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One of the most challenging things in writing The General's Mistress or any of my historical novels is how to get the necessary historical information in so that the reader knows what's happening in the greater world while keeping to the tight perspective of the main character. That may be the thing I sweat over most, revising and revising and revising, trying to avoid both the Dread Expository Lump and leaving the reader at sea in the middle of unfamiliar events. This is one of those from The General's Mistress, in which I'm summing up the crossing of the Alps and the entire Second Italian Campaign while still sticking close to Elza's perspective.

In which Elza has found her way "home", the baggage train of another army not entirely unlike Lydias's.

I'd love to hear what you think!

We left on a gorgeous morning at the beginning of May, a company of six with a wagon and two servants. I didn't ride in the wagon. Instead, I sold everything left of my finery and things in Paris and bought a horse. He was a fifteen year old gelding, a bit slow and short of wind, but he was sound enough. I named him Nestor, and we got along fine.

I was Charles on the road. Of course the company and the servants knew that I was their Second Girl, but none of the fellow travelers met at inns or on the road knew. It seemed safer that way, since the leading man and the second man were both rather timid sorts, and the second man was at least sixty and prone to drunkenness. He was a thoroughgoing professional on the stage, but off stage he was insensible most of the time. I didn't ask what misfortune had put him back on the road at this point in his life. It seemed rude.

Charles didn't have a sword, but I talked the second man into loaning me one of his pair of horse pistols. After all, it was safer to be armed under the circumstances.

We made slow time across France. The supply columns for the Army of Italy stretched seemingly endlessly, and in the glorious spring weather it seemed that everyone in France must be on the way to Italy. Sutlers, farriers and horse croppers, cantenieres and replacement troops all crowded the roads.

While I had been paying no attention, the Directory had given way to the Consulate, in which a triumvirate of worthy men held executive power rather than the band of Directors. Foremost among them was Bonaparte.

What Moreau thought of this I could only imagine. But perhaps he had his hands full. One of the first acts of the Consulate had been to restore him to his overall command on the Rhine. He now commanded the largest French army, with more than 120,000 men facing the Austrians. The First Consul, Bonaparte, preferred to take on the supposedly softer wing of the Austrian army in Italy, aided by the men that Moreau had referred to once to me as a band of undernourished schoolboys and grimy old grumblers.

Presumably the latter had referred to General Massena, who was presently holding the city of Genoa against a besieging force of twice his size. Everyone said that eventually he must surrender. The question was how long they would hold, and if Bonaparte's army would reach Italy before they were lost. Everyone wondered. In each inn all across France, men talked of nothing else. Not once did I hear the name Moreau. Victor might have the greater command, I thought, but once again he is not making himself loved.

Traveling in what was essentially one giant baggage train, with papers signed by General Lannes, we met little trouble.

As we rumbled along with our wagon, Nestor keeping pace beside it, I felt a stirring. Nestor was strong and solid, and days in the sun and good plain food made me feel myself again. Or at least made me feel Charles. He was less cynical than previously, more willing to be charming, more willing to lean from the saddle and pay elaborate compliments over Isabella's hand while the Angora cat spat at him. I liked being Charles. He could rise to any occasion, get out of any trouble with a twist of a smile and the right word, a golden trickster who feared nothing. He was the master of his own fate.

Unwillingly, I felt my spirits lift. How could I not, with the open road in front of me and the glorious sun of spring in the heavens, with all the trees in bloom and the shadow of the Alps growing closer every day? I had not seen those peaks since I had come this way as a child. Snow covered, they glittered like a promise, closer each day. Soon we were in the foothills. Cloaks came out of our packs.

We stopped at an inn before we began the ascent. Isabella had us sing for our supper, playing Blue Beard before the fire in the main room. I sang the ghost of his wife, and it was eerie and strange, coming in a dusky alto from what appeared to be a slender young man. It was there we heard that Bonaparte had beaten the Austrians at Marengo.

The next day we started up the pass. The weather was good and it was June. The army had crossed a month earlier in a howling storm. In the gullies we could see what was left of the carcasses of their foundered mules and horses. Now the rocks were studded with alpine flowers.

With each step something lifted. I was young and I was free, like the hawks that soared on the updrafts over the valleys. Once, I thought I saw an eagle.

What did it matter if I was poor again, and if I had no idea what awaited us in Italy? I had a horse and a pistol at my side, my health and friends. If I had no lover, so much the better. Perhaps I would not need one.

Or perhaps even now the dice were rolling, the cards turning. That night, encamped on the mountain beside a small fire, I took them out and felt them in my hands, cool and smooth as silk. Wordlessly, I laid them out. The Chariot gleamed gold and white, the Emperor's red cloak billowing soundlessly behind him. The Star gleamed in the heavens. The Sword Queen held her blade before her while the tempest raged about her, grip foremost, like a crusader bending to kiss the cruciform hilt. Six staves entwined, gold and blue.

Isabella came and sat down opposite me wordlessly, her pink shawl bundled tightly around her shoulders.

"What is next?" I asked, and turned the card.

The Emperor sat enthroned, the orb of the world in his hands.

"What do your cards say will happen in Italy?" Isabella asked.

"Battles," I said. "I didn't need the cards to say that. Massena has surrendered Genoa, but Bonaparte and Lannes are on the move. Battles go without saying."

"Massena surrendered?"

I nodded. "I heard it from a man going the other way, a horse cropper going back to get more remounts. He said they got terms and surrendered the city, but took the wounded out and paroled everyone else."

"I wonder if Auguste is all right," she said.

"I'm sure he is," I said. "He's with Lannes, after all."

"You can win victories and still die," Isabella said.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 25th, 2012 05:27 pm (UTC)
One of the most challenging things in writing The General's Mistress or any of my historical novels is how to get the necessary historical information in so that the reader knows what's happening in the greater world while keeping to the tight perspective of the main character.

I think you succeeded quite well here.
Apr. 26th, 2012 02:24 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )