The Empress Arrives in Prussia

"THE ROYAL RHINOCEROS DANCE" SHE CALLED IT. Freddie often compared the counts and barons, and other nobles to a herd of bloated rhinoceros--men or women, it made no difference. All of them so shallow and selfish. They never stopped croaking like mating frogs about their awfully boring lives and social position relative to the royal courts. They loved their French too, even though the French scoffed at them behind their backs. Fools, all of them! So intolerable. But now, on this day, she welcomed the distraction as she walked through the main hall in Bärenthoren castle (busy as a Sunday main street in Paris) towards the Great Hall where all present would jostle and puff and climb over themselves for a chance at fawning over Empress Elizabeth of Russia.
    Freddie would stoically endure the many flattery rituals because it all served as more distraction, for the apparitions of recent had both depressed and disturbed her. Memories of the Vermeer girl, that horrible vision of her older self near death, those insane machines ... It must be as her darling Babette said, likely a witchery or curse of the castle seeking a hold on her mind. What other explanation could there be? She was not going mad. No. And if drugged she would still be seeing the visions, unless of course, the drug had ceased its work. If mad by other means, why would she be perfectly fine now?
    Fine, yes, except for the memories.
    If only a doctor or magician could drill a hole in her head and extract them. Or burn them out? Perhaps Mirza Yesun Temur himself, the infamous Mongol spell crafter of Empress Elizabeth, might do the job.
    Though the Mongol devil might replace them with something far worse. 
    She saw him yesterday, late, only a glimpse after he and the Empress arrived in that massive black Berlin carriage. Like everyone else, she’d heard the rumors spreading like dark plague all over Europe that Temur was the real mastermind behind the Russian throne and Elizabeth only a puppet. Many claimed him more ancient than The Great Wall of China, and said that he presided over the burial of Genghis Khan himself, putting to death all those who witnessed it so they would not reveal the location of the Khan's sacred necropolis.
    Prior to the arrival of these powerful beings, Freddie had dressed barely in time. Under the glare of her mother, she stuffed and groaned herself with Babette's help into a full court outfit--the kind she so hated. Whenever she wore it she felt like a cross between a peacock and a frilly doe. The ridiculously big red hoop skirt forced her to go down the castle staircases sideways, one careful step at a time, and with every five steps she took, her mother barked at her from behind, "Damn you three times, Freddie! Be quick!"
    Once positioned in the courtyard to formally greet Empress Elizabeth, what happened next became an event she would never forget.
    From the carriage, the Empress slowly emerged into the sunlight, her huge blue eyes flaming with command. Nothing could resist her dominance. Were the very walls of Bärenthoren  expected to forget their masonry and bow to her? The walls remained aloof, of course, though all beings of flesh and blood demonstrated obedience. The assembled Prussian nobles from over a hundred miles around in their long coats and powdered wigs, the noblewomen in their frills and jewels and hoop skirts; Princess Johanna and Freddie's beloved father, Prince Christian (lately returned from a hunting trip), as well as the Bärenthoren chief servants, stewards, butlers, valets, and maids in their finest blue-and-gold livery, all ranks displaying themselves in one long line full of bow and curtsy as the mighty Empress of Russia stepped down to the stone and continued to command with her big flaming blue eyes.
    Freddie silently watched those royal eyes as they moved, imagining a grand symphony of music reaching thunderous climax, but then an unexpected thing happened. The eyes of the Empress suddenly found a curious object to rest upon, to fixate upon. The entire crowd in the courtyard glanced sideways, straining without actually turning their heads to see who the almighty Empress of all the Russias stared at. And those with a view could plainly see the target:
    The Princess von Anhalt.
    The eyes rested on her, only on her.
    Freddie gasped in the light of the royal glare. The eyes bored into her like the points of a hot lance. The entire courtyard full of nobles and servants spoke not a word (they did not dare!), and Freddie sensed the crowd growing more nervous as the stare continued.
    Why is she staring at me like that? Am I supposed to fall to my knees? 
    The eyes and face of Empress Elizabeth inhaled Freddie, long and deep, as a person might breathe in a few gallons of fresh air after confinement in a stale cabin. The princess felt embarrassed and looked down. Other eyes glanced from her to the Empress, cautiously curious and growing fearful; and at the same time, Freddie's fingers began to hurt, as before. She knew something lay hidden in that carriage, yet to emerge into the sunlight.
    An evil thing.
    Even so, her patience had come to an end.
    Enough is enough! And my fingers are pricking again. At least if an apparition appears, everyone will see it this time.
    Freddie swallowed and steeled herself. Glancing up, not wishing to appear afraid, she avoided the eyes of the Empress and focused instead on her curly locks glimmering in the sun like burnished gold. It reminded her uneasily of the Vermeer girl. Was there a connection? The Empress wore a crème silk dress with a low neckline woven in gold thread, a tight bodice, and draped around her shoulders, a gold silk cape, the black wings of the Russian imperial eagle flaring out on either side and caressing her shoulders.
    Finally, the Empress walked forward, towards Freddie. The entire courtyard perfectly silent, not even a breath. Freddie bowed her head and curtsied as the Empress came near to her and said, “You are Princess Fredericke von Anhalt, n’est-ce pas? I would know you anywhere. Please, rise and lead me inside to the castle. I must speak with you.”

No comments:

Post a Comment