Vienna Waltz (The Imperial Season Book 1), page 3
“Take him out to the Vienna woods,” the thief advised. “With a large supply of bribes. He doesn’t actually want to lose you, you know. He will come back.”
“I know,” Lizzie said. “But it’s what he does before he comes back that worries us. After the Green Park incident—But never mind that,” she interrupted herself hastily. “You were going, weren’t you?”
“He could have some pie first,” Michael pointed out.
Lizzie glared at him. She didn’t want to say, “He’s the gardener!” Besides sounding far too lofty, it wasn’t remotely true. On the other hand, he was a thief, as Henrietta at least had already worked out and hardly a desirable luncheon guest.
“James would find it odd,” she said at last, aware of the thief’s gaze on her uncomfortable face.
“James finds everything about us odd,” Georgiana pointed out. “Even though he’s known us all our lives.”
“Well, imagine the difficulties strangers have,” Lizzie said tartly. “Bring him some pie, Georgi, and let him leave about his work.”
“I haven’t swept up the leaves in here yet,” the thief said provokingly.
Lizzie took a step nearer him. “You can’t be seen with us,” she hissed. “You’ll ruin everything.”
The thief leaned on his rake, a half-smile just dying on his lips. His unwavering eyes on hers didn’t blink. For some reason, that close gaze flustered her, though she refused to admit it by stepping back.
“What do you mean?” Michael demanded behind her. He lowered his voice dramatically. “Oh lord, Lizzie, is this him? Your thief?”
The thief laughed while Lizzie turned on her brother, scowling furiously.
“Don’t flap, Lizzie,” Michael said. “No one can hear. And I always meant to meet him, you know. To be honest, I’m relieved. He’s not so bad and he speaks well. So if he has to open his mouth at the ball, he won’t give himself away.”
The thief bowed ironically. Georgiana, arriving back with Henrietta, gave him a generous piece of pie. He accepted the delicacy with a murmur of thanks and then as an afterthought, a tug of his hat.
“What’s your name?” Michael asked.
The thief considered him. “Johnnie. What’s yours?”
“Michael. Do you—”
“Enough,” Lizzie interrupted, pushing boy and dog in the direction of the abandoned food spread out at the upper end of the garden.
Although Lizzie shooed her siblings back toward the picnic, bidding Michael tie the dog properly this time, her brother had brought up a point that had niggled at her since she’d encountered the thief last night.
Turning back to find him making a decent pile of leaves by the gate, she said, “How come you speak as you do? And in English, because you aren’t, are you?”
He seemed to hesitate. Then he said, “I was a soldier.”
“Ah.” I haven’t always been a thief, he’d said. It made sense if he was one of the many returning soldiers released in peace time from whichever European army he’d been with. There was a glut of such men with little to return to except unemployment, poverty and trouble. It made her feel better about engaging him, for almost a second, until she realized Michael had overheard.
“Really?” he demanded eagerly. “I’m going to be a soldier, too, just as soon as Henri buys me a commission.”
“Your sister?” the thief, Johnnie, inquired, apparently puzzled as to why Henrietta should have the honor—or, indeed, the means—of purchasing Michael’s commission.
“Well, yes, that’s what the necklace is for. Even I can see Henri’s prettier than any other girl. When she’s had her London season and caught her wealthy husband, she’s promised to buy me a commission in any regiment of my choosing.”
“It’s one plan,” Lizzie said, waving Michael away.
“And a very excellent one,” the thief approved. “I prefer to steal in a good cause. Miss Lizzie—until the ball.” With a last tip of his hat, he strolled out of the gate, closing it carefully behind him.
Twenty minutes later, the thief who’d told Michael his name was Johnnie found he was still grinning off and on as he strode down the busy Graben. It was a wide, open space that crossed the city, through which the whole world seemed to be travelling today. Weaving amongst the wealthy and the indigent and all shades between, he dodged between a green, Imperial-crested carriage and a hired fiacre. Nowhere else in the world, he reflected, had you ever been likelier to rub shoulders with a king and a washerwoman at the same time.
“Vanya! Vanya, it is you! Come here!”
Dragged out of his entertaining reverie, he gazed around, searching for the woman’s voice, which came from a smart carriage making its slow way down the middle of the road. A lady—surely Sonia, whom he hadn’t seen for two years—hanging out of the window waving at him with one hand while she hung on to her very elegant bonnet with the other. “Vanya! Over here!”
Never one to pass over an old friend, let alone one who brought back such pleasant memories, he veered at once toward the carriage. He eased among the crowd until he could stride along beside her window and swept off his disreputable hat.
“Countess Gelitzina,” he said and kissed her gloved fingers. “I should have known you would be here among the great and the beautiful.”
“How very formal, Ivan Petrovitch! I must confess I did know you were here, though no one told me you’d taken to such eccentric dress. What in the world are you up to? Are you incognito? Dodging Prince Metternich’s spies?”
“Of course. What do you think?”
“Er…what are you?”
“A jobbing gardener, of course, with additional skills of a somewhat more nefarious nature.”
“Even you cannot be so short of cash as that! Is it a wager?”
“No, just something I agreed to while the worse for drink,” he said cheerfully. “But I was right. It is vastly entertaining and one day I might even tell you all about it. Where are you staying?”
“Just over there.” She pointed to a half-hidden building which faced onto the Graben. “When it’s not my turn to attend the Tsarina in the Hofburg.”
“But you will be at the Emperor’s opening ball?”
“Along with the rest of Europe. Come to Princess Bagration’s tonight and tell me all!”
“She doesn’t invite me,” he said, hand on heart in mock sadness.
“Oh, she does now,” Sonia said with an arch smile. “Everyone wants the truth about the rumor that you snatched a necklace from the perfect bosom of some Viennese woman—in full view of the entire theatre. Oh, Vanya!” She clutched his shoulder through the window. “Is that why you’re really in disguise? Are you in hiding from the law?”
Vanya gave a shout of laughter that attracted the attention of several passers-by. “You had best let me go,” he said, amused, “or rumors about your bizarre new lover will eclipse those of my thievery.”
Sonia frowned suddenly, though not, as it turned out, in anxiety for her reputation. “You do still possess other clothes, don’t you? You haven’t wagered them away with the rest of your fortune in a night of drunken debauchery?”
“Why would I do anything so foolish? Supposing I actually had access to a fortune.”
“You wouldn’t be the first in Vienna to do so since the Congress arrived! And you needn’t look so innocent, either.”
“I am innocent,” he protested, although a high-risk plan was beginning to form in his brain. “At least for the moment.” Her carriage began to veer to the right, while he wanted to go left, so he clapped his hat back on his head, kissed his fingers to the countess, and dodged across the road.
In his ramshackle attic, Vanya did, indeed, find a card of invitation from Princess Bagration and another from Lady Castlereagh. Taken together with his standing invitation from the Duchess of Sagan, he’d have to be careful, he thought cynically, not to let such popularity go to his head.
“Wake me at six,”
Misha, used to his master, merely covered him up and set about brushing his uniform. As he polished the buttons by the window, be became aware that the man lounging against the building on the other side of the road had been there when his master came home.
“Bloody spies,” he muttered under his breath.
Princess Bagration, widow of the late great General Bagration who’d died so heroically at the Battle of Borodino, had taken up residence in the Schenkengasse in one wing of the luxurious Palm Palace. In the other wing lived her great social rival, the Duchess of Sagan, whom Vanya had visited on several occasions. This time, while exchanging pleasantries with acquaintances in the entrance hall, he took the other, left hand staircase to the princess’ salons.
No one would have been surprised. The tsar and all the most notable Russians attended Princess Bagration’s soirees. It was largely Austrians, led by their allegedly smitten foreign minister, Prince Metternich, who frequented the duchess’ salons.
The princess spotted him immediately and glided over to welcome him. By any standards, she was beautiful, with shining blonde hair, a perfect white and rose complexion, and light blue eyes a man could happily drown in. She wore a diaphanous, almost transparent white gown that clung to her delectable frame and exposed a dangerous expanse of her alabaster bosom.
It always intrigued Vanya how she dressed like an expensive whore and yet never appeared less than a great lady. Perhaps it was the intelligence behind the provocative beauty on display. Whatever, Vanya could never do less than flirt with her. On one memorable occasion she’d allowed him rather more, which he remembered vividly as she took his hand and playfully tapped his cheek with her fan.
“Vanya! How dare you take so long to visit me!”
“But I came the very moment you sent for me. I wouldn’t otherwise have dared intrude.”
“Frightened of His Majesty?” the princess teased.
“Everyone should be frightened of His Majesty, in my opinion.” He looked about in mock terror. “Is he here?”
Princess Bagration laughed. “He has promised to look in later on. In the meantime, I can offer you two kings and a crown prince. Would you like an introduction? Or shall I point you toward old friends?”
“Can’t I stay with you? I won’t be any trouble.”
“Vanya, you were born trouble! Which I understand is irresistible to many ladies less averse to risk than I. Sonia Andreievna, for one.” As she spoke, Princess Bagration nodded across the room to where Countess Gelitzina held court surrounded by two heavily-braided officers, Prince Czartoryski, the tsar’s Polish adviser, and a quietly dressed man whose eyes lit up when they glanced over and connected with Vanya’s.
Vanya couldn’t help the grin that split his face. Count Boris Kyrilovitch Lebedev was one of the few people in the world he welcomed with undiluted pleasure.
Boris broke away from Sonia’s group of satellites with a faintly murmured excuse and strode towards Vanya with his hand held out. “Vanya. I heard a rumor you were here.”
Vanya embraced his old friend, thumping him on the back enthusiastically enough to attract considerable attention. “Well, I certainly didn’t expect to find you in the midst of such frivolity.”
“Frivolity? My dear Vanya, if the rest of the engagement is like the pre-battle skirmishes, the fates of nations will be decided in just such places as this.”
“Now I understand,” Vanya said wryly. “So how exactly are you contributing to this fate?”
Boris wrinkled his nose and lowered his voice. “I liaise with the British Embassy.”
“Is that bad?”
“Only in places. I found them mind-bogglingly ignorant of European affairs and even geography, but to give them their due, they’re learning.”
Vanya took two glasses from the proffered tray in front of him and handed one to his friend. “Don’t suppose you’ve come across a British diplomat called… Daniels? Geoffrey Daniels. Or was it Jeremy?”
“Yes, he’s a good enough chap. Easier to deal with than Stewart, that’s for sure. Plus he works harder. Why?”
“I think I might have come across his niece,” Vanya said vaguely.
“I never heard of a niece, but there’s certainly a daughter. I met her at Lady Castlereagh’s this afternoon. Wouldn’t have thought she was your type, Vanya. Let me rephrase. I’m praying she’s not your type.”
“Save your prayers, I’ve never met her. The girl I mean is definitely a niece.”
“I think my prayers probably cover the entire British mission and all their extended families. At least until we have a peace agreement. What are you doing in Vienna, anyhow?”
“Theatricals,” Vanya said disparagingly. “My Cossacks are barracked outside the city, ready to show off whenever they’re required. I was ordered here until they’re required. I’m supposed to be on leave.”
“Which means you’re ripe for mischief.”
“Then isn’t it as well I’ve got your sober face to keep me on the straight and narrow? They play cards here,” he observed as they strolled through into the next room. “For money?”
“A lot of money if you have it.”
“Well, I do. I just don’t have it on me. Lend me a few roubles, Boris?”
“Not to play with.”
“Just want to test my luck, see if I can win three thousand pounds.”
“Three thousand!” Boris exclaimed. “What do you want that kind of money for?”
Vanya smiled. “To buy a lady a necklace.”
The fun leaked out of Boris’s eyes, leaving them just a little desolate. “To replace the one you took from that woman at the theatre?”
“Boris!” Vanya mocked. “I’m surprised at you repeating gossip. And no, it’s nothing to do with her.”
Boris sighed. “You can have what’s in my pocket, providing you don’t accuse anyone above the rank of count or colonel of cheating. And don’t shoot anyone.”
Vanya grinned and strolled towards the card tables.
It was only one plan and too risky to rely on, so he didn’t really mind if he lost. He’d only borrowed a trifling amount from Boris, which he could easily repay just as soon as his mother forgave him and started sending him his money again. And sure enough, he lost the first two hands, won the third, and lost the fourth. After which, fickle fortune decided to smile on him and he was well into a winning streak, much to the disgust of his opponents, when a minor commotion in the main salon seized his erratic attention.
“The tsar,” Sonia reported from the doorway. Having applauded his last few wins, she was bored with the game and ready to seek attention elsewhere.
Vanya sat where he was. Although quite ready to rekindle his old liaison with the countess, he reckoned he could win enough in another fifteen minutes, half an hour at the most—providing the cards stayed with him—and be free to pursue her wholeheartedly.
Somewhat to his surprise, his opponents didn’t immediately rush to fawn upon the tsar, either. Vanya could only suppose that His Majesty’s presence at such minor social gatherings had become too familiar.
And certainly, as he strolled into the card room twenty minutes later, the tsar’s manner was informal to the point of casual. Tall, fair, handsome, and well-made, Alexander, Tsar of all the Russias, was an impressive man. Vanya, who was and had always been quite prepared to die for him, thought it a shame that he couldn’t actually like him. To Vanya, he was a bad mixture of arrogance, brilliance, ineptitude, idealism, optimism, petulance, charm, and tyranny. People called Vanya volatile, but truly, the tsar was the embodiment of such a description.
Tonight, His Majesty was in affable humor, even pressing Vanya’s shoulder to prevent him rising when he realized the tsar stood behind him. “No, no, Colonel,” he said jovially. “My heroes shall not bow to me in private!”
Princess Bagration’s salons were hardly private, but no one argued.
“Are you winning?” the tsar inquired.
“Moderately,” Vanya said, to the accompaniment of snorts around the table.
The tsar was pleased to laugh and pass on. Which is when Vanya finally noticed the officers who flanked him. The one on the right was sneering at him openly when he should have been following the tsar.
“Blonsky,” Vanya said in surprise, although he did vaguely recall hearing Blonsky’s regiment had been assigned to guarding the tsar.
There was a time when he’d have cared, when at least hatred and anger would have risen at the sight of him. Now, the boy he’d been was so far removed as to not matter anymore. Even Katia had grown blurry in his memory. He’d shed too much blood in the last six years to be very eager to spill more. Even Blonsky’s.
Blonsky curled his lip and looked right through him, a difficult combination to achieve, then turned and marched off after the tsar.
“Bad blood?” one of the players drawled.
“No,” Vanya said. “It was never his blood that was the problem.”
The player leaned closer, confiding, “Did you know he is pursuing Countess Gelitzina?”
Vanya, about to deal the cards, paused for a fraction of a second. “No. I didn’t know that.”
“He’s dangerous in a duel,” the young man said bluntly.
Vanya glanced at him and set down the cards.
But the player on his other side had overheard with some amusement. “So’s Vanya. Who do you think gave Blonsky that sabre scar on his hand?”
“Play,” Vanya said impatiently.
Ten minutes later, Vanya swept his winnings into his pocket and, ignoring pleas for revenge from his erstwhile opponents, went in search of Boris.
“He left on some business of the tsar’s,” Sonia said when he encountered her in the hallway beside the cloakroom, receiving her flimsy shawl from a wooden-faced servant.
Vanya propped his shoulder against the wall, waiting for the maid to leave. “What is Blonsky to you?” he asked, when the girl had effaced herself.
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