Congratulations to Christy, who won last week’s drawing for a Vienna Waltz ARC. Christy, watch for an email from me so I can get your address and send the ARC on its way.
This week’s post is another excerpt from Vienna Waltz. This is a scene between Charles/Malcolm and Prince Talleyrand that occurs fairly early in the book.
Once again, I’ll be giving away an ARC to one of this week’s commenters. Lauren Willig had a great “Five Days of Pink Carnation” contest on her blog last week, for one of which she asked the wonderful question of what you would get the Pink Carnation for Christmas. In the spirit of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I can’t resist taking off on this. So for this week’s contest, let me know what you think Charles and Mélanie should give each other for Christmas. Suggestions can be serious or whimsical, period appropriate or what you think they would give each other if they lived today. I’ll draw a name and post the winner next weekend.
I’ve also just posted a new Fraser Correspondence letter from Raoul to Mélanie.
Happy mid-winter holidays!!!
In the quiet precincts of the Johannesgasse, Charles rang the bell at the yellow plaster façade of the Kaunitz Palace. Less luxurious than the British delegation’s lodgings in the Minoritenplatz but a handsome building all the same. A footman in gray livery took his card and said he would inquire if Prince Talleyrand was at home.
Charles waited on a green velvet bench beside one of the stucco festooned windows in the hall. Whether or not Talleyrand would consent to an interview was an open question. Charles was bargaining on the prince’s need for the support of the British delegation but also on his own personal history with the French Foreign Minister.
His first memories of Prince Talleyrand went back to the age of five. He and his brother had been riding in their mother’s barouche in Hyde Park, a rare treat. An elegant gentleman leaning on a walking stick stopped to speak with their mother. A cloud of powder rose from his hair as he bent in a courtly bow. Charles could still remember how the powder had tickled his nose (powder was becoming a rare sight in London by 1792). Talleyrand kissed their mother’s hand. When she introduced the two boys he nodded with a serious acknowledgement adults rarely afforded them.
“I know who you are,” Charles said, studying this interesting new acquaintance clad in the sort of full-skirted coat his grandfather wore. “You helped overthrow King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette.”
His mother drew a sharp breath, though a hint of laughter showed in her eyes. “Charles, that isn’t precisely–“
“On the contrary, Elizabeth. He is a perceptive boy. Just what I would expect from a son of yours.” Talleyrand inclined his head toward Charles. “You are quite right, Master Fraser. Though I fear matters have taken a sad turn in France just now. That is why I am enjoying the hospitality of your lovely country.”
Talleyrand was nothing if not a survivor. The son of an aristocratic family, he had been unable to follow the family tradition of a military career due to his club-foot. Instead, his family had sent him into the church. Thanks to their influence, he had quickly risen to become a bishop, though according to Charles’s mother he had been an atheist even then.
Talleyrand, as Charles had pointed out at the age of five, had been a key player in the French Revolution, though he had left France and taken refuge in England and then America during the Reign of Terror. He returned to France, having avoided the most violent days of the Revolution, to play an influential role in the Directoire. As the Directoire collapsed under corruption and infighting, Talleyrand helped guide the young general, Napoleon Bonaparte, to power. He had been France’s Foreign Minister through much of Charles’s childhood, though eventually he fell out with Bonaparte over the Russian campaign and Bonaparte’s dangerous (in Talleyrand’s view) ambitions and retired from official power. Even then, as Charles had told Mélanie the previous night, he’d continued to play a role in Napoleon’s government, while at the same time talking to Bonaparte’s opponents. Now Napoleon Bonaparte was banished to the island of Elba, and his former mentor represented France at the Congress. Regimes may fall and fail, Talleyrand had said, but I do not.
The footman returned with the news that the prince had soon to prepare for the Metternich masquerade but would be pleased to accord M. Fraser an interview. He conducted Charles up an imposing limestone staircase to Talleyrand’s study. The warmth of a porcelain stove and the scent of eau-de-cologne greeted him. Talleyrand sat in a red damask chair, dressed much as he had been when Charles first met him twenty-two years ago, in a gray velvet frock coat, a starched satin cravat, and red-heeled, diamond-buckled shoes. The atheist, ex-communicated bishop now possessed of a wife (not to mention a succession of mistresses through the years) was also a former revolutionary who dressed like a pattern card for the ancien régime.
Talleyrand closed the book he had been reading. “Ah, Charles. A pleasure as always. A glass of calvados? You’ll forgive me if I ask you to pour? My foot is a bit troublesome at present, and I think I can make allowances, having known since you were learning your letters.”
Charles went to a gilded Boule cabinet and poured two glasses of calvados. With a few easy words, Talleyrand had put the scene on a convivial footing and reminded Charles that he had known him since childhood. Which gave Talleyrand the subtle edge of elder statesman and family friend. The man was a master tactician.
“I’ve been expecting you,” Talleyrand said as Charles put a glass of calvados into his hand.
Charles looked down at the prince. “For how long?”
“Since I got the news about Tatiana.” Talleyrand took a sip of calvados. “I’m sorry. I know what she meant to you.”
Charles’s fingers hardened round his own glass. “You were you fond of her yourself.”
“She was a fascinating and very talented woman.”
Charles pulled a ladder-back chair up beside the prince. “She was your creature.”
“My dear boy, if you believe Tatiana was my mistress–“
“Not your mistress.” Charles dropped into the chair. “Your agent.”
“She worked for me occasionally. She sold information to a number of people. Including you.”
“You recruited her.”
“I’m more than thirty years your senior, Charles. It’s not surprising that she worked for me first.” Talleyrand leaned against the high back of his chair. “Castlereagh’s asked you to learn who killed Tatiana, hasn’t he?”
“You’re very quick.”
“I can still add two and two and get four. If I had to put money on it, I’d wager on your uncovering the truth before Baron Hager. He has the weight of the Austrian state on his side, and he’s no fool. But you were quite exceptional, even as a boy.”
“You flatter me, sir.”
“I don’t think so. When I met you, I regretted that your nationality made it unlikely I’d ever be able to employ you. I could see even then what you’d grow into. You’ll learn who murdered Tatiana because you’ll have the wit to see beyond the obvious. And because you care so much you won’t let matters rest until you uncover the truth. It’s what you’ll do with that truth that interests me.”
“Are you saying you know what it is?”
“I’m as much in the dark as anyone. But I can see that the answers won’t be pretty, and they may put you in an uncomfortable position. You’re remarkably like your mother, Charles. A first-rate mind with the ability to understand the need for cool-headed decisions. Sometimes ruthless ones. But you let your emotions get in the way.”
Charles took a sip of calvados. Delicate and superb–better than Castlereagh’s cognac–but it burned his throat. “I appreciate your reputation for omniscience, Prince, but I think you presume to know a bit too much about me.”
“Any seeming omniscience I possess is because I’m a keen observer of my fellows. I’ve had a good many opportunities to observe you these past weeks in Vienna. You’re tougher than you were, but not yet tough enough, I think. Becoming emotionally entwined with an agent is a dangerous thing, Charles.”
“You know damn well–”
“There’s more than one way to be entwined. I noticed your wife watching you and Tatiana only last week at the Zichys’. A clever and charming woman, Mme. Fraser. But I don’t think she’s quite the brittle society wife she manages so artfully to appear.”
Charles’s fingers tightened on the etched crystal. “I don’t see any need to bring my wife into this.”
“On the contrary. Your wife is very much a part of the equation. We were discussing the way you’re still entwined with Tatiana. Just as Tatiana stayed entwined with Metternich even in the interval when their affair stopped.”
Charles’s senses quickened. “Are you implying her affair with Metternich had resumed?”
Talleyrand took a slow sip of calvados. “Metternich was always more in love with Wilhelmine of Sagan than she with him. Any love affair in which the balance of passion is unequal is bound to run into difficulties. Wilhelmine turned her back on Metternich. Metternich was desperately unhappy. Who else would he turn to for comfort? A woman he had loved, a woman he still cared for.”
“A woman who was the Tsar’s mistress.”
“Metternich and the Tsar have a way of competing in all things.”
Charles stared at Talleyrand’s sharp-featured face. Equal parts viper and raptor, his aunt had once said. “It was your idea, wasn’t it?”
Talleyrand smoothed his sleeve. “What?”
“Tatiana resuming her affair with Metternich. Tatiana becoming the Tsar’s lover. That’s why you wanted her in Vienna.”
“You credit me with a farther reach than I possess.”
“I can’t believe I didn’t see it sooner. She was more your creature still than I realized.” Charles folded his arms across his chest. “She told someone the afternoon of the day she was killed that she’d had disturbing news. She wanted to tell me about it.” And he had failed her, as he seemed so often to do.
“Who told you this?”
“Perhaps that’s what she meant to tell you last night.”
“Perhaps. Or were you the one who told her to summon Metternich and the Tsar and me?”
Talleyrand’s thin mouth relaxed into a smile. “I almost wish I could take credit for such an audacious action. But I can’t imagine a logical reason to orchestrate such a meeting. I don’t know what Tatiana was thinking of.”
“It’s possible her killer arranged the whole.”
“To create discord? Or spread blame? A bit Byzantine surely. Though almost devious enough to be the sort of thing I might think up myself.”
Charles swallowed the last of his calvados. “My thoughts exactly.”
“Of course,” Talleyrand added, settling more comfortably into his chair, “given what Tatiana knew about you, you could be said to have an excellent motive yourself. A little more calvados, my boy?”