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Authors: Sherwood Smith

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“Mord believed in the cause of freedom,” Jaska said, looking up. “Not only for the Jews, but for the serfs. We first became friends over our agreement that the
corvée
is another word for slavery. So we all fought for Poland’s constitution, and its freedom.”

“I was on the way to Russia as a prisoner, unconscious, when Generals Suvorov and Fersen attacked Praga, on the east of Warsaw,” the general said.

Jaska spoke, staring into the fire. “The brigade died all around us, heroic to the last,” he said low-voiced. “Only a handful left, most wounded. I was knocked unconscious, Hippolyte defending me until he, too, was wounded and left to die. I woke to discover my knee shattered. Hippolyte had lost an eye and a good section of scalp. Mord’s squadron was all dead, and he, too, was unconscious and presumed dead. When we came to, we had been looted of everything, even our coats and boots. Mord, the most whole of us, helped us off the field. It took us all day to thread our way among the corpses, and when we got to his village, all the civilians—mostly the old, the women and children—were dead. Everyone.”

“The Cossacks had been given permission to chase and kill,” the General said.

“We stood there looking down at his betrothed, who had died in the doorway of her house, trying to protect her grandmother, who was also dead.” He stared absently at the curled wood shavings on the table under the general’s patiently working fingers, and began absently to scrape them into a neat pile. “Mord said, ‘The only things moving are the ghosts and demons.’”

“And now we come to where I sent our friend Mord.” The General opened his hand; the carving knife pointed one way, the little wooden horse’s face another. “But first, you must understand that many lose their faith in war. I myself attempted the sin of self-murder not once, but twice, the second time by starvation when the Empress Catherine sent men to get the names of my allies from me. There are some who shed the faith of their fathers like old clothes, and never look back. Did you know that Minister Fouché was once a monk? It is said that he took the greatest pleasure in ordering the executions of ecclesiastics. Not just the bishops and so forth, some of whom were reputed to be steeped in sin, but the simple nuns and monks who did nothing but care for the sick and the poor.”

“After the slaughter at Praga, Mord had me to take care of,” Jaska said. “I believe it was the only thing that kept him alive.” Jaska scraped the wood shavings into his hand and tossed them into the fire, where
they flared briefly. “After that, our goal was the reunification of Poland and the restoration of the Constitution. The three of us stayed together, bound by our experiences and the cause of freedom. Hippolyte left us for another mission, and Mord and I were sent on a mission to ascertain Bonaparte’s intentions, and then to report what we found to the general, here. We were gathering information in the north of France when we met you, Citizen.” Jaska nodded at Aurélie.

Kosciusko smiled at her. “He reported to me as ordered, but then there was no goal, for I still cannot get Bonaparte to honor his promises to arm my Poles for the freeing of our homeland. I was afraid, in his anger, Mord would do something desperate. So I sent him with a message to a holy
zaddik
—you know this word? I do not know how to translate it other than holy man, a follower of the Baal Shem Tov, who was a mystic, one in favor of the simple folk, of heartfelt prayer rather than the minutiae of law and custom. A man of miracles, it is said. And the same is said of his descendant, Rabbi Nachman. Mordechai needs a miracle, thought I, and so I sent him to this young holy man with a request for news of my Jewish friends. I heard nothing for months, until two weeks ago. Mordechai is riding as guard for a visitor I expect to arrive at any time. And now you know a little of his history.”

Silence fell. I suspect that the two men were waiting for Aurélie to disclose her mission, or talk about herself, but she stayed quiet, her expression troubled.

The General began to carve again, gouging the tool into the wood to fashion an ear. “So melancholy a subject, the war. Let us banish it with music, since, from the sounds, our dinner is still in preparation. Citizen René Baptiste, will you and my former aide-de-camp favor us with a tune?”

Aurélie agreed at once and ran upstairs to pull her music case from her satchel. When she came down, Jaska was fitting together not his old hautbois, but a beautiful clarinet. His careful fingers, his little smile of pride, betrayed his feelings before he played a note.

He’d been good with the hautbois, but on a clarinet, he was (at least to my ears) an orchestra-grade artist.

Aurélie, very much on her mettle, began hesitantly, then plunged boldly into a Bach piece, as Jaska tapped the floor lightly, then came in on counterpoint, the notes clear and sweet.

The music acted like a beacon, and before long the entire house had accumulated, from the kids to the servants. Jaska and Aurélie played three more French airs, then Jaska trilled the opening notes of one of Aurélie’s fae pieces. She flushed with pride and dashed off an arpeggio. They launched into the piece, which was one of my favorites.

The older kids began dancing about, the General beating time with his hand on the table.

They’d just settled into the chorus when, high as a nightingale’s call, a violin echoed the main line, then soared up and up in a complexity of notes.

Everyone froze.

The sound, coming from nowhere and yet everywhere at once, was like the fae had arrived in secret. Only better, because they could only mirror emotion, but the violin brought it straight from the heart.

The door opened, and there was Mord, looking like an ancient prophet with his long hair, his short, silky beard and mustache, violin under his chin, a host of travel-worn people at his shoulder.

TWENTY-NINE

T
HE FIRST DAY,
everything was great.

The second day was proof that you can’t cram a lot of strangers into a small house and not see signs of strain.

For one thing, there was not enough room in the barn for the farm animals and all the horses, even with Lady Vera-Diana’s carriage left out in the weather. As for the ladies, I don’t think I was the only one noticing that Lady Vera-Diana and Madame Zeltner both, though exceedingly polite to one another, each wanted the general’s attention. The Poles wanted to talk politics, and the rest of the family was trying to live around the visitors. The kids got louder, and the adults got more polite, the smiles more fixed.

When Jaska came alongside the spinet after Aurélie tutored a lead-fingered little kid, he said softly, “When you’re finished, Mordechai and I request the favor of your opinion.”

As soon as she slogged out into the muddy yard, Aurélie found the two awaiting her in the cold air, Mord looking at the ground, his hands loose. His new beard curled softly, emphasizing the fine bones of his face. He had a new hat, low in the brim, that shadowed his eyes, and he wore a long, shabby black coat over his clothing.

He glanced sideways at Aurélie, then away very quickly.

Jaska said, “We are ready to leave for Vienna. But there is a question to be settled first.”

“Which is?” she said.

“We might have to walk most of the way,” Jaska said. “It’s ten times the distance from Dieppe to Paris. We can take mounts, but if we encounter any French, especially if you are correct that Bonaparte is shortly to declare war, the French military will at best offer to buy, and more than likely requisition our mounts. The animals deserve better than a battlefield. I’m thinking that if we continue to travel as musicians, we have a better chance of passing undisturbed if we walk. Musicians never have any money, thieves have no use for musical instruments, and if we look sufficiently armed, we should dissuade the lout looking to pass the time by thrashing strangers.”

“I will need better shoes,” Aurélie said. “These are from the theater. They won’t hold out more than a day.”

“We will stop at the first cobbler we come to.”

“How will we afford that?” Mord asked.

“We have means,” Jaska said at the same moment that Aurélie tapped her waistcoat pocket. She spoke: “Madame Josephine gave me plenty of money.”

Mord looked up, his brows lifting. “We serve Bonaparte’s wife?”

“It is a personal errand,” Aurélie stated. “It has nothing to do with the military.”

Jaska started toward the house. “We will leave in the morning.”

And so they did.

They could hire two rooms at decent inns. Jaska saw to it that he and Mord were always next door to Aurélie. Thus, she told me, she felt perfectly safe.

With her own room she was able to bathe and to wash out her shirts, stockings, and underthings before she slept, and dry them at the fire at night.

The trio offered music wherever they stopped. Some of the better inns even had a keyboard of some sort in the common area.

The first few days of their journey were under snowy conditions. Their progress was slow at first. Toward the end of each day, Jaska leaned
more heavily on his walking stick (from which he’d removed the dashing military tassel) and Aurélie winced as she broke in her new shoes. All that week, France’s landscape was blanketed with white, cross-hatched and stippled each day a little more by the carriage tracks and foot or hoof prints of regular life.

Mord was mostly silent. He would take out his spectacles when it was time to play, and rehearsed whenever Jaska suggested it. He memorized all the new music Jaska had brought, so he could play without having to read.

He had always been good, but something had changed. There was an urgency to his interpretations of the pieces, the volume sometimes flamboyant, sometimes diminishing to a murmur, the tempo speeding up and then slowing to a lingering poignancy. Sometimes he would go off into solos of his own, leaving the others to accompany as they could. And early in the mornings, if Aurélie came downstairs in time, we sometimes saw him walking off a little distance to play to rustling evergreens, or a trickling brook.

When they set out, Mord took care to position himself so that Jaska always walked in the middle. It was so casually done that they had fallen into the habit before Aurélie became aware of it.

Jaska tried to make conversation, asking easy questions—never about politics, the Bonapartes, or Paris, but of reading, childhood, families. To the latter, Aurélie returned evasive answers, and he was not exactly forthcoming, either, so I still didn’t know how he related to the Dsarets.

Mord didn’t talk at all.

One night, Aurélie said to me, “What have I done to Mord? He will not talk to me. He barely looks at me.”

“I suspect it’s because he knows you are a girl inside those clothes.”

“But nothing has changed!”

“Everything has changed. Here.” I touched my head, since she could see me in the tiny shaving mirror set on a stand. “I believe that in his culture, unmarried women and men do not mix. It’s not respectful.”

“But he is apostate, I thought.”

“I know of people who have no belief in God, but who celebrate their religion as a cultural tradition,” I said. “Those things are not always easy to define.”

“Nor the perception of God.” Aurélie crossed her arms. “I came to hate the word ‘Providence,’ because it was Aunt Kittredge’s God, the one who gave things to people who acted like her because they were supposedly good and let others starve or die because they deserved it. That’s not
le bon Dieu
. Enough of her. We shall never see one another again. I think I see, now, why Mord calls me Citizen René, or sometimes Monsieur Baptiste. He is more comfortable if he can
pretend
I am a boy.”

“I think that’s correct. And as long as you both maintain the pretence, then he can be comfortable.”

“But with Jaska, it’s different. He knows I’m a girl, and the pretence is also different. He never says ‘he’ about me, though he calls me René. There are little things…I cannot explain them all. But I know he knows who I am. And he’s very respectful.” She was silent for a time, then smiled. “I like it.” Her smile vanished. “What I don’t like are questions about my origins. I don’t want to lie about who I am, and yet I don’t want to tell him that I’m the daughter of a slave.”

“But he talked about how he believes in freedom for all.”

“Yes,” she said, her gaze uncertain. “But I can
never
forget the horrid things my aunt said. I don’t think I could bear it if he heard the truth, and I saw that same disgust in his face, though I am the same person I always was! When Aunt Kittredge thought I was a marquise’s daughter, my aunt was good enough to me, but though I had not changed, her idea of me changed.” She clapped her hands. “Like that. No, I can’t bear thinking of it.”

“We all want to be accepted as we are,” I said. “Including Jaska.”

Aurélie brought her chin down in a slow, thoughtful nod. “’Tis just.”

“So talk to him about other things.”

That next morning, Jaska gave up the questions entirely. As soon as they hit the road he pulled a thick little book from his pocket and began reading aloud from Fielding’s
Tom Jones
.

BOOK: Revenant Eve
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