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Start Reading The Embroidered Book, a novel brimming with romance, betrayal, and enchantment that reveals and reimagines a dazzling period of history as you have never seen it before.
The Empress Is Unmoved – You, Lucky Habsburg, Marry – Charlotte Voices an Opinion – Death and Decay – The Embroidered Book – Sacrifices
If only Antoine could find a love spell. A potion, a ribbon, a ring. With the right magic, she’d open Mama’s heart, and save her sister from marrying the beast of Naples.
It’s not as if the Empress Maria Theresa, sovereign of half of Europe, is incapable of love. She loved Papa so fiercely that she tallied every minute she spent with him in her diary. And after Papa’s death, the year before last, Mama loved her daughter Mimi enough to let her marry the man of her choice.
Charlotte says that Mama was just relieved that Mimi did fall in love with a man, since her only romance before that had been with her sister-in-law. But Charlotte is uncharitable.
It is undeniable that Mama shows no signs of bending when it comes to Josepha. Josepha must go to Naples. It has been decreed.
Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube. The family motto. Let others wage war; you, lucky Habsburg, marry.
Even Antoine, who has not studied much Latin, knows nube is in the imperative case.
At her sigh, Mama looks up sharply.
Mama has brought Antoine and her sisters to do their needlework in the Porcelain Room today. All the unmarried archduchesses, except for pretty Liesl, who is away visiting cousins. The remaining girls work furiously, silently, like mice trapped inside a teacup. Shadow-coloured plaster vines climb creamy walls on indigo trellises, between masses of gold-framed drawings.
Josepha is sixteen, which is very grown up, but she looks terrified. Her eyes go wide at Antoine’s sigh, but she doesn’t lift her head. She pokes her needle into the cloth in her lap.
Charlotte is slightly less grown-up at fifteen, but she looks angry. Dear Charlotte. She’s the only one who’s a match for Mama, and she thinks Mama hates her for it. But hasn’t Mama said she plans to send Charlotte to marry the heir to the French throne? The most important of all the alliances? Only Charlotte could manage that, because she is just like Mama, though Antoine would never tell her that for fear of the look Charlotte would give her.
Antoine, at eleven, is still young enough to sigh and get away with it. She should be more prudent, though. Everything depends on Mama’s love.
‘Are you worried about your performance tomorrow?’ Mama asks Antoine.
‘No, Mama,’ she says with her best smile. ‘I’ve practised and practised. I just hope the ambassador likes it.’
The Neapolitan ambassador. The man who wants Josepha to marry his horrible king.
‘Don’t frown, Josepha,’ murmurs Mama. ‘Your forehead.’
Josepha smooths her expression, but her eyes go feral, like the cats the groom chased away from the stable last year. She stares at the cloth, unable to see where the threads went awry.
‘You’ve pulled a thread clear through, Josepha,’ Mama says.
‘Ah. Thank you, Mama. I don’t know how I didn’t notice that.’
‘Distraction is not a luxury we can afford,’ says Mama. She sips her coffee, out of a cup the same colours as the walls.
Mama, as a young woman, drank coffee in secret, defying her father’s ban on the drink during the wars with Turkey. Now Mama drinks coffee openly, because she is the Empress and can do what she likes. Only she will decide what can and cannot be done within the walls of Schönbrunn Palace in the year 1767.
Including everything her unmarried daughters do and think.
‘Josepha,’ Mama says, ‘I suspect you’re still nervous about your upcoming marriage. You should accept God’s will. Pray for the strength to do so.’
‘Yes, Mama,’ says Josepha. Her face goes white.
‘You have an opinion, Charlotte?’ Mama looks at her. ‘Say it plainly, if you do. I will have no coughers and tutters among my children.’
Charlotte looks at the white gloves in her lap, at the tiny knots of white silk thread in the monograms. ‘I have heard nothing good of King Ferdinand of Naples. People say he is a monster.’
‘He is a sixteen-year-old bachelor king,’ says Mama. ‘Of course he is a monster. His whole life he has been surrounded by flatterers and, and . . . Italians. He needs a good Christian wife to keep him away from the brothels and turn his mind towards his responsibilities, that’s all. And we need Naples on our side.’
‘Why me and not Amalia?’ Josepha whispers, her face red. ‘She is stronger than I am, and older. She is downright terrifying.’
‘Ferdinand refused her,’ Mama retorts. ‘He doesn’t want a wife five years older than he is. Not even Liesl, despite her beauty. Which is all to the good, as your brother and I have several possibilities in mind for Liesl. Anyway, Amalia will do for Parma. We must all do our duty, Josepha.’ She pauses, and raises one formidable finger. ‘The current Empress of Russia began life as the shabby daughter of a shabby soldier in a shabby town. But her mother made her a good marriage. And now Catherine rules an empire!’
‘Catherine rules because she had her husband killed and seized his throne for herself,’ Charlotte says with a little smile.
‘Well,’ her mother replies with a wave of her hand, ‘Russians.’ For Mama, it sufficed to say ‘Italians’ or ‘Russians’ to explain events in other lands. ‘And she would not have had a throne to seize, had she married some local count’s son who called her pretty.’
‘Mimi married the man she loves,’ says Charlotte, quieter, and without the smile.
Why test Mama? She’ll only anger her. Antoine holds her breath.
Nobody speaks for a moment; the only sound is thread moving roughly through muslin. Nobody disputes, least of all Mama, that Mimi has always been Mama’s favourite.
‘The circumstances were different,’ Mama mutters, her voice sinking so low that Antoine stops pulling her thread, to hear. ‘We need Naples, and Naples has a king of marrying age. Josepha will be queen of the lower half of the Italian peninsula, and Sicily besides. It is not such a terrible fate.’
Charlotte lifts the white glove she’s been embroidering, and looks at Antoine pointedly. Charlotte has been insisting on trying an enchantment to change Mama’s mind. Trying to direct Mama’s thoughts seems awfully dangerous, and Antoine has been arguing against it. But what choice do they have?
If only Antoine could find a love spell.
She starts to sigh again, and realizes halfway through, and tries to stop it, but it turns into a cough.
‘Goodness,’ Mama says, dropping her embroidery into her lap and raising both hands to God. ‘All my daughters are coughing today. I’ll have the cooks prepare my thyme tea for all three of you tonight. We can’t afford any more illness in this family.’
The first death Charlotte remembers was her brother Charles. Smallpox. He was the same age Charlotte is now; he made desperate, horrible jokes right to the end, and she wishes that wasn’t how she remembers him.
Not long after that, their governess, Countess Ertag, was murdered.
The next death was her sister Johanna. Johanna and Josepha were a pair, just as Charlotte and Antoine are. There are so many siblings in the family that they stretch in age from Mimi, who’s now twenty-five, down to ten-year-old Max. And there some gaps, from deaths. So the children tend to be closest to one or two of their siblings who are nearest to them in age. Johanna and Josepha did everything together and were always merry.
Johanna didn’t even seem to mind being betrothed to Ferdinand of Naples; but then, she was young, and Ferdinand hadn’t yet made his reputation as a beast. The year after Charles died, smallpox took Johanna, two days before Christmas. Josepha took it hardest; since that time she’s never looked anything but afraid. And now she’s heading off to Naples in her sister’s place, if Mama gets her way.
The next death was their father’s. Two years ago, a messenger came to say Papa had died – suddenly, of a stroke – far from home.
Their brother Joseph lost both his wives to smallpox: the first, he passionately loved (while she passionately loved Mimi). The second wife, poor woman, he did not love at all; and now she lies in the family crypt too.
The girls are powerless over death.
But Mama was not. When Joseph’s second wife fell ill, so did Mama, but Mama got better. Let Antoine believe it was the ribbon enchanted ‘for mending’ they put under Mama’s pillow; Charlotte knows it was sheer stubbornness. And when the Empress heard that her daughters had been crawling under hedges in the garden (they were looking for dropped coins, for sacrifices), she declared that Charlotte was an unfortunate influence on her younger sister. From then on, they were to see each other only at dinners or with other family present. Different governesses from then on, and different tutoring sessions, and rooms at opposite ends of the children’s wing.
They found ways of coping, of meeting in secret at night to talk about magic.
But they still have no spell that will save a life.
Charlotte opens Antoine’s door, softly and soundlessly, and steps in.
Antoine is standing at her dressing table, with a pewter powder box in her hand.
‘There you are,’ she says brightly. ‘Did you bring it?’
Charlotte nods, and pulls the book with the embroidered cover from the false pocket sewn inside her nightgown, the pocket that can hold a vast quantity of things (so long as each is, itself, a pocket-sized thing) and still seem empty from the outside.
Antoine kneels and sprinkles ash from the powder box.
‘I’m glad you have ash,’ says Charlotte, pulling the items for the sacrifice out of her pocket. ‘It’s been so hot lately that there’s nothing in the fireplaces and the kitchens are always crowded.’
‘Herr Bauer gave me some.’
‘The gardener. He puts ash into the soil around the roses. He is very clever and shows me all the new roses he invents.’
‘People don’t invent roses,’ Charlotte says, before realizing she knows nothing about it; perhaps they do.
She opens the embroidered book. On the thirtieth page, there is the spell she needs, in her long-dead governess’s patient and frilly handwriting:
For an item of clothing, reproducible and inexhaustible, to confer on the wearer persuasion of a listener’s mind beyond the natural, these proofs have been found: convaincre oonvainore ooovaioore oooaaioore oooaaiooue. For the prime magister, these were the sacrifices corresponding to the letters of power, in sequence dextral: ooo, for the love, an affection, written; aa, for the body, clippings of all fingernails; i, for the hope, a passing fancy or appetite, written; oo, for the second love, a fondness, written; u, for the memory, one jape or trifle, written; and at the last, e, for the treasure, a clipped groat.
‘It’s mostly writing this time,’ Charlotte murmurs. ‘You have pen and paper? I brought the other things.’
The other things are a velvet coin-purse filled with her own fingernail clippings and a small copper coin, with the shield of Austria on one side and ‘1 HELLER 1765’ on the other. She doesn’t have a clipped groat, and she hopes this will do.
She goes now to Antoine’s dressing table, where her sister has laid a few scraps of paper, an inkwell, and a quill. Charlotte has already decided on the hope: for chocolate cake tomorrow. A passing fancy or appetite. The memory, small as it is, is harder than she thought it would be: the people who used to tell jokes were Papa and Charles, and they are both dead, and she doesn’t want to sacrifice her memories of them. Finally, she remembers the way her little brother Max dramatically lifted his coat-tails to sit down at dinner the other day, in imitation of a certain cousin. She smiles and writes that down.
The loves are difficult. For the fondness, she writes the name of Mops, Antoine’s little pug. It’s hard to imagine not being fond of Mops, with his perpetually confused face and delightful little ears. The affection is a little trickier, but ultimately she settles on Lerchenfeld, her new governess. She’s been a good governess, even something like a friend.
Charlotte folds the papers, so that Antoine won’t see what she’s written. They do this to spare each other.
Into each point of the star, she puts her sacrifices, walking around twice clockwise so she can place them in order as they are in the spell.
Then Charlotte pulls the final item out of her pocket: the long white gloves with her monogram on them. Mama says it is a waste for the unmarried archduchesses to monogram anything; soon they will have new initials, once they’re married. But Charlotte likes to mark the things that are hers.
She steps gingerly over the ash lines of the star, places the gloves in the middle, and steps back.
‘I give these things,’ she pronounces.
She takes a deep breath, pulls out a handkerchief and puts it to her nose. She can hear Antoine doing the same. But she smells nothing, sees nothing.
Perhaps the sacrifices aren’t worth enough. The coin is wrong, or the memory too trifling. Or they misunderstood the spell altogether. They’ve never tried this one before.
Then, small but real movement: the little pile of fingernail and toenail clippings darkens and shifts. The coin rusts and wears, going green and then bright orange and then brown. The bits of paper become ragged and thin and, as with every spell, there is a horrible moment when the words come off the paper, in a stream of ink that rises into the air as if someone were tugging on them. Little currents of dark ink in the air, dissipating, gone. The paper itself is a pile of brown threads, and the pile of nail trimmings is now a kind of sludge. Everything goes brown, eventually. The coin, the paper, the nails.
Charlotte watches it all with her usual fascination. It distracts from the fact that she is losing things, including some she will not remember. No matter how small, these losses are deaths, unnaturally hastened. They have given death more than its due. But now she is fifteen, and she has need of important magic.
There it is at last: the smell of decay and death. They hold their handkerchiefs tightly to their faces, but the smell fills Charlotte’s nostrils anyway.
The coin lasts the longest. For several minutes, the pile of brown dust remains, smaller and smaller, until a breath of unseen wind takes it. The items in the points of the star are gone, as if they never were. She doesn’t care what they eat for dessert tomorrow, and Lerchenfeld is just an old sycophant in a bonnet. She glances at the pink-lined basket where Mops is snoring gently, disgustingly.
As for the memory, it was there – a moment ago – but it is gone. She can see her hand setting down the words, but her mind’s eye can’t make sense of what she wrote. Her breath catches – it always comes with lurch, this loss of memory – but she is fairly sure that it was nothing of any importance, this time.
The embroidered book is still lying open on the floor. Charlotte closes it gently, gratefully. The stitches of the book’s cover are familiar to her fingertips: the hard knots at the centres of the forget-me-nots, the feathered chain stitch of the vine at the edge. She can even feel the slight change in the length of the stitches where her own work begins.
Countess Ertag was governess to both Charlotte and Antoine when they were young. She had been working on the embroidery for a book cover for months. A week before she died, she stitched the worked canvas onto the binding, and sat staring at it, resting her hand on it, as though it were the portrait of one dead.
‘It isn’t finished,’ Charlotte said; she was then nine years old. ‘Look, the bottom right corner is empty.’
‘I left that to finish later. See how I’ve left it open here, just a little flap? I’m going to put a poppy there, the same design as the petticoat I made for you last year.’
A week later, a servant found Ertag with her throat cut in her bed.
The children were not supposed to know, but Charlotte and Antoine overheard. They listened at keyholes. All of Ertag’s posessions were found strewn about her room: her petticoats and prayer books and letters. Everything stained with blood. Her window, a palace window, wide open to the cold air.
Nobody talks about this now; Mama must have covered it all up.
The embroidered book was still in the needlework basket, which was in the nursery, so nobody noticed it. One day, Charlotte took it out, and flipped through the blank pages. Then she closed it and laid her palm on the cover and sat with it, just as her governess had done.
‘Why don’t you finish it?’ Antoine suggested. Charlotte can still see Antoine as she was then, at six years old: her taffeta skirt spread around her on the nursery floor, her golden ringlets tumbling. Antoine has a way of making herself into a picture, of sticking in the memory that way.
And she has a way of being wise about things. Charlotte did finish the embroidery, in memory of her governess. She filled in the poppy, just as it was on her petticoat. She stitched the corner of the embroidered canvas to the binding. What would she do with those blank pages? What had Ertag intended to do? She’d opened the book again, idly, and then dropped it.
It had filled, somehow, with Ertag’s handwriting.
Spell after spell, written in a style that was nothing like the way Ertag spoke.
And on the first page, a five-pointed star drawn in golden ink, with the word ‘cindres’ written across the bottom, and in each point of the star, a word: ‘l’amour’, ‘le corps’, ‘l’espoir’, ‘la mémoire’, ‘le trésor’.
This was a book Ertag kept secret, and Ertag was killed, her possessions examined. Charlotte and Antoine have never told anyone about the book, and never will. They don’t even need to discuss it. They simply know.
The spells are written confusingly. There are dozens of them – it’s hard to say how many, as some have variations, and it’s difficult to say where one leaves off and another begins. Some spells stretch on for pages of notes and commentary, even bizarre drawings. Only thirteen of the spells make the slightest sense; with the rest, Charlotte and Antoine aren’t sure what item one is meant to enchant or how. The sisters haven’t even tried all thirteen that do make sense – there is one for a shroud to remember the dead, which Antoine finds frightening even to read. And some of the ones they’ve tried, they can’t make work.
Still, they’ve enchanted dolls and ribbons and silk fans. They can remember a pretty speech without memorizing it, cause a twinge in each other’s hands, and cool a hot ballroom, a very little bit, on a summer night.
Now they can add one more spell to their list of successes: the spell for an item of clothing that makes the wearer persuasive to listeners.
‘It worked!’ Antone stands up and claps her hands. The smell of rot lingers, but they know it will be gone in minutes.
‘It worked,’ Charlotte agrees, plucking the gloves off the floor.
‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’ Antoine asks, flopping onto the bed. ‘Remember what happened when you enchanted Wolfgang Mozart’s shoe.’
One of the first spells Charlotte ever managed. ‘I do remember. He tripped, which was just what I intended. So the spell worked perfectly. And the little beast got plenty of attention, not to mention mollycoddling from you, so it did him no harm.’
‘He could have tripped in front of a carriage, or off a cliff. You promised me then—’
‘Believe me, Antoine, I won’t do any harm to anyone. I’m trying to prevent harm, remember? Do you really want Josepha to go off to marry that horrible boy?’
Antoine bites her lip. ‘Just be careful.’
‘I will be. And anyway, unlike Mozart’s shoe, I’ll be the one wearing these. I’ll be the one in control.’
Charlotte pulls the gloves onto her arms, one after the other. They look just the same as they did, but now they are enchanted. Now they have power.
‘Tomorrow,’ Charlotte vows, ‘we’ll make Mama see reason at last.’