Chapter 9 : When Paths Diverge
Carlotta sensed rather than saw the cloth entrance close behind her. She felt the urge to flee back outside rise up in her chest but she tamped down on it firmly.
The Asmodean shuffled, still hunched over, to the far side of the space towards a makeshift desk constructed of an old door and several concrete blocks. Carlotta watched it fold its lanky frame into a seated position behind the desk, arrange its threadbare robe about itself and then turn its emotionless purple gaze on her.
Fighting, again, the urge to flee, Carlotta instead forced herself to head towards the rickety three-legged stool it was indicating with one spiderly hand. As gracefully as she could she arranged herself on the seat which appeared to have been intended for someone much smaller than herself. Knees almost up to her ears, she watched the Asmodean opposite as it retrieved a small, glass bottle from somewhere beneath the desk and arranged it just so between them.
Finally, apparently satisfied with the placement of the vessel it turned its attention to her once more.
Carlotta blinked, momentarily unsure what to do, “Oh, um, well…I mean, I don’t really know what—“
Carlotta felt her stomach flip and her mouth go dry.
“How did you…? Actually, no, don’t answer that.”
With a heavy sigh, she tipped her head back and gazed up at the roof, trying to work out where to begin this story she really didn’t want to tell.
Taking a steadying breath she began to speak and as she did so the walls of the shack, the Asmodean, the present itself seemed to melt away and she found herself back where it had all begun so many, many years ago…
“Carlotta! Come down right now! Papa will be so angry if he catches you up there!”
Carlotta looked down at her sister’s upturned face and outraged expression from her perch atop the kitchen roof. Looking at Madeleine was like gazing into a mirror only her reflection was cleaner by far and wore an expression of annoyed exasperation.
“You should come up, Maddy! I can see for miles and miles!“
“Absolutely not! A lady should not be clambering barefoot across the roof. Besides, we’re to have tea with papa in the garden so you better get down or we’ll be late. Don’t forget you’re already in trouble for that nonsense with the honey and goose feathers.”
Carlotta rolled her eyes dramatically but began to inch her way obediently back towards the window.
Having cleaned herself up sufficiently to elicit a reluctant nod of approval from her twin sister, the two girls made their way to the garden. The summer air was fragrant with all the rich smells of Provence. The deep, clear blue of the sky and the dusky yellow of the earth were the colours of their childhood. The lavender scent of clean linen, the smell of fresh bread baking…all combined to fill Carlotta with a sense of contentment.
Their father was waiting for them at the ornate garden table, a bottle of wine with glasses was laid out. Hearing the crunch of their steps he turned in his chair.
“There you are, my darlings! Come, give your papa a kiss.”
The girls’ mother had died in childbirth and their father spent the majority of his time at court in Versailles acting as an adviser to the king. In his absence he left their governess to take care of their day-to-day upbringing. Marie tried with limited success to curtail Carlotta’s wilder tendencies but could at least consider Madeleine a job well done.
Both girls settled themselves at the table. Carlotta reached for the bottle of wine but snatched her hand back with a yelp when Maddy smacked it sharply.
“It’s polite to wait for papa to pour your drink, Lotta.”
Carlotta rolled her eyes with a huff, “It’s just us, Maddy. We’re not taking tea with the queen, for goodness’ sake.”
Their father chuckled and filled both their glasses, “Carlotta, what are we going to do with you, hm? Funny you should mention her majesty though because I have some very exciting news for you both.”
“What is it, papa?” Asked Maddy with genuine anticipation.
“Well, now that you’re older, I’ve decided to take you with me when I return to court.”
Both girls gasped. Most of their peers had been introduced at court years ago but their father had insisted on keeping them shielded from the politics and intrigue of court life as long as he possibly could.
As he looked from one shocked face to the other, their father let out a chuckle, “There’s no need to be nervous, my darlings, you’re going to absolutely adore Versailles and the queen is very much looking forward to meeting you both.”
Carlotta hurtled down the cavernous hall, her pounding footsteps echoing off the ornate gold and plaster ceiling. Taking a corner at speed, she felt her silk slippers skid under her and barely managed to prevent crashing into a large china vase standing nearby. Gathering up her voluminous skirts once more she pelted on, finally bursting through the doorway into the apartment she shared with Madeleine.
As the door clicked shut behind her, she stood for a moment with her hands on her hips, breathing heavily.
“I’m…I’m sorry I’m late…Maddy.”
Madeleine took in her rumbled gown, red face and messy hair. She sighed.
“What was it this time? A troupe of actors? The Danish ambassador’s nephew?”
Carlotta let out a burst of laughter, “No, Christian had to go back to Copenhagen for his sister’s wedding. He was so annoyed too because he and Jean Baptiste were meant to be having an intimate little supper together tomorrow night. You know Christian and his weakness for army officers and who knows when Jean Baptiste will return to Versailles.”
Madeleine looked profoundly unimpressed.
Carlotta crossed the room and took a seat opposite her sister, helping herself to a cup of now tepid tea.
“Maddy, you should join us one evening. We really do have such fun. Last night there was an actor there who could…well, it was terribly funny.”
She reached over and took Madeleine’s hand in her own, “We’re not children anymore, Maddy. One day very soon we’ll be married off and life will be boring. You should have some fun while you can!”
Madeleine’s expression softened as she grasped her sister’s hand, “I know you enjoy your parties and hijinks, Lotta, but it’s just not for me. In fact, I have a suiter.”
Carlotta sat back in her chair with a look of surprise, “Oh my goodness, Maddy! When were you going to tell me this?? Who is he? Does Papa know?”
Maddy laughed and held up her hands as if to fend off the barrage of questions, “Well, I would have told you sooner, Lotta, but you’re always so busy with your friends. Yes, Papa knows of course and approves. His name is Sebastian. He’s the son of a cardinal.”
Carlotta took a sip of tea while she thought of how to ask her next question as tactfully as possible, “Son of a cardinal, hm? You’re not scared life with someone so…religious might be a little…dull?”
Madeleine frowned, “Just because you barely ever appear at mass anymore, Lotta, doesn’t mean the rest of us are equally remiss. In fact, it just so happens that Sebastian introduced himself to me for the first time after mass one Sunday. I’ve always felt my faith more deeply than you, Lotta, and the idea of marriage to someone equally committed suits me just fine.”
Carlotta nodded agreeably, “The only thing that matters to me is your happiness, Maddy.”
Madeleine smiled broadly, blushing just a little and for once showing her youth, “We plan to be married in the spring. Sebastian says we can have the wedding in Provence if I like.”
“Oh that will be wonderful!”
Carlotta sat back and listened to her sister enthuse about wedding details and where they planned to live after they were married and how much she was looking forward to having children. It was a relief to see Maddy glowing with such happiness. Her sister had always been the more serious of the two. It was nice to see her so excited for something for herself and not putting her own needs aside to take care of Carlotta or their father.
However, Madeleine’s impending nuptials did make Carlotta think about her own future. Of course, she’d had suitors herself in the years since they came to court but none that she’d considered with any real seriousness. The prospect of marriage didn’t hold much interest for her, frankly. But she knew that eventually she would have to choose a husband. Society, and her family, would only indulge her wild ways for so long.
She arrived in the dead of the night, they said. When Carlotta awoke for breakfast, or more accurately lunch, the palace was positively humming with news of the arrival of the mysterious Contessa Marina da Carmino. She and her retinue had arrived at the palace in the darkest hours of the night and taken over a sprawling set of rooms reserved for foreign royalty and other visitors of the highest rank.
Everywhere Carlotta went that day people from servants to the most senior nobility were talking about the mysterious Contessa and how she hadn’t been seen by anyone yet and that the curtains in her suite were all drawn tightly closed. Rumours were running wild. In the course of the afternoon, Carlotta heard that the newest arrival at court was the cousin of the pope and she owned vast tracts of land in Tuscany, that she was the last scion of an ancient Roman family descended from the Caesars, that her brother was the Tsar of Russia, and that the horses drawing her carriage had six legs each. Clearly, some people were letting all the excitement run away with them but, for all its luxury and excess, life at court could be monotonous and anything remotely new was generally a cause for excitement.
Needless to say, no one was going to miss seeing the new arrival present herself to the king and queen that evening. Not even Madeleine could deny her curiosity and the two girls spent longer than usual making sure every curl was in place, every pleat crisp before leaving their room and joining the stream of people in their best finery flowing towards the Royal Apartments.
Absolutely everyone was there and no one could speak of anything but the Contessa. Carlotta found her usual set and they all speculated enthusiastically about Marina da Carmino. Jean Luc said he had a cousin at court in Austria who had met her and said that she threw the most lavish parties strictly by invitation only. They all resolved to get themselves on that invite list by any means necessary. Just when their plans to infiltrate da Carmino’s inner circle were starting to get distinctly far-fetched the double doors at the far end of the room suddenly creaked open and a herald stepped crisply forward. As a hush fell over the assembled crowd, his voice echoed into the far corners.
“Your Royal Highnesses, Contessa Marina da Carmino.”
She swept into the room as if she owned everything in it including the occupants. Carlotta felt her breath catch in her throat as if she had been plunged into ice water. Someone could have thrown a bucket of ice water over her at that moment and she wouldn’t have noticed. Her world had abruptly contracted to just the woman who was gliding towards the Royal couple. As she passed, the Contessa’s head tilted ever so slightly and their eyes locked for a split second. Carlotta felt her heart begin to race in that moment and, as if she somehow knew, a tiny smile turned up the corners of the Contessa’s mouth before she shifted her gaze away.
Carlotta drew in a shuddering breath, feeling as if somehow her world has just been flipped upside down and turned inside out. She cast her gaze across the crowd, seeing a lot of glassy eyes and slack jaws, until her eyes lit upon her sister. Madeleine was staring after the Contessa with a small frown creasing her forehead and a look of mild unease. Carlotta couldn’t possibly imagine what on Earth was on Maddy’s mind but she didn’t have time to wonder as the rest of the contessa’s retinue entered the room.
Like the woman herself, the contessa’s companions were all young and preternaturally beautiful. Each moved with a confidence and grace that made it impossible to tear one’s eyes away and Carlotta found herself staring at them all with a kind of desperate longing. Deep, deep down inside her some primal instinct was screaming danger but it was completely smothered by the overwhelming desire to move closer, to be nearer to them all, to do anything, anything, to be allowed to just exist in their presence.
While Carlotta, like most of the other people present, was grappling with the sudden and unexpected realignment of her reason for living to now revolve around the Contessa and her friends, Marina da Carmino had reached the thrones where Louis Auguste and Marie Antoinette were seated. Carlotta noted that the royal couple were looking somewhat less than their usually unflappable selves although they were holding it together better than most. Carlotta was aware that the one portly marquis behind her was sobbing brokenly into his drink, completely overcome.
Though, with exquisite grace, the Contessa curtsied low and the rest of her retinue followed suit, Carlotta had never seen someone perform an act that was intended to show subservience and deference somehow make it look so…completely not subservient in any way.
Once the visitor had introduced herself to the king and queen the silence in the room was steadily replaced once more by the buzz of conversation and the string quartet began to play again. There was a palpable tension in the room now, however, as everyone tried, with varying degrees of subtlety, to work their way closer to the new arrivals.
Carlotta turned to Jean Luc and the rest of her friends who, like herself, were blinking as if they had just awoken from a dream. Just as they had begun to discuss everything that had happened in the last five minutes, Jean Luc stopped mid-sentence, his eyes fixed over Carlotta’s shoulder.
“Oh, um, Carlotta I think there’s someone who wants to speak with you.”
Carlotta swivelled and was startled to find one of the Contessa’s friends standing behind her. The woman was of a similar height to herself, she had flawless olive skin and deep hazel eyes. When Carlotta turned, she inclined her head in greeting and spoke in flawless French but with an accent that Carlotta couldn’t place.
“Carlotta Dubois, my name is Cassandra. The Contessa invites you to join her this evening for a private supper.”
Carlotta glanced briefly in the direction of the Contessa and, though she seemed to be deep in conversation, she turned her head as if sensing Carlotta’s eyes upon her and again when their eyes met Carlotta felt her heart stutter in her chest.
Turning back to Cassandra with a steadying breath, she responded, “Yes, of course, I’d be delighted.”
Cassandra smiled and that voice somewhere deep inside tried once more to shout a warning but again went unheeded.
“The Contessa will be so pleased. I will collect you this evening when it is time.”
As Cassandra moved away through the press of people, the crowd parting before her, Jean Luc spun Carlotta around and they both began talking at once in excitement. However, they were soon interrupted by Madeleine. Carlotta turned at the feel of her sister’s hand on her arm and was surprised to find her looking concerned. Wringing her hands, she pulled Carlotta into a quiet corner and began to speak urgently.
“Please don’t go, Lotta. I don’t know why but I feel like that woman is dangerous. Please, for me, please stay away from her.”
Carlotta frowned in concern, “Maddy what are you talking about? You’re talking nonsense, the Contessa isn’t dangerous. She’s a guest of the king and queen.”
Grabbing her sister’s hand, Maddy continued in a pleading tone, “I…I can’t explain it, Lotta, I just…I just know you shouldn’t go tonight. Please. I’m begging you.”
Starting to feel annoyed, Carlotta pulled her hands away, “Look, just because you’re content to spend your best years cuddled up to your bible doesn’t mean that’s what I want, Maddy. I know you don’t approve of me but you don’t have to. I can’t wait to have dinner with the Contessa tonight. I think she’s amazing. Whatever nonsense this is, “ she gestured broadly at her sister, “you can just stop it because it’s not going to work.”
Madeleine recoiled from Carlotta’s harsh tone and tears began to well up in her eyes, then with a nod of resignation, she turned and made her way out of the room. Carlotta watched her go with a mixture of anger and guilt but whatever lingering feelings of remorse she had about her harsh words to her sister were soon washed away by wine, conversation, and the presence of the Contessa and her companions among them.
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