The Accidental Empress
POSSENHOFEN CASTLE, BAVARIA
Sisi crouched low, peering over the wall of brush. Her gaze was alert, her legs ready to spring to action, her heart pumping blood throughout her veins with a speed that only the hunted can sustain.
“Come out, you cowards!”
Just then Sisi spotted the figure crossing the meadow, a dark silhouette piercing the backdrop of the crenellated white castle and deep-blue sky, and she ducked once more out of sight. Her brother Karl had not yet found her, and he yanked on his horse in frustration, as if to remind the beast of the authority his sisters so brazenly flouted.
Sisi watched Karl, her contempt thickening as she discerned his thoughts: clutching the reins, he imagined himself a Germanic warrior atop a stallion, ready to ride on the Hungarians or the Poles and seize glory from the battlefield.
“Karl the Beneficent, Duke of Bavaria, demands that you come meet your lord and surrender!” He scoured the woods, his words finding Sisi even as his eyes failed to locate her. “Kiss the ring and I shall show you mercy—more mercy than you deserve. But if you continue to run and hide like rodents, I shall have to flush you out. And when I do, you shall wish you had surrendered!” The horse pawed at the ground, agitated under Karl’s grip.
Sisi was fed up with being the prey. The odds were not just; if she had had the chance to mount her own horse, Bummerl, she would chase Karl all the way to the Bavarian border, and he knew that. But she hadn’t expected to have to fend off her brother when she had wandered toward the wooded lake shore with her sister, Helene, to pick wildflowers.
“We should surrender, Sisi.” Helene crouched beside her, worry pulling on her sharp, dark features. “You heard him. Otherwise, he will make trouble for us.”
Two years younger than Sisi, her brother was nearly twice her size, his thirteen-year-old body robust from adolescence, beer, and bratwurst. But though she lacked his girth, Sisi knew she could best Karl with wit.
“We’ll show Karl the Beneficent what a formidable foe he really is.” Sisi nodded at her sister, picking up a cool, smooth stone. Helene responded with a whimpering sound.
“So be it,” Karl hollered from outside the woodline, on the far side of the meadow. “You have chosen your own fate. And that fate is—pain!” Karl dug his leather boots into the sides of his horse. The beast whinnied in response, and then Sisi felt the earth begin to vibrate beneath her.
“Now we’re really in for it, Sisi.” Helene paced in their hiding spot like a wounded animal as the sound of hoofbeats grew louder.
“Hush, Néné.” Sisi quieted her elder sister. Oh, how she longed to be atop Bummerl! “Helene, when I say ‘run’—you run. Understand?”
“Run where? Right into the lake?”
“No.” Sisi shook her head. “In the other direction. Across the meadow, toward home.”
“Trust me, Néné, all right?” After a pause, Helene nodded her reluctant assent. Sisi poked her head out once more from behind the brush and saw that her brother had almost cleared the entirety of the meadow. He rode toward the woods where they hid, his eyes narrowed to two slits as he scoured the brushline. But he had not yet discovered their hiding spot. Sisi took aim, raising her hand and the rock in it. The hoofbeats were like cannon blasts now as Karl barreled toward them. She waited, patiently, allowing him to come still closer. When he was within striking distance, Sisi released the rock, hurling it with as much precision as she could manage.
“Ouch!” Karl yelped in pain, halting his horse and sliding out of the saddle before collapsing into a heap on the ground. From the stream of blood curling downward from his nose, Sisi knew she had hit her mark.
They had to seize their opening. “Helene, run!” Sisi ordered, pushing off from her crouched position. She charged toward home on the other side of the field.
“Why, you little witch!” Karl yelled at Sisi’s passing figure, but he remained prostrate on the ground, stunned by her assault.
Heart flying in the heady moment of victory, Sisi raced across the meadow toward the large house. Her own legs might not carry her as swiftly as Bummerl’s could, but they were strong, agile from years of skipping up the mountains, swimming in the lake, hopping across the fields in search of plants and small animals. They would be enough to deliver her to safety.
Glancing over her shoulder to ensure that Helene followed, Sisi cried: “Hurry up, Helene!” She grabbed her older sister’s arm, forcing her to keep apace. They shared the same parents, but little else. Helene thrived indoors: studying languages, reading philosophy, knitting, or writing quietly in a shadowy corner by a fire. Sisi always took charge when they were out of doors.
A few more steps and, hands linked, they cleared the meadow. Panting, Sisi rushed past a startled footman and flew into the front hall of the castle, Helene following behind her. Through the latticed window she saw that her brother had regained his mount and now trotted away from the lake toward home.
“Papa,” Sisi cried, running into the large drawing room. “Oh, thank goodness you’re here, Papa!”
Duke Maximilian’s inanimate frame occupied a large, overstuffed chair in the corner of the dark room. At his feet, beside his mud-licked boots, reclined two snoring hounds, their own paws caked in dirt. They lifted their heavy heads in a perfunctory greeting as the girls ran in, but the duke continued to snore. A lit pipe sent up a curl of smoke where it burned in Duke Max’s lap, forgotten.
“Papa, wake up.” Sisi removed the hot pipe before it singed a hole in his woolen pants, and placed it on the side table. “Wake up!” The duke choked out one last snore before he emerged from his deep slumber, his breath overripe with the sour stench of beer.
“Papa, Karl is chasing Néné and me. Please, wake up.”
“What’s that?” The duke rubbed his eyes, bloodshot and droopy-lidded.
Sisi heard her brother barking a question at the startled servants outside: “Which way did they go?” The front door opened and she heard Karl step into the great hall, his boots landing heavily on the stone floor.
“Ah, Sisi.” Now Duke Maximilian shifted in his armchair, staring at her through glassy eyes, the same honey color as Sisi’s, though not lucid this afternoon. “You’ve arrived just in time. I was just learning a new tavern song.” The duke looked at his favorite daughter with a drowsy grin, lifting an index finger as he began to sound out a bouncy, peasant tune. “But have the others left? Gone home, already?” Duke Max looked around, his gaze listless.
Sisi’s frame sagged as she heard Karl’s footsteps outside the drawing room. “Papa, please—”
“You little wretch, you’ll get it this time.” Just then, her brother appeared in the doorway. His nose seemed to have stopped bleeding, but a sheen of crimson had caked into a muddy line between his nose and lips. “You hit me in the face with that rock.”
Sisi straightened up, turning from her father to face her brother. “You deserved it.”
Helene began to simper. “Papa, please.” But their father stared into the sputtering flames of the fireplace, his empty beer mug tipped toward his lips in an effort to sponge any last drop.
“Sisi, what do we do?” Helene backed away from Karl. Sisi cursed under her breath as her victory turned to failure. She should have heeded Helene’s pleas and mollified Karl; her own reckless pride had led them to this.
“I’ll teach you sneaky whores to defy me.” Sensing weakness, Karl lunged first toward Helene.
“Get off her!” Sisi tightened her hands into two hard fists and prepared to land the first blow before what would undoubtedly turn into her own beating. She shut her eyes, so that she didn’t see the figure emerging just then through the doorway.
“There you are.” Duchess Ludovika swished into the drawing room, an imposing figure of black silk, crinoline-hooped skirt, and thick brown curls. Karl instantly recoiled at the sight of their mother, retreating into a shadowed corner.
“Good, you’re all here.” The duchess crossed the room in two quick strides and yanked open the drawing room curtains, setting free a cloud of dust. “Helene, Elisabeth, I’ve been searching everywhere for you girls.”
“Mamma!” Sisi ran to her mother, falling forward into the duchess’s long, slender frame. She shut her eyes, dizzy with relief.
“Sisi, my girl. Whatever is . . .” But the duchess paused as her eyes moved from Sisi toward her husband’s reposing frame, and the large slicks of mud darkening the carpet. “Look at this mud!” The duchess sighed, her shoulders rising and falling with each irritated intake of breath. “I suppose the servants will have to clean the carpet again.” Then, under her breath, she murmured, “And I’ll have to ask them to dust in here, as well. And this curtain needs mending. And I must remember to ask how the chickens are doing with eggs . . .” Ludovika sighed, tugging once more on the tattered curtains. Unlike her husband, who seldom concerned himself with the managing of their home or the petitions of the local peasants—and certainly not with the concerns of his children—Ludovika always had too many tasks, and too little time in which to complete them.
The duchess looked to her daughters now, the two of them cowering beside her like frightened kittens, and then to Karl’s bloody face. Understanding spread across her features. She let out a weary sigh, looking out the window, as if longing to escape this dark, mud-stained room.
“Gackl,” Ludovika spoke, her tone suddenly sharp. “Is that your horse I see in the garden, untethered?” Their mother used the familiar nickname for Karl, the name they had given him in his cradle because of the noises he had made. Gackl was the local Bavarian term for a dirty, barnyard rooster. Sisi thought it suited Karl just fine.
“Well, is it?” The duchess repeated her query when Karl didn’t respond. Karl looked out the window, fumbling for a reply. She cut him off.
“Go get that animal immediately and take it to the stables. If you can’t care for your horse properly, you shall have no horse at all.”
“Yes, Mother.” Karl answered, his ink-colored eyes burning with a warning to Sisi: This is not over.
“That boy.” The duchess turned from her departing son to her daughters. “And look at you girls—no better. As dirty as a pair of reapers.” The duchess scowled at Sisi, surveying the tracks of mud that lined her daughter’s skirt. Yet she never forbade them from wandering into the woods to pick flowers, or down to the lake to fish.
“Quiet down, Ludovika, I can hardly hear Frau Helgasberg speak.” Their father looked up at his wife from his armchair, momentarily pausing a conversation he appeared to be conducting in his head. Sisi felt herself cringe at the name. Frau Helgasberg was one of her father’s favorite mistresses. That he uttered the name now so unashamedly was nothing new: everyone in the home knew of her existence. Everyone in the duchy knew of her existence. And yet the brazen and frequent reminders of her father’s infidelity never failed to infuriate Sisi.
Ludovika, for her part, was unflappable, not faltering for a moment. “Max, how about a walk to the lake?” The duchess glided to her husband’s side and lifted one of the empty glasses to her nose. She sniffed disapprovingly and swept the other empty mugs into her hand.
“Up you go, Max, you’ve squandered enough of this day.” Ludovika pulled at the wool blanket covering her husband with her remaining hand, but he pulled back, keeping his arms on the cover.
“Away!” He growled, a loose dribble of slobber slipping out the side of his mouth.
“Max, I beseech you,” Ludovika kept her voice quiet, controlled. She was the picture of composure, even if she did feel the same frustration that now caused Sisi to seethe. “Get up. Please.”
“Stop this at once, Ludovika. And do not talk to me this way in front of our distinguished guests! The baron and I will finish our conversation.”
The duchess studied her half-lucid husband, apparently weighing the efficacy of arguing further. She sighed, and, turning to a footman, said: “Coffee for the duke. And quickly, please.” Turning back to her two daughters, she clapped her hands. “You girls had better go wash up. Change your dresses and come down for supper in something more fitting. Your father and I”—now the duchess threw a perfunctory glance in the general direction of her husband—“have news for you.”
“Sisi, my wild girl! Helene! Come sit, we are waiting on you two, as usual.” The duke appeared more alert at dinner, no doubt thanks to the mug of Turkish coffee his wife had placed before him.
The family was gathered in the castle’s formal banquet room, surrounded by the stuffed heads of the large caribou, reindeer, and bright orange fox that decorated the walls. The spoils of her father’s countless hunting expeditions. Watching him now, his frame jittery and his eyes bloodshot, it was difficult for Sisi to imagine Duke Maximilian hunting his way through Bavaria. But tales of his skill as a sportsman were well known; he was seldom at home in Possenhofen for more than a few months before fleeing on another such trip. He, like Sisi, loved the wilderness. Perhaps even more than he loved women and liquor.
“Your mother insisted that we all clean up for this dinner. What do you think she has afoot?” The duke grinned at Sisi, his amber eyes twinkling with teasing, and Sisi’s disdain for him lessened ever so slightly.
In their unstructured household, such formal dinners were a rarity. The duke was seldom at home in the evenings. Their mother, though she tried valiantly to impose some sort of order over a masterless household, found it hard to wrangle her brood of wild and free-spirited children. This time of year, with the days stretching out as they did, long and mild, Sisi’s evening meal was often little more than a bowl of cold soup whenever she wandered indoors, sun-kissed and dirt-stained, from a day spent in the fields and woods.
Sisi presumed that the formal dinner had to do with the news to which her mother had alluded earlier in the day. Was it possible that there was another baby on the way? What with the four siblings that had come since Karl—the little girls Marie, Mathilde, Sophie-Charlotte, and the baby boy, Max—Sisi had grown accustomed to such announcements. It seemed that, however much enmity existed between her parents, they both submitted willingly, and often, to the task of producing heirs for the duchy. Each one of Papa’s long absences was inevitably followed by his unexpected return: a chaotic, confusing family reunion; weeks later, news of another baby.
But Sisi did not suspect that that was her mother’s news this time; not when Mamma’s busy behavior lately had been so unlike her past pregnancies.
Sisi took a seat now at the large mahogany table beside Helene. She had dressed, according to her mother’s wishes, in a simple gown of black crepe, and the maid, Agata, had brushed and styled her long hair into two plaits.
“Black dresses again tonight. Always black.” Sisi had lamented to her sister and the maid while dressing before dinner.
“Hush, Sisi. Don’t let Mamma hear you complaining about the mourning clothes yet again,” Helene had chided her. Like her mother and Helene, Sisi’s wardrobe was limited these days, on account of an unknown aunt’s recent passing.
“But I’m tired of black. I didn’t know Great-Aunt . . . whatever her name was . . . and I want to wear blue. Or green. Or rose.” Sisi yanked her head in opposition to Agata’s tight braiding.
“Hush now, Miss Elisabeth,” the round-faced maid replied, speaking in her wiry Polish accent as she adjusted the tilt of Sisi’s head. “Always so impatient. Try to be sweet like your sister.”
Karl, opposite Sisi at dinner now, wore a fine black suit and cravat. He had wiped the blood from his wound, but a light-purple bruise had begun to seep along the flat ridge of his nose. As he gulped his beer, scowling at his sisters and tugging on the too-tight cravat around his thick neck, he appeared more like a schoolyard menace than the heir to the duchy.
The younger four siblings, under the age of twelve, did not dine with the family, but ate in the nursery with their governesses.
“Wine, Master Karl?” Agata circled the table, pouring wine into goblets while two footmen stepped over the snoring dogs to deposit platters of hot bread, potatoes, and cabbage slaw.
“No wine for me, Agata. More beer.” Karl proffered his empty stein for refilling. Sisi noted how Agata replenished Karl’s drink while keeping her body a safe distance from his; her brother’s hands—like his father’s before his—tended to wander when an unsuspecting woman got too close.
“Now that we are all here.” Duchess Ludovika sat straight-backed and alert, her manners impeccable, a foil to her husband’s tired slouch across the long table.
“Before you begin”—Duke Max waved a finger in the air—“I have something very important to say.”
“Oh?” Ludovika eyed her husband. “What’s that, Max?”
“I think the servants have been touching my mummies again.” Max ignored his wife’s sudden scowl, continuing on with words that strung together like pieces of sloppy linen hanging on the laundry line. “I don’t want them touching—”
“Max, they have been told countless times not to touch your Egyptian memorabilia. I assure you they have not.” The duchess, at the opposite end of the long table, speared a link of bratwurst with her fork and deposited it onto her plate.
“But I think they have been. I swear that my mummy’s arm looks off balance.”
Sisi had witnessed this exchange enough times to know that her mother had to suppress the urge to offer an impertinent reply.
The duke continued to grumble: “I can’t have the servants meddling with such priceless treasures.” Sisi knew that her father, when he was not off stalking wildlife, drinking his way across Bavaria, or fathering illegitimate peasant children, cared about nothing more than the collection of artifacts he’d assembled in his study at Possenhofen Castle—chief among them the relics with which he’d returned from Egypt decades earlier, on a trip to the Temple of Dendur. Sisi had always lived in fear of the mummified young female body kept in her papa’s study—especially after Karl had taken the time to explain in vivid detail about the dead girl’s corpse, just about the size of her own, preserved under the crusty, yellowed wrappings.
“Well, Max, if you are certain.” Ludovika sipped her wine through tight lips, exchanging a knowing glance with Sisi. “I will have another word with the servants to remind them not to touch the mummy.”
“Or the stones . . . I don’t want them touching the temple stones either.”
“Or the stones, then.” The duchess managed a quick, taut smile. “Anyhow, girls”—she turned her gaze from her husband to her daughters, seated beside one another—“as I told you, I . . . we . . . have big news.”
“What is it, Mamma?” Sisi glanced at Helene. While dressing for dinner, they had tried to guess, but neither of them had come up with a reasonable theory as to what their mother’s announcement might be.
“Perhaps Karl is betrothed,” Helene had guessed, a contemptuous smirk on her face as she had helped Agata braid Sisi’s mass of dark golden hair.
“Poor girl, if that’s the case,” Sisi had answered, laughing with her sister and her maid.
To Sisi’s surprise, however, the news seemed to have nothing to do with Karl. “Your father and I have been thinking about your futures.” Ludovika lifted her knife to cut into the link of wurst. “Isn’t that right, Max?”
Sisi sat up, her back stiffening against the chair.
“Surely you girls remember your Aunt Sophie?” The duchess fed herself slowly, eyes flitting back and forth between her two daughters.
“Aunt Sophie, the Austrian?” Helene asked.
Sisi remembered the woman she had met five years earlier, during a trip to Innsbruck in Austria. Aunt Sophie had been strong and tall and thin, in many ways resembling her mother. But unlike Ludovika, Aunt Sophie had had a sharp edge that permeated her entire being—her voice, her mannerisms, even her smile.
It had been 1848—the year that the uprisings roiled throughout all of Europe. Vienna was burning and Austria’s royal family, the Habsburgs, had been at risk of losing their ancient hold on the crown. Aunt Sophie, who had become a Habsburg when she married Emperor Ferdinand’s younger brother, had begged Ludovika to come support her at the royal family’s emergency meeting in Innsbruck.
They met at the imperial retreat, high atop the stark Austrian Alps. Sisi, then ten years old, remembered the trip well; she had grown up in the mountains, but had never seen anything quite like the snow-capped scenery into which they traveled.
“We are at the top of the world,” Helene had gasped, as the carriage had climbed higher and higher. Sisi remembered wondering at what point the sky stopped and the heavens began.
On the first night in Innsbruck, her mother had left them in a dark nursery, rushing away beside her elder sister and a crowd of men in clean, crisp uniforms. The adults had all seemed very busy and very cross—tight-lipped whispers, creased foreheads, darting eyes.
Innsbruck passed, for Sisi, as interminable hours with stern, unknown governesses in that quiet nursery. Karl had been perfectly pleased; the imperial nursery was well-stocked with candied nuts and their cousins’ trains and toy soldiers. But Sisi had longed for her mother. At home, they were never separated from her for more than a few hours. And they seldom spent summer days entirely indoors, but rather conducted their education by climbing the mountains around their beloved “Possi,” fishing the lake, riding horses, and studying the local flowers.
Sisi had spent the hours of that trip staring out the glistening windows of the nursery at the mountains, wondering where the birds that flew overhead landed in the rocky, barren vista.
On one such afternoon, restless and aching for a glimpse of her mamma, Sisi had slipped unnoticed out of the nursery. After a fruitless search, Sisi found herself wandering the long, empty halls, lost. Now she had no idea how to find her mother, or how to get back to Helene and the stern imperial governess, a woman by the name of Frau Sturmfeder. It was then that Sisi had stumbled upon the familiar figure of her aunt, the woman’s heeled shoes clipping down the long hall.
“Auntie Sophie! Auntie Sophie!” The resemblance to her mamma had been such a relief that Sisi had flown toward the woman, arms outreached and expectant of a hug.
Sisi was met, instead, with a cold slap to the face. “Calm yourself, child.” Sophie scolded her, the skin around her lips creasing into a patchwork of well-worn lines. “You do not run in the palace, and you do not accost adults. My sister is more determined to raise a pack of wild things than to groom you into civilized little nobles. Now, why are you alone? Back to the nursery at once.” With that, the woman had straightened her posture, patting down the place where Sisi’s tiny hands had pressed into her skirt, and continued her determined march down the long hallway. She did not glance back toward her niece again.
“That’s right, Helene.” Her mother’s response to Helene’s query disrupted Sisi’s remembrances, bringing her back to the dinner table and the duchess’s announcement. “My elder sister, Sophie, the Archduchess of Austria.”
“You know what they say about your Aunt Sophie?” The duke glanced at Sisi, a mischievous grin tugging on his lips.
“Max, please, it’s really not appropriate—” The duchess lifted a hand, but failed to quiet her husband.
“They call your Aunt Sophie ‘the only man in the Viennese Court.’?” The duke erupted in laughter, pushing his coffee mug to the side as he opted instead for wine.
The duchess, her lips pressed together in a tight line, waited for her husband to finish laughing before she addressed her daughters once more. “It has been extremely difficult in Austria since the emperor, Sophie’s brother-in-law, abdicated the throne.”
“Didn’t that happen when we were in Innsbruck?” Sisi asked, recalling once more that unpleasant trip. Her parents seldom discussed politics, and the remoteness of Possi was such that Sisi’s indifference toward the topic was allowed to go unchecked. But still, she knew that her aunt occupied a powerful position in the Austrian Empire.
“Yes, Sisi,” her mother replied, nodding. “You remember that trip?”
Sisi nodded as her mother continued: “My sister has had to rule, more or less, to keep the throne safe for her son until he grew old enough to assume power.”
Sisi remembered her cousin from that same visit to Innsbruck: a stern teenage boy, his hair the color of cinnamon. He had been too old for the nursery, but it had been his trains and toy soldiers that Karl had hoarded. Sisi had only seen her cousin a handful of times, always in the company of his military tutors, attendants, and his mother. Sisi recalled how Franz, a narrow-framed boy to begin with, had seemed to shrink whenever his mother had spoken, looking to her for cues as to where to stand, awaiting her subtle nod before answering a question posed to him. Why had that reserved and taciturn boy been selected as emperor to replace his deposed uncle? Sisi wondered.
Ludovika turned now to Sisi, as if speaking only to her younger daughter. “My sister, Sophie, has managed to survive in Vienna where men have failed. Though perhaps she has at times exhibited a strength which some have called unladylike, she has preserved the empire and always maintained the . . . how should I say this?”—and now Ludovika cast a sideways glance at her husband—“decorum that is expected of her high position.”
“?’Spose you’re right, Ludovika. Let’s drink to good old Soph. She’s got more stones than the rest of us.” The duke took a keen swig of his wine, oblivious of his wife’s scowl.
“So, is Cousin Franz old enough to assume power now?” Sisi asked, turning to peer at her sister. Helene sat quietly, nibbling on a small bite of potato. Helene never had much of an appetite.
“Indeed, Sisi,” the duchess said, her expression brightening as someone took interest in her narrative. “Your cousin, Franz Joseph, has ascended to the throne. He is emperor of Austria.”
“And doing a damned good job so far, too.” The duke spoke with a mouth full of meat and cabbage slaw. “The way little Franzi fought at the Italian front—that was baptism by fire. That’s the way a boy becomes a man, Karl my boy. Those Italians threatened to leave his empire.” The duke landed a fist on the table, sending some of his son’s frothy beer over the brim of its mug. “And once he finished them off, he did the same to the upstart Hungarians. Crushed them, with the help of the Russians. ’Course, I’d never trust a Hungarian, that’s the truth.”
The duchess interjected: “Your father is referring to the fact that your cousin, the emperor, has preserved his empire even as, in recent years, several territories have risen up in revolution.”
“How did Cousin Franz become emperor when it was his uncle’s crown?” Sisi asked, trying once more to picture that timid, red-haired boy on a throne.
“The people demanded that his uncle step down,” the duchess explained. “I give my sister Sophie much credit for putting her son forward as the viable alternative that would please the people and keep the Habsburgs in power, while managing not to upset the rest of her family.”
“Probably why all the men like to point out the stones on that one, that Sophie,” the duke muttered, grunting out a quiet laugh. Ludovika threw a pointed glance at her husband. Sisi shifted in her seat, looking sideways at Helene as a tenuous silence settled over the table.
Her mother continued after several moments: “Now that Franzi—Franz Joseph—is in power, he faces one task of the utmost importance. A duty which his whole empire wishes to see fulfilled.”
“What’s that?” Sisi asked.
Ludovika breathed in a slow inhale, tenting her fingers on the table as she assumed a thoughtful look. “He must marry, of course.”
Sisi swallowed, unsure why this simple statement caused her stomach to flip as it did.
Duchess Ludovika turned to her eldest daughter now, eyebrows arching in a quizzical expression. “Franz must find himself a bride and produce an heir to the Habsburg dynasty.”
But why was Mother staring at Helene like that? Sisi wondered. A shadow of a suspicion took root in her thoughts, like a shapeless form barely detected through a fogged window. No, Mother couldn’t possibly mean that. The room was silent. Karl tugged on his cravat and ordered more beer. Helene, her cheeks as colorless as the table linens, kept her eyes down.
The duchess pushed her plate away, crossing her hands resolutely on the table. “Néné, I never allowed myself to hope for such a fate for my daughter.” Duchess Ludovika’s voice caught on the words, and Sisi was surprised at the moment of rare sentimentality in her usually composed, stalwart mother. Before Sisi could untangle the meaning of these words, her mother continued.
“To think . . . one of my girls sitting on the throne in Vienna.”
Helene struggled to utter even the quietest of replies. “Mother, surely you don’t mean . . .”
The duchess nodded. “My sister has asked for you, Helene. You are to be Emperor Franz Joseph’s betrothed.”
Helene dropped her fork to her plate with a jarring clamor.
“Helene, you are to be Empress of Austria!” The duchess beamed at her pale daughter, but no one else at the table spoke. Sisi understood Helene’s mute shock. Her own sister, Helene, the girl who had just returned with her from picking wildflowers. The sister who slept beside her at night, burrowing her cold feet under Sisi’s warm legs. The painfully shy girl who loved philosophy and religious instructions, but pled sickness to avoid her dancing lessons. Helene, Empress of Austria? Presiding over the Imperial Court at Vienna?
“And just think, Néné,” the duchess continued, undaunted by her daughter’s silence. “Once you give birth to a son, you shall be the Imperial Mother, the most powerful woman in the world.”
The duke raised his glass and took a celebratory swig of wine. “To Helene.”
“To Helene,” Sisi echoed halfheartedly, still probing her sister’s features for some hint of a reaction. But Helene’s face was blank.
“We are moving up in the world, the House of Wittelsbach, eh, Karl? You won’t have a hard time running this duchy with a sister sitting on the Habsburg throne!” The duke was now in a full celebratory humor.
But the reaction elsewhere at the table was mixed: Sisi sat in silence, mining Helene’s face for clues as to her thoughts; the duchess, exuberant at first, now appeared incredulous, stunned by Helene’s expressionless quiet; and Karl seemed far from joyous over the news of his sister’s elevation.
Eventually Karl broke the silence. “Helene, a bride. You know what he’ll expect you to do?” He speared a long link of meat with his fork and held it toward Helene, letting it hang menacingly before her. “How about some sausage?”
“Karl! Have you no shame?” the duchess hissed at her son, staring at him until he lowered the outstretched fork.
Sisi reached for her sister’s hand, clammy and cold, under the table.
“Helene, it is the greatest of honors, and we are all proud of you for being chosen.” The duchess turned back to her food, which she began to cut with quick, jerky motions.
“But, Mother,” Helene spoke at last.
The duchess looked up at her daughter. “Yes?”
“Mamma, I . . .”
“Out with it, Helene.” Ludovika had little patience for Helene’s timidity, a trait which surely had not come from her side of the family.
“I don’t want to marry Cousin Franz.” With that confession, Helene dropped her face into cupped hands. Across the table Karl sniggered.
The duke, eyes watching over his raised beer stein, looked to Sisi as Helene’s translator. “What’s wrong with your sister?”
Sisi lifted a hand and placed it gently on Helene’s shoulder, whispering a small conciliatory remark about how she ought to let the news sink in. Then, to her father, Sisi answered: “It is such momentous news, Papa. Perhaps she is just overcome by the shock.”
“You presume to know my thoughts, Sisi?” Helene turned to her sister, her tone uncharacteristically sharp. “You’re not the one being given away like chattel.”
This remark, a rare instance of causticity from the usually sweet Helene, served to quiet Sisi. Helene was correct. Sisi was not the one whose fate was being discussed before her, the one who had no say in her own future.
The duchess sat observant, weighing how to respond to this unexpected turn. Finally, she spoke. “Helene, I don’t understand. Every girl wants a fine husband.”
Helene shook her head. “Not me.” She wept, noiseless tears slipping down her cheeks.
The duchess sighed. “Why, Helene, you knew you would have to marry someday. It might have been a Saxon count, a Venetian prince . . . and yet you weep over the emperor of Austria? That is the best match you could hope for.”
Again Helene shook her head. “Please, Mamma, I beg you not to make me do it.”
The duchess let loose a heavy exhalation. “Helene, Franz is a good boy . . . man. He will treat you kindly. And you’ll have Aunt Sophie to help you settle into your new life at court.”
“But I don’t want to marry him!” Helene insisted.
“Surely you knew this day was drawing near, Helene? You are eighteen.” The duchess looked to Sisi, as if seeking assistance.
“But, Mamma, I don’t even know him,” Helene said.
Sisi noted her mother’s mounting exasperation. “What does that have to do with anything? When I was sent to your papa for my wedding, I had never met him before.” The duchess looked to her husband, who drained his beer mug in reply. Her jaw set, her eyes expressionless, she continued: “Why, I spent my wedding night in tears. But I did my duty.”
The duke did not look at his wife, nor did he reply, but Helene erupted into fresh sobs.
“For heaven’s sake.” The duchess rose from her seat and approached her weeping daughter. “Helene, my foolish, scared little girl, you must not be so upset. This is the best fate that a girl in your position could possibly dream of. Your husband will be the emperor of Austria, and a good, kind man. What more could you ask for in a match?”
“But I don’t wish to marry—at all.” Helene allowed her mother to wipe the tears from her cheeks.
“Hush, Helene. Surely you understand that to avoid marriage would leave you with no option but to enter a nunnery,” her mother reasoned. “You cannot possibly want that for yourself. Don’t you want a nice home of your own to manage? And babies?”
Helene’s silence was her answer. Now Sisi felt the same surprise that she saw reflected back from her mother’s face. She, Sisi, who knew Helene better than anyone in the world, had not suspected that her sister dreamed of such a solitary future. Eventually, her voice barely a whisper, Helene said, “I had thought often of the nunnery, Mamma.”
Sisi saw two emotions battling for supremacy on her mother’s face: in one moment there appeared sympathy for a shy, scholarly daughter. A daughter who remained quiet whenever in the presence of more than just the smallest of crowds. But then, there it was: the stronger of the two emotions chased sympathy away, and her mother’s face set with a look of stony resolve. One must do one’s duty. How many times had Sisi heard those words uttered by her mother’s lips? A lady must accept the role that is required of her. Hadn’t she, a duchess of Bavaria, always lived according to that creed, however unpleasant Papa had made it for her? This was how things were done.
When she spoke next, Mamma had regained her composure. “Helene, it’s a noble idea. But the eldest daughter of the duke of Bavaria will not be allowed to waste away behind the walls of a nunnery. One does not simply send the emperor packing. You will marry Franz Joseph and you will be empress—it has been decided between our two houses.”
“Just let her come round to the idea, Ludovika.” Her father, Sisi could see, had grown bored of this discussion. “She’s such a shy, scared little thing. Imagine if we married her off to some rough Prussian Count von Something or other . . . she wouldn’t last a fortnight.” Experience had shown the duke time and again that women would do what was expected of them. With an air of finality, he took a swig from his wine cup.
But Helene now lifted a hand to her face, concealing a fresh sob that set her narrow frame atremble. “God, why must I . . .”
The duchess put a hand on Helene’s shoulder, though her face maintained a mask of composure. “My girl Néné, there now. No more tears, please. You have always been an obedient girl. You will see. You will love Vienna.”
Lowering her hand, Helene looked up: “But I love it here, Mamma.”
Sisi saw an instant’s hesitation, a flickering hint of softness in her mother’s eyes; the duchess was stricken. But Ludovika pushed that aside with masterful self-control. With a sigh, she pulled her hand from her daughter’s shoulder and stood up taller, her shoulders drawing back. “We all must do our duty.”
The two men continued their dinner while the duchess returned to her seat, her face pale but expressionless as she picked up her own fork. Sisi had lost her appetite. So, too, had Helene.
“There now, Helene,” their mother said, breaking the taut silence. “I haven’t told you the second part of the news.”
“I don’t wish to hear any more news, Mamma.”
“But this you shall wish to hear. You shall not be going to court alone.”
Now Helene looked up.
“Wouldn’t you like a companion at court?” Ludovika’s eyes darted from her eldest daughter to Sisi, who sat beside her, still clutching her hand. Sisi looked to her mother, her heart suddenly pounding as she felt the faintest embers of hope.
“Sisi and I shall accompany you.” Their mother said, her voice upbeat. “Won’t that make you feel better?”
Helene considered this and, after a long pause, nodded.
For her part, the thought thrilled Sisi, sending her heart on a gallop within her breast that made it hard to breathe. Leaving Possi. Traveling to the imperial court: a place of power and fashion and courtiers who exemplified both. A world entirely unlike her simple life in Bavaria. It was petrifying news, but it delighted her.
“How does that sound, Sisi?” The duchess looked at her younger daughter.
“I’d love to go,” Sisi answered, her voice too eager, too full of enthusiasm. She squirmed in her chair, leaning toward Helene now. “Oh, Néné, won’t we have fun together?”
“Fun?” Her mother knit her brows together, her tone turning to sternness. “Elisabeth, this is not some adventure for you, like those romances you read about.”
Sisi felt her joy retreat, just slightly, at the bite in her mother’s tone.
“You understand that your role at court shall be to help your sister settle in. You will serve her as a lady-in-waiting serves a queen, do you understand?”
Sisi nodded, suppressing the smile that wanted to tug her lips upward. “Yes, Mamma.” But inside, her heart leapt. She was to accompany Helene to her new life. Helene, Empress of Austria! She, Sisi, would be there to witness it.
“You must always make Helene look good,” the duchess continued. “Do you understand?”
“I can do that,” Sisi promised, wrapping her arms around Helene’s thin, spindly shoulders. “Helene, do you hear that? I will be there with you!” The sisters held one another, and for the first time since the announcement, Helene managed a feeble smile.
“And”—the duchess leaned close to her younger daughter now— “I hope I do not need to remind you that there are plenty of ways to get into trouble at court, Elisabeth. Aunt Sophie is far less indulgent than I am, and she will be watching. You shall be there to serve your sister, and that is all. I do not wish to hear that you have fallen in love with some Hungarian count.” The duchess frowned and Sisi flushed, avoiding Karl’s burning gaze.
“I will be watching you, Elisabeth.”
“I understand, Mamma.”
“Good girl.” Duchess Ludovika nodded, her stern expression softening into an approving smile. “No suitors for you. At least, not until you have helped your sister settle into her role.”
Helene was excused from dinner and Sisi allowed to retire to the bedroom with her. They climbed the stairs in silence, both of them sorting through a tangle of thoughts and questions.
The Habsburg Court! For Sisi, the news had quickened her curiosity and stirred her restless spirit. Her mind raced into the imaginary scenes she’d witness beside her sister, the empress—the high-ceilinged halls where the waltz had been invented, the banquets, the dances attended by women in skirts so wide they looked like the bells of a cathedral. And her, Sisi, experiencing it all at the age of only fifteen.
“What a relief that you shall come with me.” Helene clutched her sister’s hand as they reached the top of the stairs and walked the candlelit hallway to their bedroom. Her sister’s thoughts, Sisi noticed, seemed of a much less enthusiastic variety.
“Shall I call Agata for some wine?” Sisi pushed the heavy bedroom door, leaving it slightly ajar.
“No, Sisi. Just sit with me for a moment.” Helene lowered herself onto the large mahogany bed that they shared. “I am in such a state of shock.”
“I will be with you, Néné.” Sisi opened the curtains, allowing in the last delicate rays of summer sun. She stared out the window, looking over the quiet dusk that settled over Possenhofen. The woods beyond the meadow, skirting the border of Lake Starnberg, glowed an indigo blue under the descending veil of night. In the meadow, a farmer cut a slow path toward the village, pulling a tired horse beside him. The smoke of distant hearths coiled skyward in the background, issuing from the barely visible homes that dotted the wooded foothills of the Bavarian Alps. It was such a familiar tapestry; a beloved view, one Sisi could have re-created with her eyes shut. And tonight, knowing that she would be going far away, she savored it with a newfound affection. How many more times might she behold this view? Sisi wondered.
“You’ll only be with me until you get a husband of your own. Then what happens?” Helene’s worry tugged Sisi from her twilight reverie, and she turned back to her sister and the darkening bedroom. “He’ll probably insist on taking you back to his own palace in Prussia or Saxony or Hungary. Then what shall I do?” Helene’s lip quivered with the threat of fresh tears.
“You heard Mamma”—Sisi walked toward her sister—“I will be at court to attend to you. I promise, I won’t even think of marriage until you are settled and happy with at least half a dozen fat little Austrian crown princes and princesses.” This promise appeared to temporarily assuage Helene’s panic. But only for a moment.
“Marriage does sound awful, doesn’t it?” Helene thought aloud, slipping out of her heavy dinner gown and allowing it to drop to the floor. Sisi couldn’t help but notice her sister’s figure, now exposed in just a thin shift and undergarments. It looked so pale and thin and fragile. And yet this would be the body that would be tasked with producing Austria’s next emperor.
As if on cue, Karl appeared at the bedroom door, which Sisi chided herself for having left ajar.
“So that’s the emperor’s view on the wedding night?” Sensing that the power dynamics had somehow shifted in the household, Karl appeared reluctant to too directly challenge his sisters, but rather hovered at the threshold of their bedchamber.
“I heard you talking about your husband.” He grinned at the partially undressed Helene, who quickly retreated behind a dressing screen.
“Go away, Gackl,” Sisi snapped, tossing Helene’s discarded shoe in his direction.
Karl ducked the shoe but remained in his spot in the doorway. “No, not me. It’s you two who are going away. Helene is off to Vienna to get pricked by Franz Joseph’s Austrian wiener.” Karl sniggered. “Poor innocent little Helene will likely catch syphilis from one of Franz’s palace whores.”
Sisi ignored her brother, speaking only to Helene. “And Gackl will probably never prick a single girl in his life. Who would ever want his pockmarked face and sour beer breath?”
This insult only further enraged Karl, who struck back. “I wouldn’t look forward to my wedding night if I were you, Helene. Franz Joseph is the emperor, you know, and therefore he gets whatever he wants. How do you think you shall compare to one of his well-practiced courtesans?” The sight of Sisi wincing seemed to encourage Karl. “And Sisi, who knows who you’ll get plucked by? Neither one of you even knows what must happen, do you? Why do you think Mamma always talks about how she cried on her wedding night?”
Cowed, but even more so infuriated, Sisi stood to her full height and crossed the bedroom toward Karl. When she spoke, it was with more authority than she actually felt. “And how do you suppose the emperor will look upon the brother who has tormented his beloved bride? I will be sure to tell him about our brother, named after a rooster, and deserving of a good pecking.”
Surprised by the vehemence of her anger, by the command in her voice, Karl turned and left their room.
“Who taught him to be so vile?” Sisi wondered aloud, slowly unclenching her fists as Karl’s figure receded. She heard the sound of faint whimpering behind the dressing screen. “For goodness’ sake, Néné, come out from behind that screen.” Sisi flopped onto the bed, already exhausted in the role of supporting her sister. It would be a demanding position at court. “Do not take a word of that to heart—Karl is just jealous that we have an invitation from the emperor, while he’s stuck here with the babies.”
Helene emerged from behind the dressing screen, her black eyes round with horror. “It does sound awful, though, doesn’t it?”
“What does? Ruling an empire? Wearing the finest crowns and gowns in all of Europe? Dancing to the imperial violins all night?” Sisi ran her fingers through her hair, removing her braids and allowing her heavy waves to tumble loose around her shoulders.
“No. What Karl said . . . the wedding night,” Helene whispered.
“I don’t know.” Sisi paused. Their mother had only ever implied things, offering scanty scraps about what the ordeal of the wedding night actually entailed. Insinuations that both frightened and confused Sisi. Words such as “duty” and “submission.” Actions that required “forbearance,” that must be “endured for the sake of one’s husband and family.” But then the maid had given Sisi quite a different account. “Agata tells me that she’s heard that it can be . . . well, nice. That it’s not all bad.”
“How did she hear that?” Helene asked, eyes widening.
“Oh, they talk about that sort of stuff all the time in the kitchen. It’s only those of us in the front of the house who know nothing about it.” A ludicrous arrangement, Sisi thought, when it was the girls in the front of the house whose bodies were burdened with the important duties of dynasty-making.
Helene thought about this. “Karl seems to know an awful lot.”
Sisi tilted her head. “Not from experience, of that much we can be certain.”
Helene allowed a pinched laugh before once more deflating. “Do you think, when I become Franz’s wife, that I will have to . . . you know . . . ?”
“Yes, Helene,” Sisi said, toneless. “You will.”
Helene appeared freshly demoralized. “I hope we have a very long engagement.”
Sisi attempted a cheerful manner, speaking as she undressed for bed. “Don’t fret. You won’t have to do it much, Helene. Just until you give Franz some sons.”
Helene considered this. “Think about our family—there’s me, you, Karl, Marie, Mathilde, Sophie-Charlotte, and baby Max. Can you believe that Mamma and Papa have done it seven times?” Helene asked.
“No, that shocks me,” Sisi answered, shaking her head, and the two of them erupted in giggles.
“Well, I’m glad to see you two girls in good spirits once more.” Duchess Ludovika appeared at the doorway with fresh candles for her daughters. “Hopefully you’ve resigned yourself to the ghastly fate of marrying an emperor, Néné?”
“Mamma!” Sisi waved their mother into the bedroom. The duchess deposited the candles on the nightstand and kissed each of her daughters on the forehead. “Don’t stay up too late, girls.” She made her way to the door, pulling its handle as she exited. “And don’t forget.”
“We know, we know,” Sisi chimed in response. “Our prayers.”
“Good night.” Ludovika smiled, her head disappearing behind the shutting door.
Sisi climbed into bed and kicked the covers back, her body warm from the excitement of the evening and the balmy summer air. She sighed, watching her sister where she combed her dark hair before the streaked mirror.
Sensing that Helene’s initial panic had dissipated a bit, that her spirits might even be lifting, Sisi broached the topic once more. “Really, Helene, the news is not that terrible. An emperor? You would have thought they had told you that you were betrothed to marry the local butcher, the way you responded to the news.”
Helene thought about this as she replaced her ivory comb on the nightstand and joined Sisi in bed. “At least if I married the local butcher I could remain close to home. I could come home to Possi for dinner every Sunday.”
“Yes, and you and your butcher-husband could bring the slaughtered animal for the dinner meal,” Sisi added.
“And Karl would leave me alone, lest he fear that he might end up in the stew,” Helene added, reluctantly joining Sisi in a giggle.
After several moments Sisi spoke, adjusting her long hair that fell around her on the pillow. “I will miss it here, though.”
Helene nodded, her features knit in an anxious expression as they reflected the flickering of the candlelight.
“I wonder what Franz is like,” Sisi mused, remembering the shy, cinnamon-haired boy of years ago. “It’s all so surreal.” Sisi envisioned the meeting—Helene and this cousin who had grown into the emperor. Meanwhile all of the jilted princesses, countesses, and marquesses of court would gather round, looking on, sniffing for any sign of weakness on Helene’s part, any opening through which to launch a counterassault. Would Helene summon the nerve to charm this young ruler—Europe’s most powerful, most desirable young bachelor? She’d have to. Helene had no other choice.
“Just think about it,” Sisi thought aloud, “Helene, born as Duchess of Bavaria from the House of Wittelsbach, becomes Empress of Austria.”
Helene offered no response to this, burrowing under the covers even though the night was a warm one.
“Néné, you’re awfully quiet.” Sisi reached across the bed, snuggling into her sister’s frame. Oh, how she would miss her. But she swallowed that sadness. Wasn’t her job now to be strong for Néné? “Come now, talk to me. How are you feeling?”
After a pause, her sister spoke. “I’m not feeling very . . . imperial.”
“Oh, Néné. My shy, quiet sister. I won’t allow you such self-doubt. You don’t even realize how sweet you are. Or how lovely.” Sisi’s voice was jarringly loud compared to her sister’s as she declared, determinedly: “You shall be splendid. We shall present the emperor with a bride so lovely, he will say he has never seen her equal.”
Later that night, after Helene had slipped off into a fretful sleep, Sisi rose from bed and stared out the window, enlivened by her thoughts and the low-hanging moon that cast a bright glow over the fields and hillsides. Sleep eluded her, as it often did. And on the other side of the window, the night waited, warm and serene, luring her out of the house.
Sisi fumbled in the dark for her dressing gown, careful not to creak the wooden floorboards as she did so. She slid her feet into her favorite slippers, a pair of plush, red-velvet clogs. These tattered dressing shoes, a gift on her fifteenth birthday, carried her across the earth whenever she set out on these solitary midnight adventures. These slippers were stained by pieces of the Possenhofen earth, its grass and mud permanently stuck to the soles. Sisi decided, in that moment, that these red slippers would come with her to court. In that way, she laughed to herself, she might always be able to tread on her beloved Bavarian soil.
Outside an owl droned its melancholy melody. The crickets in the fields serenaded one another, their bodies like small violins whose nocturnal waltzes had existed long before Johann Strauss had begun composing in Vienna. The frogs in nearby Lake Starnberg belched and blurted out their familiar amorous rhapsodies. Sisi spread her arms wide and looked up at the moon, laughing, reveling in and embracing everything about this night.
Sisi’s parents had not raised her to be strictly religious. Spiritual, yes, but not dogmatic. Her father had even shown himself to be lenient when it came to the Reformers in the duchy, the Protestants who so brazenly flouted the Catholic Church and received punishment for doing so elsewhere.
But they had imbued in Sisi an appreciation for the Almighty and His presence all around her. While God felt elusive and difficult to find in some of the dank old churches—His words garbled in impenetrable Latin—Sisi felt His undeniable presence in the majesty of the mountains, in the inevitability of sunrise and the softness of moonlight. God was the unseen power that set in motion the natural world; the seasons that ripened and shifted, each one beautiful in its own way; the chamois that leapt uphill without tiring or the stallion that outran the wind.
Oh, how she would miss Possi!
Sisi remained outside, tracing the perimeter of the squat white castle in silence for quite some time, when suddenly her musings were interrupted by a rustling noise. A sound decidedly different from the crickets and the owls. A human sound. She turned and saw him: a figure gliding across the meadow, in the direction of the village. It was dark, but Sisi knew immediately whose retreating shape she saw. “Papa,” she said. Quietly, so he wouldn’t hear her. Off, most likely, to see some female consort of his. Sisi sighed.
“Please let Franz be more faithful to Helene than Papa has been to Mamma,” Sisi begged, sending the prayer out into the warm, still night.