made a small walk beneath an arbor, a love nest with a fountain. There were roses in abundance climbing up the wall, their blossoms nearly spent. When my father found me later I was sitting on the rim of the pool watching the droplets fall from an urn held by a laughing cherub with an erect phallus. I was not crying.

He came through the arbor quietly and sat down beside me. He was only thirty-four, but for the first time I thought he looked old. His jaw was beginning to sag a little, his waist was broader than it had been, and his eyes were bloodshot. His lace cravat was mended, and as usual he hadn't shaved. “Elzelina,” he said. “Your mother isn’t well.”

I shrugged, watching the fall of the water.

“She’s not right in her mind. She can’t help it.”

“She loved Charles more,” I said.

He trailed one hand in the water. “We can’t help who we love. All parents try to love their children and love them equally, but we can’t. Because we’re not perfect, and there are things we like better than other things and people we like better than other people. We try to be fair and kind and do what’s right. And when we’re in our right minds, we never say things that hurt. But your mother isn’t in her right mind. She’s very sick. And she can’t help the things she said.”

I watched the water falling off his fingers, splashing back in the fountain. “Do you love me?”

He smiled and didn’t raise his head. “I love you more than anyone in the world. You’re fearless and clever and beautiful and warm. You love dogs and cats and horses, roses and sunshine and beat up old bronzes. You can make anyone smile. And you want to know everything there is to know in the world, questions I have no answers to. Why do clouds move? What is there above the stars in the firmament? Why do people have wars and fall in love? You’d stump a philosophe.”

I looked at him sideways. "I want all the stories there have ever been," I said.

He lifted his eyes and met mine. “I love you more than you can possibly imagine, princess. You’re the most wonderful daughter in the world, and I am proud of you every instant of every day.”

I felt the prickle of tears in my eyes, and asked what I knew I shouldn’t. “Do you love me more than Mother?”

“God help me, I do,” he said, and looked away. The fountain ran on, water endlessly recirculating. “Differently, of course. But more. Adeline has never had your courage. The world is a dangerous place, Elzelina. If you're not quick and brave enough you get swallowed up by it. It has nothing to do with being good. Only with being strong."

I waited.

My father shook his head. “She's not weak, or she’d never have survived the childhood she had. But it's left her…damaged. I don't know if she can ever be whole. You know your grandparents died when she was a baby, and she lived with her uncle, yes?”

I nodded.

He ran one hand through the water. “He did things that were wrong, things that men shouldn’t do with little girls, with his own niece and his own daughter both. Adeline was fifteen when I met her, and she was getting over a miscarriage. He had beaten her when he found out she was pregnant.” He didn’t look at me, but his mouth twisted wryly. “These things happen, even in the best families.”

I said nothing. I wasn't entirely sure what he meant.

“I convinced her to run away with me. We’re not all like that, I said. I promised her I would keep her safe.”

“You loved her,” I said. I understood that.

My father almost laughed, tilted his head back in the sunshine. “I did and I do. And I’ve done everything I could to keep her safe. We’ve built a life. Not much of one, sometimes, but we get along. And every time I start thinking about mercenary work in Bavaria or Hesse, or of going off to the Indies or something, I have you and her like a silver chain. And I will never leave.” He looked at me. “I will never leave, do you understand, princess?”

“I do,” I said, and put my arms around him, pressing against his worn frockcoat. “I love you too, Daddy.”

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
gilraen2
Dec. 9th, 2013 03:11 am (UTC)
downloaded and on my kindle.
jo_graham
Dec. 9th, 2013 07:14 am (UTC)
Thank you! I hope you enjoy it.
dbalthasar
Dec. 9th, 2013 01:03 pm (UTC)
I love this scene so much. So many little things pulling together into such a devastating picture, so that reading it one sees both what child!Elza sees and what her father is telling her.
jo_graham
Dec. 10th, 2013 08:03 pm (UTC)
Thank you! That's what I was trying to do, and I'm happy it worked.
Kimber Shannon
Dec. 11th, 2013 06:33 am (UTC)
The Emperor's Agent vs. The General's Mistress
I took advantage of the sale on The Emperor's Agent and am enjoying the book. I wanted to stop reading, go back and read The General's Mistress for Elza's back story. I searched for it and found it on kindle for almost $19.00. That's more than the hardback version and the paperback offered. All of the other books in this series are ranged between .$99 and $9.60 which is extremely reasonable. Sadly, with Christmas around the corner, I budget myself and 19 is just too much for a kindle novel. Hope it comes on sale before I forget about it!
jo_graham
Dec. 12th, 2013 05:19 pm (UTC)
Re: The Emperor's Agent vs. The General's Mistress
I'm sorry The General's Mistress is so expensive! It's a different publisher than The Emperor's Agent, and the prices are set by the publisher, not by me. I think the ebook versions of The General's Mistress are way too expensive, but unfortunately there isn't anything I can do about it. If you want to private message me and tell me where you are in the world I'll see if I can get you a review copy.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )