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The Marshal's Lover -- The Heist

Someone just asked me for more Elza, so I'll share a piece from the next book, The Marshal's Lover, which I hope will be out late this year. In which Elza, in her guise as Charles, burgles the palace at Naples with a young British agent....



I had never been in the royal palace in Naples. Built in the era of Louis XIV, like so many foreign palaces it mimicked Versailles only on a much smaller scale. Fortunately, it was not surrounded by parks, but opened directly onto a piazza in the center of town. There were, of course, fences and guard posts, but this was hardly a remote castle protected by a curtain wall and moat. Anyone who wished could walk past, and approaching the guard post was a very minor matter. I trimmed my hair from Carlo's rather loose style into the more clipped Brutus cut ubiquitous in the army and put on the uniform of the Chasseurs à Cheval I had brought. Corbineau had said he'd have me for a troop leader, and I'd taken him at his word. At least I could convincingly portray one. The scarlet pelisse laced with gold braid was very fetching, and hardly what one would wear if one wished to be inconspicuous.

Certainly Miss Carew blinked at it. It was quite an ensemble, and after all Carlo had ample luggage space in which to carry it -- buff breeches and a dark green tunic lavishly embroidered with soutache braid with scarlet facings, and a scarlet pelisse not only laden with braid but also ornamented with white fur, tasseled boots and white gloves and a glorious hat that added a full head to my height. I made my best bow to her, every bit of elegance the uniform required. "Mademoiselle, I am charmed."

"God help us all," Emily said. "Where'd you get that?"

"From a fine military tailor in Paris," I said.

She laughed. "You expect me to believe that?"

"Should I say my old mother ran it up for me?" I offered her my arm with a gallant flourish and led her across the piazza. "I shall if it pleases you, Mademoiselle."

"Saber and pistol?" I was, of course, wearing my own epeé.

"It is the uniform," I said.

Her dress was pretty if not revealing, a white satin that would do for a modest woman's evening wear, but with a cloak over it all that showed was the hem. She looked like a very young courtesan, the kind of fresh girl Murat liked.

She saw where my eyes went. "Do I need a bit more rouge?"

"No," I said, stopping in the shadow away from the gate, not quite close enough to be seen from the guard post. "Just to blush a bit." I leaned in and kissed her, feeling her sudden startled breath against my lips, soft and smooth and feminine. I didn't wait for her to push me away, but straightened up with a smile. "There. That will do."

"You're a scoundrel," she said, but there was color in her face, challenge but not fear.

"I expect so," I said. There was something deliciously satisfying about kissing a girl who did not know I was a woman.

"And a liar."

"Absolutely," I agreed, offering her my arm again. "You might also add cad. But is there any reason this shouldn't be a little fun? After all, how many times in your life do you intend to burgle a palace?"

She looked at me sideways. "You're mad," Emily said. "What do you intend to do if we get caught?"

"Cry for my mother, I suppose," I said.

It would be very awkward. No doubt this would involve a great many letters and unpleasant scenes before the Emperor sprang me from his sister with my female accomplice, and he would not be pleased that I had contrived to get caught, but I didn't think any real harm would come to us. Unless, of course, a guard shot us escaping with stolen goods.

Emily shook her head. "Mad."

We were at the guard post then, the senior officer only a lieutenant like me. I saluted him smartly, giving him benefit of seniority. "Lieutenant Mercier upon the orders of Marshal Murat," I said.

"You mean His Highness King Joachim?" the other lieutenant said, trying to catch a glimpse of Emily's face beneath her hood.

"The other title's better," I said staunchly. "As I was there at Austerlitz, and a hot dance it was too."

"You can say that, brother," he said, not asking for my papers. "Your business?"

"I am escorting Mademoiselle Charmante," I said. "To a private meeting."

"Ah." She looked up, her beauty speaking for itself, then looked shyly away. "Of course."

I gave a little half shrug as if to say, we all understand these things, and it's the senior officers who get the pretty ones.

"Go on then," he said, and waved us through, across the remaining stones of the drive and up the shallow steps. I hoped to the high heavens that security was better at the Tuileries! He had not even asked for my papers.

We made our way down the main corridor past footmen at attention before the doors of a dining room. Inside I could hear the sounds of cleaning up, the clink of glassware and trays. Dinner was over and the staff was removing the remains of the last course. "Which way?" I whispered. "Do you know where the library is?"

Emily gave me a sideways look. "To the right. Of course I do. My mother almost lived in this palace when she was the intimate friend of Queen Maria Carolina."

"Who didn't leave her a pension either, I should think," I whispered.

We turned the corner, Emily a step ahead. The candles in the gilt sconces were all lit, but there was no one in sight. Faint strains of music floated in from somewhere behind us. Presumably everyone was at the party, whatever it might be?

"Of course not," Emily said. "She thought she was an intimate friend and in the end she was just a servant. Do you think the sister of Marie Antoinette is friends with the daughter of a blacksmith?"

"You'd be surprised where the sons and daughters of blacksmiths may end up," I said. But of course they didn't, not in her world. In her world there had never been the revolution.

"Here," Emily said, stopping outside the fourth door on the side hallway. "I think this is right."

I eased it open. It was the library as promised, not so very large but dark and cool. There were no candles lit, and the heavy damask curtains covered the windows completely. We stepped inside and closed the door carefully, a little light creeping under it from the sconces in the corridor.

We waited, letting our eyes adjust to the dim light. I could hear her breath loud in the darkness, feel her hip not quite touching mine. It would be easy to just reach out and caress it…

Emily stepped away, her skirts whispering against the thick carpet. "Give me a few moments to find them."

"Of course," I whispered. Some of the shelves were glass fronted cabinets. I hoped they weren't locked.

Emily's movements were swift and sure. "Ah," she said, her fingers running over the books, looking for the method by which they were shelved. She pulled one out and handed it to me, a heavy old leather book written in Latin rather than English. I flipped to the title page, squinting in the dim light. "Three Works of Occult Philosophy?"

Emily didn't glance away from the shelves. "My mother has a buyer, Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh. He's very interested in the occult. Apparently there are people who will pay a lot of money for that nonsense." She handed me the second book and I felt a cold prickle up my spine.

It was almost square, bound in plain dark leather. I opened it to the title page, in French rather than Latin this time -- The Most Holy Trinosophia. Arranged about the title were small colored block pictures, a sphinx, a palm tree, a falcon, checkerboard patterns and Hebrew letters. I flipped a few pages in.

At last I arrived and found an iron altar where I placed the mysterious bough. I pronounced the strongest words… instantly the earth trembled under my feet, thunder pealed… Vesuvius roared in answer to the repeated strokes; its fires joined the fires of lightning. The choirs of the genii rose into the air and made the echoes repeat the praises of the Creator. The hallowed bough which I had placed on the triangular altar was suddenly ablaze. A thick smoke enveloped me. I ceased to see. Wrapped in darkness. I seemed to descend into an abyss. I know not how long I remained in that situation. When I opened my eyes I vainly looked for the objects which had surrounded me a little time ago. The altar, Vesuvius, the country round Naples had vanished from my sight. I was in a cast cavern, alone, far away from the whole world…

I shut the book. This was the one, unmistakably. My hands shook and I clasped it firmly with the other.

"Here." Emily handed me two more, her back to me as she opened a drawer. "And this." She took out a leather case and opened it, scooping out the objects within. "These are from Pompeii."

I blinked at them. "They're dildos."

"Sir William wrote a book on priapic cults," Emily said stiffly.

"They're Roman dildos." They looked very modern indeed, carved of ivory and properly detailed, in three graduated sizes.

"Put them in your pocket," she said, handing them to me. Of course her gown had no pockets.

"That's one place to put them," I said.

Now her cheeks really were flaming. "Business, M. Tolstoy."

"Absolutely," I said. "I shall be delighted to conceal three dildos for you. And six books. But that is really enough if we are not to attract attention."

"That will do," she said.

Getting out proved very simple. We left through the side door near the ballroom, simply walking out arm in arm. No one prevents guests from leaving a ball, and in my uniform and her evening gown it was easy to wander out through the portico, past other couples strolling or calling for their carriages. No one even spoke to us. It is all confidence and attitude, as I have said.

We stopped several blocks away, near enough to the house where she was employed for her to get safely home, but not so near that she would be seen with Carlo, as that would cost her place. "And what do you do now, Miss Carew?" I asked.

Emily reached for the largest book that I proffered, an expression of satisfaction on her face. "I believe Miss Carew will receive an urgent letter from home. Her dear old mother is ill and she must regretfully return to England immediately." She balanced the book in one hand, looking up at me. "And there is the matter of your payment, M. Tolstoy."

"A trifle," I said, handing her two of the dildos and most of the smaller books, retaining the book I wanted as if by chance.

Her brows rose. "I would not think so."

"I would," I said, drawing my pistol with my left hand. "You see, this is the book I was hired to get, for which I thank you, Miss Carew. I could not have done it without your help."

Her mouth did drop for a moment before it tightened into a thin line, looking straight down at the barrel of the pistol pointed at her breast. "I see."

"You have five of the six books you came to get," I said. "And the antiques. Consider this one my fee and walk away."

"And if I don't?"

I shook my head. "You can't take it from me by force. And I should prefer not to shoot you, though I will if I must."

"Traitor."

"Unjust, Miss Carew," I said. "Of all the things I am, that is not one of them."

Her brows knit. "Who are you really?"

"Only in bad novels does the villain take the time to explain to the heroine all of his secret plans and machinations. Alas, this is not that sort of story, so you must be satisfied with my simple farewell. It has been a pleasure, Miss Carew. Pray give my regards to your mother, one blank slate to another. I hope that we may meet again under more auspicious circumstances." I made my bow as best one can while holding a pistol on a lady.

She said nothing, just stood there with her arms full of books and antique dildos, her eyes spitting fire, her white dress making a puddle around her on the paving stones, while I backed away out of range and then turned and walked away, Cagliostro's book safe against my breast.

Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
ashabardon
Feb. 21st, 2014 12:49 pm (UTC)
Ahhh huzzah! I love this passage, the dildos especially, it just makes me chuckle so much ... you burgle somewhere and take the antique sex toys :D

Is it completely wrong that all I want to know is: What happens to the dildo Elza kept? Hmmm? Hmmm?????

Edited at 2014-02-21 08:16 pm (UTC)
jo_graham
Feb. 21st, 2014 09:45 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure what happened to it! A souvenir of her adventure, one assumes!
ashabardon
Feb. 21st, 2014 09:51 pm (UTC)
Well if you do ever find out, do let us know. Something that rare should be ... treasured :D
aishabintjamil
Feb. 21st, 2014 01:25 pm (UTC)
Very nice. I particularly like the line bit starting with "Only in bad novels..."
jo_graham
Feb. 21st, 2014 09:46 pm (UTC)
Elza has style! One must give her that. She always has style! :)
Pierpaolo Ghisetti
Mar. 20th, 2014 07:32 pm (UTC)
ney
your books about Ney Moreau and La Contemporaine are fantastic!
jo_graham
Mar. 27th, 2014 02:34 pm (UTC)
Re: ney
Thank you so very much!
Pierpaolo Ghisetti
Mar. 20th, 2014 07:51 pm (UTC)
Michel Ney is my historical hero and I read almost all what has been written about him and his glorious and tragic life. I am looking forward to read your next book, The marshal's lover,and I hope you will put 'a lot of Michel Ney' into it!!I think you are a great storyteller and I enjoyed the way you featured the great marshal,who many superficially described as a simple man. On the contrary he had an elusive, dual personality and, as the duchesse d'Abrantes reports in her 'Memoirs' he was the most interesting and important figure among the inner circle that sorrounded the Emperor.
jo_graham
Mar. 27th, 2014 02:36 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I have always been fascinated by Michel Ney, and first attempted to write his story when I was fifteen. I agree with you that he is very complex. He has such contradictory traits in some ways, a man both frightening and ruthless in battle and gentle and kind with his family and friends. As you say, elusive. Writing him, and his relationship with Elza, is fascinating.
Pierpaolo Ghisetti
Apr. 8th, 2014 05:06 pm (UTC)
As I said above, I have a great passion for the Napoleonic Era and I wrote a few articles on Ney, Murat, Moreau, Talleyrand and a short biography about marshal Ney. It's very difficult to write about Michel's life because, even if his military 'correspondance' is rich, his personal letters are very few, and there are none between him and his wife at the 'Archives Nationales' in Paris, which is disappointing. I also wrote a piece about the Waterloo 'enigma'and how the propaganda and the books inspired by Napoleon at St.Helena to save his reputation, made Ney a scapegoat for the defeat. Actually the marshal did the impossible to win, at Quatre Bras and then at Mont St.Jean, but he was outnumbered by an enemy, the Prussians, Napoleon didn't even know or admit was there. In both cases the Emperor took away from him the troops of infantry he desperately needed to prevail.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )