Hello! Today we have a special excerpt and giveaway for Stephanie Burgis’ Congress of Secrets, the stand-alone follow-up to her adult debut Masks and Shadows.
CHAPTER ONE – 1814
“Of course, I could never go back to Vienna,” Michael Steinhüller said. It took a fine art to pitch his voice to wistful melancholy over the sound of three dozen carousing actors in Prague’s tiniest and most crowded tavern. But Michael had chosen this tavern, and this moment, carefully—and the notorious Count Cagliostro himself, the greatest trickster of all time, had taught Michael the art of successful vocal control.
“You’ve been to Vienna before, then?” Michael’s drinking com-panion, Peter Riesenbeck, smiled at him from a face flushed with elation and alcohol, looking far too young to be the director of a theatrical troupe. “Did you think it the most beautiful city in the world? The tales I’ve heard—”
“I was born there,” Michael said. Honesty, for once. The thought was bittersweet; he let it linger, to lend sincerity to his wistful smile. “And I can tell you, every tale you heard was true.
The lilacs in spring—the Stefansdom cathedral by evening light . . .” He sighed.
“You miss it, then,” Riesenbeck said. “Why did you leave?”
“I? Oh, never mind my history. Star-crossed love, disinheritance, disasters, tragedies . . . . We
should drink to your good fortune instead. To the Riesenbeck theatrical troupe! And to your Grand Tour. May you take Vienna by storm and dazzle every member of the Congress.”
“From your lips to the Almighty’s ear!” Riesenbeck laughed and chinked clay cups with him by the guttering candlelight. “But there’s no need to trust to fortune, my friend. I’ve been preparing for this moment for years.”
So have I, Michael thought.
Skating from one gamble to the next, from one disguise to another, from deposed French nobleman to earnest Russian mine-owner . . . for the past four-and-twenty years, whatever role the moment called for, Michael had willingly played, and Fortune had smiled on him as warmly as if to make up for the shattering of his former life and shining ideals. He’d never waited too long to flee when a game went sour, never picked a dupe who couldn’t afford their losses, and always won enough to keep himself until the next game paid off.
But even his run of luck could not continue forever, and at eight-and-thirty years of age, Michael was ready to aim at higher stakes than mere survival. It was time to play the gamble of his life. Every instinct in his body told him that the Congress of Vienna was the chance he’d been waiting for: the moment he could finally play the cards he’d held hidden in his sleeve for the past four years.
Within a week at most, the city would be full of the wealthiest and most influential men and women in all of Europe, gathered together to waltz, gossip, and be witnessed in glorious celebration of Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat. Even now, diplomats were preparing themselves to barter the fate of the Continent, aristocrats to display their finery, and the city of Vienna to become the beating heart of Europe.
Michael couldn’t possibly miss it.
But first, he had to find a way back through the Vienna city walls.
As they downed their beers, Michael glanced out of the corner of his eye at the rest of the actors from the Riesenbeck troupe, busy lording it over their less-fortunate colleagues on this, their last night in the eastern backwaters of the Austrian Empire.
Please God let them be fêted with as many drinks as possible, and let their moods rise as high as their fortunes had with their invitation to the empire’s capital.
Michael signaled to the tavern keeper, and more beer arrived at their own crowded corner. Riesenbeck reached for his purse, but Michael forestalled him.
“Allow me, please.” He paid the waitress and shrugged, smiling crookedly. “Fate may have left me little, but I can still afford some pleasures.”
“Forgive my curiosity.” Riesenbeck leaned forward, gesturing expansively with his beer. “I’m an actor and a playwright; I love stories. I have to know. Why did you leave Vienna? Why can you not go back?”
He grinned infectiously. “Feel free to bash in my nose if I’m too impertinent—but I’d rather you aimed for some part that wouldn’t show up so well on stage.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Michael said dryly. “But you’re too young to waste your time with tragedy stories like mine, surely.”
“Why, what old stories is our director drawing out of you?” Marta Dujic, the Riesenbeck troupe’s gloriously curvaceous leading lady, purred the words directly into Michael’s ear. “Herr Riesenbeck is a veritable fiend for stories, you know. He’ll pull every last one from you as fodder for his plays, if you aren’t careful.” She smiled at his blink of surprise and slid into the seat beside him, smelling of sweet perfume as well as sweat.
Michael didn’t begrudge her either scent. She’d fallen all across the stage that night in the company’s final Prague performance, showing an impressive athleticism that mingled oddly with her current demeanor of limpid femininity. He was neither deceived nor offended by the intimate smile she aimed at him now from her position of enticing closeness; he could see her husband, Karl, watching them carefully from a safe distance away. Actresses, like fraudsters, had to learn to play many games to succeed.
“Marta, this is Herr . . .” Riesenbeck frowned. “Damn it, I’ve forgotten—what did you say your surname is?”
“It was Von Helmannsdorf when I was born,” Michael said. He gazed into his beer, swirling the dark liquid in its cup. “My father was the first count of that name, raised up by the old empress of blessed memory; I was his eldest son. Still, I’ve gone by the name of Neumann for so long now, I sometimes forget I ever had any other name.”
“But how mysterious,” Marta breathed, leaning closer. “Why—?”
“You mentioned earlier: disinheritance, disasters, and tragedies?” Peter Riesenbeck was smiling outright, his blue eyes gleaming with sheer enjoyment. Did he believe what he was hearing? Michael couldn’t tell. But at least he was listening.
“And star-crossed love,” Michael finished for him, nodding. “That was the cause of all the rest. You see, my father, being the first count, had high hopes for all of us. So, when I married an actress from the emperor’s Burgtheater . . .”
“The Burgtheater.” Riesenbeck’s face smoothed into near-religious bliss. “She must have been accomplished indeed. Which troupe did she play in?”
“Ah . . .” Michael blinked and took a stab in the dark. “She was Italian—an opera singer, in fact, hired by Emperor Joseph himself. The first time ever I heard her sing—”
“She stole your heart, of course,” Riesenbeck finished for him. “But—naturally—your father did not approve?” He took a swig from his beer. “Let me guess the rest. The disinheritance came next, followed by her death from—oh, a wasting disease, I suppose? Very romantic, very tragic. And then, of course—”
“Peter!” Marta said. “Do remember you are speaking to her widower.”
“I beg your pardon, Michael. Herr von Helmannsdorf, I should say.” Riesenbeck looked genuinely abashed. “I was carried away, I’m afraid. It’s only that it sounded so much like a play, I—”
“Never mind.” Michael smiled tightly. “It has been a long time since I lost my Gabriela. I could hardly expect you to understand.” There was a short, uncomfortable silence before Michael took pity on the director. “But you were quite correct. I did lose Gabriela. By then, my father had cut me out of his will. I left Vienna—I could no longer bear the memories—and I heard the news of my father’s death only a year later.”
“But why can you not go back?” Riesenbeck asked. “Surely after so long, even the most tragic of memories—”
“Ah, but the memories themselves are not the difficulty,” Michael said. “Not anymore. Now we come to the true mystery. You see, my brother inherited the title as well as the entirety of my father’s fortune. And yet . . .”
“And yet?” Marta raised perfectly arched eyebrows.
“And yet,” Michael said, drawing the word out, “my mother always claimed in her letters that a second will had been written by my father, after I’d left Vienna.”
“Brilliant.” Riesenbeck grinned. “Hidden, of course—they’re always hidden. But you must return to Vienna, man! Rip up the floorboards! Search the secret passageways! Hunt—”
“I would care for nothing more,” Michael said. “Unfortunately . . .” He paused, moistening his lips, as he prepared for the climax of the piece.
Like a play, Riesenbeck had called his story—and so it was. Michael had chosen it precisely for his current audience, and he could only pray that they applauded it. The truth . . . The truth was something rather different.
Although Michael had abandoned his own ideals years ago, as the price of survival, he’d never lost his cursed status as an enemy of the state. If he was discovered by the customs guards at Vienna’s city walls, he would be taken to Vienna’s notorious secret police for interrogation—and whether they arrested him as the idealistic boy radical he once had been or as the wickedly accomplished fraudster he had become after his escape . . . well, Michael knew better than most just how bitterly his own story would end.
As it had ended for the two people he had loved most, on the night he’d fled Vienna, twenty-four years earlier.
Curse it. He hadn’t thought of them in years. He had sworn never to let himself—and he had succeeded, until now. It was the thought of Vienna that brought back his former life to him, the one he had dis¬carded and forsworn decades ago. Michael gritted his teeth against the memories. Still they rose to fill his vision with a vivid intensity that the years had done nothing to diminish: her face, tear-streaked but gazing at him through the flames. As if he were her only chance for salvation . . .
He would not remember what had happened next. He couldn’t let himself. If he did, he could never return to Vienna. And if he didn’t return to Vienna, he would miss the greatest opportunity of his life: the chance for true security at last.
“Let me tell you about my younger brother and his ploys,” Michael said, and shook aside the disquieting sheen of memory. “You see, he could hardly take the risk that I might return and claim my true inheritance. So . . .”
Michael told his invented story with all the color and excitement of an epic drama, and in the telling of it and the creation of a dozen confirming details, he almost managed to forget his moment of unaccustomed weakness. He ordered a third round of drinks for the entire theatrical troupe, and then a fourth. And when, in the middle of the celebrations, Peter Riesenbeck suddenly looked up with an expression of delighted inspiration, Michael felt the delicious frisson in his chest that marked the moment of success.
“Do you know,” Riesenbeck said, “I may have a solution to your dilemma!”
“Impossible,” Michael said. “Ever since my brother arranged the theft of my identification papers, I cannot pass the walls, and—as I cannot enter the city—”
“Ah, but we can pass through the walls, can we not?” Riesenbeck said. He winked knowingly at the little group of his actors that had gathered around them as the evening progressed. He drew them closer, as his voice dropped to a stealthy undertone. “You wouldn’t know this, of course, not being an actor yourself . . . but there’s a bit of a trade secret to our traveling carriages. You see, we haven’t always got all the spare money one could hope for . . . and customs inspections are so damned heartless and thorough . . .”
“Yes?” Michael said. He had to grip his cup of beer in both hands, to keep his tone innocently curious. Almost there . . . only say the words . . .
“The fact of the matter is, your old family home isn’t the only spot with secret hiding places,” Riesenbeck said. “Of course, it would be a tight squeeze for you, fitting into the compartment under the floorboards of our carriage . . .”
“We’d have to pack him in with some food,” Marta said. “He could hardly go seeking his inheritance without any sustenance, after all.”
“Apples should be enough for the trip,” her husband said judiciously, narrowing his eyes at Michael’s lean frame. “At any rate, he’ll only need to be hidden down there for an hour or two at most, for the passage through the walls. We’ll have to poke some holes into the floorboards, though, to be safe. We wouldn’t want him suffocating during the customs inspection.”
“Well, Michael?” Riesenbeck raised his clay cup in salute. “What do you say? Are you ready to join us for an adventure?”
“Am I ready?” Michael shook his head in true wonderment, trying to control the excitement that wanted to overwhelm him. To return back to Vienna, after four-and-twenty years of exile—to begin the greatest adventure of his life . . .
He couldn’t hold it back after all. Exhilaration rushed through Michael’s chest, as irrepressible as air. He let it break out in a grin that took in all the beaming faces that surrounded him. “My friends,” he said. “You have my deepest gratitude. I would be honored to make use of your secret compartment.”
Sabers flashed in the early morning sunlight, signaling the arrival of the emperors, princes, and archdukes of Europe at the Congress of Vienna’s opening ceremonies. Battalions of infantry, regiments of cavalry, and all the cuirassiers of the Viceroy of Poland joined ranks to honor them. As Europe’s highest rulers crossed the flower-strewn grass to the open tent in the center of the field, bright sunlight lit the golden orders of distinction on their military-styled jackets until they too seemed to blaze with triumph.
“My, my,” murmured Caroline, Countess of Wyndham, in French to her companion. “What a distinguished company indeed. I had no notion that so many of our kings were so very martial.” She widened her eyes innocently, dropping her voice. “Do you think they defeated the great Napoleon by blinding him with their medals in the sun?”
Her companion, the Prince de Ligne, turned stifled laughter into a cough, his shoulders shaking. His blue eyes twinkled in his weathered face, still handsome even in great old age. “Why, Lady Wyndham,” he murmured back, “I would be astonished to learn that you, of all people, haven’t heard yet of the finest entertainment in this Congress.”
“Your Grace?” She tilted her head closer, ignoring the neighbors around them.
They sat in the front row of seats, facing the sovereigns’ tent—a coup indeed in the battle of social grasping that already ruled the newborn Congress. The Prince de Ligne breathed his words directly into Caroline’s ear.
“Why, the finest and most popular form of entertainment among our serene rulers, madam, is to gift each other with the highest of honors. Distinctions that men used to fight and die for are now handed out like baubles between friends. Indeed, they’ve already been reduced to awarding each other mere military ranks. Emperor Francis is now a colonel in Tsar Alexander’s Imperial Guard, I believe, and Tsar Alexander a colonel in our own Hiller regiment.”
“But what a distressing turn of fortune for their wives,” Caroline said. “Do you think the emperor shall care much for his new life in a humble colonel’s tent camped somewhere in the Crimea? Next time the tsar decides to mount another war of invasion, I hope the emperor is not, at least, given a tent that leaks. It would detract so sadly from the glory of war for him.”
She bit her tongue abruptly, wondering—had she gone too far? No, surely not, judging by the twinkling amusement in the prince’s eyes.
The old prince was as wily a diplomat—in both courtly and political life—as she had ever met. Born a prince of the Holy Roman Empire, he had made his name across the Continent for his glittering epigrams, his famous—and infamous—letters to all the greatest personages of Europe, his books on military history, and his own dramatic military exploits as a field marshal of the Austrian Empire. In short, he was a very master of self-publicity, and if he did not penetrate her disguise, no one ever would.
Of course, it would have been a joy to befriend the Prince de Ligne for nothing more than his keen wit and open-minded intelligence— both qualities more precious to Caroline than gold or jewels, after years of vapid high society—but she did not have the luxury of acting for pleasure now. The Prince de Ligne had been a great man of the Austrian court for at least the past half century. She had worked and planned to achieve her introduction to him three nights ago, and this seat beside him today.
Now that she had it, and had his undivided attention as well . . . She moistened her lips and kept her tone as light as if she hadn’t been maneuvering toward this goal ever since they’d met.
“Of course, I’ve never met the emperor himself, so perhaps I am unjust. Perhaps he would care for nothing better than a tent that leaks.”
“Life au naturel?” The Prince de Ligne laughed. “I hardly think so, my dear. You’re thinking of the grand old days of Versailles and his aunt the Queen, who used to hold such charming picnics there. I fear our current emperor is not a follower of Rousseau’s philosophies.”
“What a pity.”
“Perhaps, and yet . . .” The prince narrowed his eyes at the tall, stooped figure across the field. “I think, on the whole, we must be grateful, Lady Wyndham. For I must confess, I shudder at the very idea of His Majesty in a simple shepherd’s outfit.”
Following the Prince de Ligne’s gaze across the field, Caroline spotted the signs of preparation as the last of the royals settled into position. Only a few minutes left to achieve her first goal; no time left for maneuverings. She smiled up at her companion and abandoned all subtlety. “Will you indulge an unfashionable urge in me, Your Highness? I find myself oddly curious to meet the emperor.”
The prince studied her a moment, his eyes narrowed in thinly veiled speculation. Caroline felt as if a hot light were being held to her face.
She kept her smile open and held his gaze without flinching. She was the Countess of Wyndham, a wealthy British visitor. Why shouldn’t she desire to meet the Austrian emperor, to brag about the event to all her friends back home?
She felt uncomfortably certain that she wasn’t fooling her companion in the slightest.
The prince finally shrugged. “But of course. I would be delighted to assist you, my dear, just as soon as this ceremony is over.” He raised one eyebrow, his gaze still speculative. “I’m afraid the field may become a trifle crowded if we aren’t quick about it, though—would you mind very much if we met His Majesty before seeking out any refreshment?”
“Not at all,” Caroline said lightly. “Why should we wait?”
Her voice hadn’t even trembled—it was nigh-on miraculous. Caroline kept her smile fixed as she raised her fan to hide the quickness of her breaths. Her heartbeat thrummed in her ears. Her own long wait was almost over . . . and she could not, would not be too late.
“Aha. And now, I believe, the ceremony is finally ready to begin.” The prince indicated a white-haired old man rising to his feet within the tent, by the grand altar. “The Archbishop of Vienna, my dear. I hope you can bear with us for some time. Your own Church of England believes in, ah, short services, does it not? Have you ever had the opportunity to sit through a ritual in the true faith?”
“Not in England,” Caroline said, with scrupulous honesty. Her tone dismissed the subject, but she cursed herself for weakness. Why hadn’t she simply lied, and said, “No, never”?
Open-minded the Prince de Ligne might be, but if he knew her true identity she would be ruined in an instant. Caroline knew better than to put her trust in any man. She’d learned that lesson four-and-twenty years ago, scarcely six miles from where she sat now.
Gold sparkled from the ornaments on the altar, and wax candles lost their battle with the sun as the Archbishop intoned the Latin Mass. Caroline tried to distract herself from the nervous thrum of her pulse by watching the varying expressions on the rulers’ faces as they all waited through the ceremony. Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Russians had all united against Napoleon Bonaparte—and indeed, here in this glittering array of thanksgiving, one would never guess that Bonaparte had ruled the Austrian empire itself in all but name, holding it as a tribute state until less than eight months ago. Emperor Francis had even given the invader his own Habsburg daughter as a second bride, to buy an illusion of autonomy.
But then, Emperor Francis, as Caroline knew, had never been one to let his conscience interfere with his pleasures.
Guns thundered out a salute as the archbishop blessed the bread and wine. Swords clashed in honor. Incense filled the open air. And with the glory of the noise and the dizzying scent and the holy benediction—No, Caroline thought. No. Not again!
A tingling thrill shot through her body and seized her. Inescapably, it bore her to her knees. She was barely conscious, through the confusion, of the rest of the assembled thousands dropping to their knees around her. The noise of the guns and swords ceased abruptly as the soldiers themselves fell prostrate.
Did the others take it for real religious fervor, the gratitude and grandeur of the moment, that overwhelmed them, stole all energy from their bodies, and tossed them onto the ground, half-conscious?
Caroline knew better.
It had been twenty years since she had felt this invasion. She could fight it—she had learned so many techniques of resistance by the time she was fifteen, though none of them had worked well enough in the end . . . but she was five-and-thirty now, a girl no longer, and her life had granted her a will of steel. She had sworn that no one else would ever use her so again.
She could force herself to her feet and spit in the face of the man who did this—But if she did, and so revealed herself, she would lose everything she had waited and planned for so long. Caroline forced herself to breathe deeply, fighting down the panic that thundered in her ears as she felt the energy bleed from her body. Funneled into . . . where, this time? She forced her eyelids open to peer across the field.
Even the sovereigns had prostrated themselves on the ground. All of them seemed lost in the moment, except . . .
Aha. Francis II, Emperor of Austria-Hungary, looked up with a small smile, surveying the field around him. She could almost see the glow of reception around his prone body. It was he who benefited from all of them this day, receiving the glory of a thousand.
And the man who gave it to him . . .
Caroline knotted her nearly numb hands into fists on the grass. She did not need to see Count Pergen to know that he was here, somewhere, manipulating all. It had been four-and-twenty years since her life had been ripped into shreds around her. But she was ready, now, at last.
She would not leave Vienna again until she had rescued her father from the men who had destroyed her childhood.
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