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Burnt by the Flame

Contents


The beginning


Family Tree

Author’s Note


Other Books by Sharon Robards


About the Author


Also by SHARON ROBARDS


FICTON


Playing with Fire


Unforgivable


A Woman Transported



NON-FICTION


Australian Flavour - Traditional Australian Cuisine


Copyright © Sharon Robards 2018


First Published January 2018


Smashwords Edition


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be

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I fear we are betrayed.

I’m trembling on the edge of a precipice,

but my own danger is the least of my anxieties ...”


9th July 1694

Sophia Dorothea


PART ONE


1681 — 1682







1681—Hanover

Kalenberg



Mother said they were going to a place of dragons and spies. A dull beating of drums came from there, yet it wasn’t a feast day. Until the carriage had slowed, the only sound came from the pounding hoofbeats of the escorting soldiers’ horses. The long trip through woods and sandy and marshy grounds from Lüneburg to Kalenberg’s fertile fields was almost over. Spires of the wall-enclosed town of Hanover stood in the distance. The carriage drew closer to high pointed red roofs silhouetted in the dusk light against the Harz Mountains. Like an erratic heartbeat, the drums grew louder — then stopped again.

“Why the drums?” Sophia Dorothea asked Mother.

“I don’t know. Sounds like they practice … warm up.”

Mother put her nail-file into her carry bag and looked out the window. Her frown deepened. The straight road headed toward many sentinels guarding gates. Mother crossed her arms, but still she sat as she had all day and said nothing. A wagon carrying barrels passed as their carriage moved through the gates. Three dogs rushed from a clump of stand-alone dwellings by the roadside to bark at the carriage as it rolled through the street.

The scents of smoked meat and spices swirled from the market hall. Along the roadside, a boisterous crowd gathered as drummers lined the cobblestone street.

Men and women shouted: “Don’t stop … Sixty strokes are not enough … Give the harlot more … Adulteress.”

Sophia Dorothea shivered. “What’s happening?”

Mother moved closer to the window. “I don’t think I want to know.”

The carriage approached a dense crowd blocking the road and was forced to stop at the town hall. An old woman, wearing a white scarf, clutched clothes against her chest and stood next to wooden steps leading to a round stone platform many feet wide and high.

The old woman shouted at the hooded man standing on the platform near a furnace, “Have mercy. You don’t know the truth of it.”

The platform held a metal pole, and from an iron ring near the top hung three long birchen rods. A naked woman stood bound against the pole, her arms stretched and hands tied by rope to the ring. Her back was shredded flesh — streams of blood flowed down her sides to the iron-rings locked around her ankles.

Sophia Dorothea’s breath caught in her throat. Mon Dieu!

The hooded man pulled an iron-bar from the furnace, the rounded end glowing red. He moved behind the naked woman and pressed and held it against her shoulder. She screamed, and the old woman near the steps bowed her head and wiped away a tear.

“Dear Lord, dear Lord.” Sophia Dorothea flinched and looked away. The naked woman’s scream died to a moan. “Mother, stop it, please.”

“I can’t.” Mother held her hand over her mouth as if she would vomit. “This is your uncle’s territory.”

Sophia Dorothea closed her eyes to block out the sight. “My God. Why did the hooded man do that?”

“Branded her with the city-arms.” Mother leaned out the window and said to an escorting soldier sitting on a horse, “Move the people out of the way. I will watch no more. This is a matter for the conscience, not the laws of men.”

“They’re moving,” the soldier said.

The hooded man untied the woman’s arms, unshackled her feet, and pushed her toward the steps. The old woman held a hand out to help the naked woman, but a soldier dragged the old woman back a few feet. People clapped as drummers thumped a rustic beat. The naked woman hobbled barefoot through the crowd, and the old woman still carrying the clothes followed.

“Why are we here?” Sophia Dorothea asked. “It’s horrible. Father would never allow this. Why do we visit after all this time? You told me you would never come here again. Why come now?”

“Father doesn’t want you to know.” Mother hesitated as if she would choke on the words. “Prince George has asked for your hand in marriage.”

Sophia Dorothea felt as if she had dropped from the clouds and crashed into this moment. Her thoughts travelled in maddening directions, none of which made sense. “You give me one of Duchess Bernadette’s names, now she wants to give me her son?”

“It’s not set in stone, Sophy, and not the first time they have had this ridiculous idea.” Mother patted Sophia Dorothea’s shoulder. “Father will allow you to choose.”

“George hated me.” The carriage moved, and the clapping crowd drove the punished woman farther down the street as the old woman struggled to keep up with them. “The branded woman’s husband probably hated her.”

“Calm down. Our visit is a political show. Nothing will come of any marriage.”

Sophia Dorothea fingered her gold bracelet. “What will happen to that woman?”

“They’ll follow her to just outside the gates, then the gates will be closed on her forever.”

“But the old woman said the truth wasn’t known.”

“Remember, jealousy is a husband’s fury. He will not spare in the day of vengeance.” Mother gently squeezed Sophia Dorothea’s hand. “Father must seem to be considering his brother’s offer for you — that is all our visit is about.”

“Why, when they would not call you duchess until after Uncle John died?” Sophia Dorothea felt the warmth of rising tears. “George used to call me nothing. Why would they want me?”

“Because they want to ensure they control Father’s lands.”

“They’re not controlling me. I wish to be loved as Father loves you.”

Mother sighed. “While we’re here, the past won’t show on our faces.”

“Will George be here?”

“He is in England.”

“What would he care about England?”

“Your aunt dreams of the English throne. I imagine she thought her boorish son might gain an English princess. Today, you behave, show her the lady you are. They’re chasing you. Let them regret not catching you.”

“If she dislikes me, she won’t want me anymore.”

“We will play the game. Our heads will stay high.” Mother flicked her hair off her shoulders. “Let the grand duchess cringe at having to accept me for the first time as her equal. It will kill her, then pfft, this matter of Prince George will disappear. Your father won’t tolerate her being rude to us.” Mother smiled. “But she, the salope, won’t be able to help herself, then we will leave. Your father will want nothing more to do with them again.”

Sophia Dorothea looked back to see the branded and flogged woman, but people and carriages now blocked her view. “I will not think of Prince George anymore.”

Mother pulled a little perfume bottle from her bag. “Smile as you did before I told you.”

“I wonder who the old woman was.” Sophia Dorothea put on her gloves and dabbed rose scent on her bodice and skirts. “Maybe she was the mother.”

“Hopefully, she is someone who will be able to help her.”

Workmen scuttled over many new houses in the castle square. The royal residences of the Alte Palais and Leine Palace stood at the edge of the crowded streets unfortified and open to view. The river flowed swiftly past large balconies of wealthy homes and the rows of flat windows along the Leine Palace’s front. The carriage stopped under a portico held up by enormous columns near the palace’s broad steps. A page hurried down the steps and across the cobbles, scattering birds and glittering leaves strewn over the courtyard, and came to open the carriage door.

A man followed the page. He wore a brown wig framing his face. His eyes, piercing and observant, smiled in unison with his lips. Mother and Sophia Dorothea climbed from the carriage, and he bowed.

Mother held his hand. “Gottfried, you’re still as handsome as the day I met you.”

He put his hand over his heart. “And you, my dear Duchess Eléonore are even more stunning.” He smiled at Sophia Dorothea. “And you, young lady, will break more hearts than your mother.”

“Sophy, Monsieur Leibniz is a philosopher, mathematician, and —”

Gottfried laughed. “I can be whatever you want me to be, Sophia Dorothea.”

“Where’s Father?” Sophia Dorothea asked. “Why is no one here?”

Mother frowned. “Sophy, do not be rude. It’s unbecoming.”

“I meant … maybe they were in the crowds.”

Gottfried laughed. “He and your Uncle Ernest are walking by the river.” He winked at Mother. “They have spent hours in their tête-à-têtes.” Gottfried glanced at the other carriage, carrying ladies-in-waiting, rolling into the courtyard. He waved Mother toward the entrance. “My Duchess has asked me to escort you to your rooms. You all might like to rest before supper.”

Sophia Dorothea walked towards the stairs with Mother. From a high window, she caught sight of a grey-haired woman staring down at them. Lowering her voice, she asked, “Why does she hate you?”

“Your father broke his marriage contract to her.”

“For you?”

“No, Sophy. He was in love with a Venetian woman. I met him after, but your aunt has always been jealous of me. I think sometimes she flatters herself that Father thinks he made a mistake in jilting her.”







—Alte Palais, Hanover



Bernadette turned away from the window. Even at this distance in dim light, she could tell that Sophia Dorothea, with her dark hair tumbling off her shoulders, was the spitting image of her mother, Eléonore, when younger. A tempest … all in bud and about to burst into bloom. No doubt spoilt and indulged.

She turned to her husband. “I don’t want to be a part of this.”

“Think, Bernadette, think carefully,” Ernest said. “It will unite my brother’s lands with ours.”

“Not if Eléonore has a son.”

“And how likely is that now?”

Bernadette wanted to run from the room but sat on a chair. “She is only forty-two. I won’t have that clot of dirt, her daughter as my kin.”

“You cared little if our son married the daughter of an English commoner when we sent him to woo an English Princess.”

“I haven’t spoken to Eléonore in five years, since she — despite herself and with poor enough grace — troubled herself to thank me for agreeing to her marriage to George William.”

Ernest held her hand. “Our George will never attract any great woman. He’s a soldier suited to camp, not lovemaking. We have five other sons, a daughter, for you to dream beyond Germany.”

There was limited opportunity for her boys. In Europe hardly any marriageable royal women were unblemished by bastardy in their lines. And what of the French Court? Bastards. Most of the French royal family — all bastards.

“Bernadette, with the domains collected for Sophia Dorothea and Eléonore, we have a chance of gaining that place of power and position in the realm that we’ve all yearned for, that Electorate. Imagine … Electress Bernadette of Hanover, a seat next to the Emperor, one of the handful of electors of the Holy Roman Emperor. And Sophia Dorothea’s dowry. I’ll push for a hundred thousand thalers annually.”

“Are you queer? George William is the eldest of this family and entitled to any Electorate before us.”

“If the territories belong to a certain branch of the family, it won’t matter who is the eldest, only where the territories ultimately belong.”

Bernadette raised her palm, considered shouting stop it. Then she imagined a dowry gilded with a hundred thousand thalers a year in their full control and dared imagine shutting her eyes to pocket it. “I can see the importance, but …” Bernadette crossed her arms. “I’ve been attached like sap to a tree to thwart all of Eléonore’s plans, her raising of that bastard daughter. When she tried to marry her bastard daughter to your sister’s younger son, did we not all agree the girl wasn’t worthy of the King and Queen of Denmark’s son?” She leaned toward Ernest. “‘Well done!’ is what I wrote to my niece. ‘Fancy a king’s son for that bit of bastard! Upon my word, one has to come from France to be so imprudent!’” She jabbed her finger into Ernest’s chest. “You laughed. Now you make me look like a fool throughout Europe — want to put sewage through my blood line.”

Ernest caught her hand. “Sophia Dorothea is blossoming. She will be a beautiful, elegant woman — as much as you don’t want to admit or hear, even more than her mother. The girl was nothing but a charm in Venice.”

Bernadette snorted. “Not all that shines is gold.”

Ernest stood. “You’ve ranted, raved, and despised Eléonore from the moment you met her all those years ago. Pride can buy many things. Our niece, Sophia Dorothea, isn’t at fault.” He raised his voice. “One of your brothers divorced his princess, married morganatically, and yet you love those children.”

“Our George will care nothing for Sophia Dorothea.”

“You’ve often argued that the end justifies the means when employed to gain it.”

Bernadette looked down at her clasped hands in her lap. “Not now.”

“I have yet to see a man who doesn’t bow to a beautiful woman’s demands.”

She bit her lip, holding back a response, throwing her husband’s words over in her mind. “I imagine some women demand more than others,” she said softly. “I’m surprised to say I’m tired. Weary.”

“Our marriage was a political match also.” He pulled her up in front of him and put his arms around her waist. “It has done well, yes? What’s to say it can’t be the same for them?”

She sighed. “You and I had a little fond feeling between us, to sustain us.” She pushed aside all sediment. What will be, will be.

Bernadette’s stomach churned, seeing merit in this mission, while aware of the foggy dishonesty of it all. She braced herself for Eléonore’s resistance and thought of the German proverb — crooked logs make straight fires … do what you can with what you have.

Bernadette went to her visitors’ chamber door. The fraud from France, Eléonore, sat in a high-back chair, not on a stool like other times — the title of Duchess allowed her to sit in one for the first time in Bernadette’s presence. Eléonore moved to rise, surprising Bernadette.

“No need to stand.” Bernadette moved closer. “It’s been too long, this midge between us and breach between brothers larger than it was so it appeared like an elephant … a thread like a rope, a farthing like a rose-noble. It’s time to end it on this joyous day — mend our bridges.”

Eléonore nodded. “I saw no bridge on the way here.”

Eléonore’s expression was friendly, but the woman had the ability to put on forced smiles. Bernadette imagined it was merely the memory of Eléonore’s wit that these days kept George William entertained. Eléonore’s looks were not what they had once been. Only a vague flash of beauty remained after the ravishes brought on by the years and too many dead children. Bernadette found satisfaction in the knowledge that, had she herself married George William, he would likely have had many heirs for his lands instead of only a bastard daughter.

Bernadette’s stomach stirred, both with guilt and having neither bite nor sup since last night. She pulled up a chair, knowing she had one slim chance of conquering Eléonore’s opposition.

But Eléonore stood, crossed her arms, and raised her voice, “Why?”

Bernadette sat back, taken off guard. “It’s the best outcome for all involved.”

Pfft! How did you possibly reach that conclusion?”

“A matter of politics. I have a son needing a wife. You have a daughter of marriageable age. Both are heirs to extensive territories. Even you must see the benefits for your daughter not attainable by marriage to anyone else.”

“They’ll care nothing for each other.”

“That’s what I said, but a marriage of state is not made for love.”

“You might not have married for love, but —”

“You assume too much of my marriage.” Bernadette sighed. “There’s no reason why their marriage won’t work.”

“Your son used to call her … nobodynothing.”

Bernadette shrugged. “He is now at a man’s estate.” She stood and went to the window — the outside torches threw crescents of light over the river. “The brothers are inseparable again. They have spent long hours talking to one another as of old.”

“Perhaps they should have married.”

Bernadette laughed, but Eléonore’s sarcasm didn’t escape her, and she kept staring out the window. “Gottfried dubs their frequent chats the ‘princely debates’.”

“I imagine they debate the size of my daughter’s marriage settlement, which one brother considers too large, the other too small.”

Bernadette swung around. Du lieber Gott, I will tolerate no more. If only you had dropped dead before you reached Osnabrück all those years ago. Bernadette raised her hand and was about to shout I care for none of this, but lowered her hand and held her tongue.

Sophia Dorothea and a young freckled woman rushed into the room, all a burst of colour and laughter. Sophia Dorothea’s hair dripped with jewels — the girl likely as shallow as her red dress was bright. Sophia Dorothea and the woman dropped to a deep curtsy.

“Rise!” Bernadette stared at the young woman beside Sophia Dorothea. “You are?”

“Fräulein Anna Knesebeck, Your Highness.”

Bernadette stepped to Sophia Dorothea. Yes, a temptress. “You’ve grown much since I last saw you.”

“Thank you, Your Highness. I’ve been looking forward to an audience with you.”

Oh, please. Bernadette glanced at Eléonore. “Duchess Eléonore, I have paintings I’d like to show my niece.” She looked at Anna. “I’ll go with my niece, alone.”

Bernadette noted the gloating gleam in Eléonore’s eyes at being accorded the full title of Duchess, but Bernadette seethed inside. How I despise her. Bernadette raised her eyebrows at Sophia Dorothea, who stood staring at her mother. “You look like an orphan, as if you had never left your mother’s side, which we know isn’t true. Now, come.”

Bernadette motioned for Sophia Dorothea to follow into the hallway, knowing that Eléonore, woman of the world that she thought she was, could not dismiss off-hand the prize offered to Sophia Dorothea — the Crown Prince of Hanover.


###


Sophia Dorothea led her aunt along the wide corridors past rushes in pots emitting a sweet and tangy citrus. She shivered, knowing her aunt was watching her like an expensive filly sent to stud and likely thinking she no better than a clot of dirt. I need not care what she thinks.

Sophia Dorothea passed a row of portraits. Prince George’s blue eyes stared down at her from his portrait on the wall a few feet away. She averted her gaze, raised her chin, and stepped quicker.

“Stop there!” the Duchess said.

Sophia Dorothea stopped right under the painting but fiddled with her gold bracelet. I care not to look at him. I care not to ever see him again. She looked up at the portrait and forced herself to appear interested.

“Prince George was only fifteen then. He is twenty-one now and looks a little different,” Duchess Bernadette said. “You must remember him?”

Warmth covered Sophia Dorothea. She was tempted to say I wanted to throw horse dung at him once, but she shook her head. “I hadn’t, ma’am, but thank you for reminding me. I will search my memory for more of him.”

“One must be practical when it comes to the past,” Duchess Bernadette said. “It is always best to turn the page and let the old pages lie.” She gazed back at the portrait. “He has no pretty manners, and while I don’t see it, others who know him say he is witty. He is a good soldier, faithful to his friends, and I’ve never known him to lie.” The silence was uncomfortable. Sophia Dorothea stared dumbly at the portrait until the Duchess pointed at the next chamber. “In you go.”

Sophia Dorothea didn’t hesitate, glad to escape the conversation. She walked into the room and gazed at more drawings and paintings hanging on the walls — images of fertile rolling hills, mist hovering, crowded and cobbled streets, and palaces. Her aunt’s lavender scent lingered — and despite their shoulders close, the Duchess seemed so distant.

Duchess Bernadette pointed to the pictures. “They’re palaces owned by my cousins. Windsor, Whitehall, and the Tower of London.” For a moment she appeared lost in the images. “You do understand I’m talking about England?”

Sophia Dorothea nodded, but she hadn’t. “I have not needed to learn English matters.”

“Wise women learn all matters of the world, are filled with knowledge beyond their country’s borders.”

It was clear why Father preferred Mother. This Duchess was condescending and made Sophia Dorothea feel as if she were a lesser mortal, but Father was the reigning Duke of Celle and head of the family. “Mother says the English are ignorant of manners.”

“And the French are ignorant of anything not French.”

Sophia Dorothea shrugged.

Duchess Bernadette exhaled loudly, then cleared her throat. “My mother was Princess Elizabeth Stuart. Her brother, King Charles the First, was murdered at Whitehall.”

“I’ve heard the kings and queens of England’s necks are not safe.”

The Duchess snorted. “I’m glad you’re not completely ignorant of English matters, but languages?”

“French, ma’am, and a little Italian.”

“No Latin?”

“Mother says French is the most important of all languages, spoken at all courts of the world.”

“But a better education allows one to communicate in the native tongues to their important visitors to court. I can speak — English, French, Italian, Low Dutch, and Latin. I am learned in the literature of them all, allowing me to communicate with almost anyone, anywhere.”

“Do the English follow French fashions?”

“I believe so,” the Duchess said.

“What of food? Do the English eat the same as we do?”

“They dress their chickens, ducks, beef and pigs differently.”

Sophia Dorothea wanted to ask her aunt what she meant, but the scent of burning leaves tickled her nose and made her turn. A pretty blonde woman, large of breast and hip and with her hair falling in waves past her shoulders, came to the doorway, a clay smoking pipe held to her mouth. She quickly removed it from her crimson painted lips and curtsied.

The Duchess’s eyes narrowed. “Rise, Catharina, rise.”

Catharina stood, her eyes lowered. “Your Highness, I was …”

Sophia Dorothea waited to be introduced to the newcomer, but the Duchess turned her back on the woman, motioning for Sophia Dorothea to do the same, and said over her shoulder, “Your sister is in her rooms.”

“Of course, ma’am.” The scrape of Catharina’s heels moved away from the door.

The Duchess rolled her shoulders as if to remove an ache and pointed back at the portraits. “A brother painted them. He is on the King’s, the English King, Privy Council. We are the King’s first cousins, kinsmen of the Stuarts.”

Sophia Dorothea took a quick look through the doorway at Catharina strolling down the corridor. Her hips swayed from side to side, and she blew smoke into the air, leaving smoke clouds lingering as she moved along the hallway as if she owned the palace.

“Tomorrow,” the Duchess said, “we might travel to Herrenhausen. You might appreciate the gardens.”

“Mother’s rose garden is beautiful.”

The Duchess raised her chin. “The scents of a Dutch garden, more than a French one, linger at Herrenhausen.”

Sophia Dorothea held her lips together. She didn’t tell the Duchess they were going home tomorrow. Mother and Father walked past the door. The Duchess stepped to them. “Duchess Eléonore, we’re going to Herrenhausen tomorrow, so pleased you are all coming too.”







—Herrenhausen Castle, Hanover



Eléonore understood why Herrenhausen dazzled some people. Not so much the building’s size, though it was large, nor any particular brilliance as Celle castle was more beautiful, but the gardens extended forever from the front doors far off to the gates hidden by trees. Hedges and paths twirled and twisted into alcoves and courtyards, too many to count, some hidden by trees for what looked like miles. But she wished for nothing more than to go home and for this business regarding a potential betrothal between Prince George and Sophia Dorothea to disappear.

George William came to the terrace and put his hand on the railing. He wore no wig, his once fair hair, now short and grey, but his blue eyes still entranced her, and his smile made all other men seem insignificant. “I searched for you in the gardens.”

“I told you I didn’t want to come here.”

“The views are stunning.” He pointed to the grounds. “All those planting beds will bloom into apricots, peaches, figs, roses, and pomegranates. This can be Sophia Dorothea’s one day if she marries George. Joining Celle and Hanover, mine and my brother’s lands, our duchies, if united will make our family more powerful, will probably raise the duchies to an Electorate. I would be Elector, you Electress.”

“I care only for our daughter. They’re not satisfied with being heirs to Celle, but now greedy Bernadette and your brother want Wilhelmsburg — our Sophy’s inheritance.”

“Prince George is connected through Bernadette to the Royal House of England.”

“England! Just a name. Just a place. Who cares of England? You would sacrifice our only daughter, the one pledge of our love, to a loveless marriage?”

“They’re family, first cousins.”

“Hostile for years. Self seeking. Almost nought contact since their ridiculous demands last time.”

“It wasn’t a demand, but a proposal much like now.”

“One you refused. One your then Chancellor said would bankrupt you. We should not have come.”

“It was different then,” George William said. “Brother John was ruler of Hanover, not Ernest.”

“There is no difference. They care only for what they can gain. I knew when John died they wouldn’t hesitate gratifying their ambition, quickly remove John’s wife and daughters from Hanover, but I never imagined their greed would prompt them to use my daughter as a pawn to satisfy their ambitions.”

“Ernest has gone out of his way to make his peace since John died.” George William’s jaw stiffened. “Time to end —”

Eléonore shuddered. “You’ll give our daughter — to pig snout? All Germany knows he sleeps with Catharina Bussche, his father’s mistress’s sister!”

“Ah! But he hasn’t seen our Sophy for years.”

“He will be like his lecherous father and dip his biscuit.”

“Many men do.”

“I would not tolerate — Sophy’s isn’t yet sixteen.”

“Reconcile yourself, Eléonore.”

“I’ll never send her to wolves — or pigs. You haven’t thought this through. You gave Sophia Dorothea hope that she wouldn’t be forced into marriage.”

“Then we shall ensure she chooses wisely.”

“Let it be her choice, not made because of your brother’s influence and greed.”

“Eléonore, I’m the lord — something I hope my wife does not forget.”

“And my lord promised Sophy would make a good marriage, something I hope he doesn’t forget.” She moved to the doorway. “I will return tomorrow and take Sophia Dorothea with me. The French Ambassador will be at Celle in the next few days. I would not like to slight him, and you promised me you would consider any offer for Sophia Dorothea’s hand from Comte Dominique Dubois.”







—Celle Castle, Celle

Lüneburg



Sophia Dorothea picked diamond earrings out of the gilded trinket-box, embossed with silver linden leaves and big enough to hold a pair of shoes. Rose petals had fallen out of the box onto the mantel. The petals were no longer a deep red but a stale and old blood colour, withered by age. She gently brushed the petals into her palm as if they were moth wings and might disintegrate and carefully placed them back into her precious box.

How long had it been? Baron Henrik, poor Henrik, banished into exile a year ago — his punishment for an innocent intrigue with her. The withered rose was a memory left of him. Count Philipp Königsmarck had left Celle five years ago, summoned to return to his family, leaving the box as a gift. “I often wonder where they both are.”

Anna turned away from the mirror, her long fingers rubbing a crimson pigment over hated freckles. “I imagine Philipp charming all the girls, wherever he is.”

“I used to think Philipp might write, but he forgot me the moment he left. I hope Henrik wasn’t punished anymore.”

“I think myself lucky not to have been implicated for my connivance in the matter with Henrik,” Anna said. “It wasn’t commonsense that saved me.”

Sophia Dorothea closed the box and clipped in an earring. “I know the matter with Henrik is best forgotten. I know my place. God, how could I ever forget what is expected of me since that day?”

“It must be hard to forget.”

“I cringe at my stupidity. I should have hidden Henrik’s letter better. I know some of the courtiers think I’m a spoiled brat, care only for myself, didn’t care at all what happened to Henrik.”

“I’ve heard no such thing.” But Anna glanced at the ground when she said it. “Come, you must get ready. Your mother asked me to have you there on time.”

Sophia Dorothea walked into the golden light near the window, reflected from the castle’s yellow courtyard walls. “When I marry, you must be my confidential lady. I can’t imagine not seeing you again.” She twirled, fanning out her blue skirts shimmering in the light. “This dress for supper, or should I change back into the green one?”

“I like them both, but we should already be there. They’ll be waiting.”

Sophia Dorothea adjusted a ruby pinned near her temple. “You must not lie to me. Everyone else tells me what they think I wish to hear.”

“Both dresses are lovely on you. They contrast nicely with the darkness of your hair, but if you want me to choose, wear the blue.”

“If our French visitors don’t pay me court, I’ll blame you.” Sophia Dorothea giggled. “Maybe I’ll fall in love with a French envoy and be whisked off to France. King Louis has made me a French national. Why not a French man as a husband?”

“But what of Prince George?”

“There’s been no more talk of it, and thank the Lord for that. Mother said Father will let me choose. I want lots of children and wish to love someone who doesn’t go to war. I don’t care if he is French or German. I don’t want to live every day wondering if he will return or have my heart ache of want for him, like Mother has for Father. But what is love, Anna? How does one know they have a love like my mother and father, an eternal love?”

“I imagine you just know — the stomach flutters, adoration fills your heart for the person and the feeling never leaves.” Anna stepped closer. “Tonight, when you’re speaking to courtiers don’t disappear out of my sight. If anything improper happens, I might not be as fortunate as your governess was.”

“You act like an old maid, but you’re only twenty.”

“There will always be someone at court, here or elsewhere, who will want to pounce on you.”

“We’re not an Italian court. Here, we need not fear poison.” Sophia Dorothea ran a finger along the gilding on the trinket-box. “If my cleaning maid hadn’t dropped my box that day, Henrik’s letter wouldn’t have been found. Mother said the maid was a thief, but nothing was stolen. My aunt said the maid was a spy, but why would anybody spy on me? I was a child.”

Music and laughter drifted from Mother’s apartments, and Anna walked to the door. “I need to go to the toilet. I’ll meet you there.”

Sophia Dorothea moved into the hallway and slowed her pace, knowing Augustus would be there. Her earliest memories of him were when she was ten, the day she was betrothed to his brother five years ago. Back then, Augustus would redden and blush redder than Mother’s roses when Sophia Dorothea looked at him, but not anymore. Now he was tall, strong, and confident like Father, handsome — and married to someone else.

Father emerged from Mother’s parlour, his long wig framing his scowling face. “Where is Anna?”

“Attending her toilet. What’s wrong?”

He smiled then and patted her shoulder. “You’re stunning and will dazzle the French ambassador.”

Mother rushed from her rooms. “My lord, please …”

“Eléonore, we will discuss it when my Chancellor returns from Hanover. I’m the lord. I won’t bow to you on this matter, at this time.”

Mother nodded, but her eyes widened, wounded at Father’s sharpness. “Yes, my lord.” She held Sophia Dorothea’s arm. “Come, Sophy, we have been waiting for you. I asked Anna to have you here on time.”

“It isn’t Anna’s fault that I’m late, but why was Father scowling?”

Mother gave her matchmaking smile. “Someone is here tonight who I’m sure you’ll be happy to meet.”

“Is Augustus inside?”

“He’s been eagerly awaiting your arrival. But come, meet the French Ambassador.”

They entered Mother’s chamber and a little man, his wig too big for his head, smiled and bowed. “Bonsoir, Mademoiselle, la Princesse, how honoured we are. I hope we shall become good friends.”

“Bonsoir, Monsieur, it is I who is honoured.” Sophia Dorothea extended her hand. “I’m always pleased to meet Mother’s countrymen.”

“The King of France sends his love. Allow me …” He stepped to a table and picked up a brass box as big as a hand. “King Louis wants to show his love and affection.”

Sophia Dorothea pulled off the lid and smelt the rich scent of chocolate. “Tell King Louis, he will have my affection forever.”

The ambassador turned back to the table and, like a magician presenting tricks, handed her another tin box as long and thick as a knife’s scabbard. Inside sat a pearl necklace.

“I’ll wear it with great fondness for His Majesty.” She fiddled with the clasp and turned so Mother could replace the diamond necklace with the pearls and place the diamonds in the tin. “Thank you, Monsieur.”

“When I find Dominique, we’ll make an introduction.” The man bowed and stepped to Duke Antony of Wolfenbüttel.

Antony, dressed in all black, needed no wig. His thick, dark hair hung in waves to his shoulders. He clapped his hand on the ambassador’s back and roared out laughing at something the French man said. Through a doorway on the terrace stood Antony’s son Augustus, leaning in close to his wife.

Mother wrapped an arm around Sophia Dorothea. “Sophy, take heart, you’ll gain a good husband.”

“Why wouldn’t Father allow me to marry Augustus?”

“I don’t know, but …” Mother searched the room, gave a wicked matchmaking smile again.

Sophia Dorothea caught the dark eyes of a young man. She fingered the pearls dangling from her neck. Fortune, to give her revenge, had possibly just arrived. His peruke was short and white, and he was handsome, well built, magnificent.

He strolled to Mother. “Duchess Eléonore, what a charming gathering, almost everyone is from France. There are no foreigners here except your husband and his cousins.”

Mother laughed. “Come, Dominique, you have yet to meet my daughter. Sophy, Comte Dominique Dubois is travelling with the ambassador.”

“Mademoiselle, la Princesse.” Dominique bowed, then gently held Sophia Dorothea’s hand and placed a kiss on it, his eyes not leaving hers. “The rumours in France about the women in Duke George William of Celle’s magnificent castle are true. I will never want to return to France.”

“I’ll leave you two.” Mother moved toward Duke Antony.

Sophia Dorothea glanced at Augustus who still seemed entranced with his new wife and smiled her best smile at Dominique. “Monsieur, I won’t now die of boredom tonight.”

He leaned in close. “A crime no gentleman would allow.”


###


Eléonore moved toward Antony. He gazed through grapevines on a terrace overlooking a lawn sweeping down to the moat. She stepped beside him and stood near the stand holding a bowl of dried and rose-scented herbs. “He is starting to infuriate me.”

Antony grinned, quirked his eyebrow, his voice loud and deep. “If you’ve tired of my cousin …”

“Dear Antony, how fond I am of you.” She tapped his nose. “But you must drive your wife to distraction.”

He laughed. “I’m fortunate she’s distracted by other things.”

“Their grand plan is for Sophia Dorothea to marry Prince George.”

Antony gave a grunt of distaste and put his jewelled hands on the terrace’s railing. “I wish the match with Augustus and Sophy had proceeded.”

Eléonore put her hand on Antony’s arm. “I’m sorry too the match didn’t proceed. I want so much for Sophy to be happy, to find a wonderful match.”

“Your daughter grows lovelier every day, like her mother,” Antony said. “I see your apprehension regarding a match with Hanover — the dependency to their House it would force on you.”

They will shit on me all the way to the grave. She stood silent for a moment and brushed her fingers through herbs in the bowl, realising what she was about to say was likely futile and feared it would be so. “I’ll put heaven and hell in motion to stop the match.”







—Hanover



Klara would have danced in the dull afternoon light on top of the mound of dirt and mud covering the coffin, but she wasn’t going to ruin a new pair of shoes, especially lovely yellow ones, even if it was her father’s grave. Nor did she want to get muck on her gorgeous ermine fur coat, whiter than any snow, besides, she was late for an appointment which was surely going to increase her exchequer. She seriously considered slapping her whinging sister, but Klara’s husband tugged at Klara’s sleeve as thunder boomed.

Frank, his grey hair parted razor sharp on one side, whispered, “Leave it be.”

Klara pushed away Frank’s grip and leaned toward her sister — a mess of blonde hair covered Catharina’s snivelling tear stained face. “Pray, Catharina, he is in Hell. The best place for him.” Klara didn’t wait for her now howling sister to respond but allowed Frank to lead the way from the handful of people toward three carriages. Her heel caught on a rock, making her wobble. “He’s probably watching, wanting me to fall onto my face. He tried to smash it in several times.”

Frank gripped Klara’s hand to steady her. “Why bother to come?”

“To make sure they put Father in the coffin, the last Count Meisenberg.” A title, she had been robbed of by being born female. She pulled an ivory compact case from her pocket, fiddled with her white-gloved hands to put her finger under the clip and popped open the mirror. A speck of rain hit the glass and made it look as if she had a mole on her cheek. “I almost feel sorry for Mother. She’s had peace the past year, but now he’s lying beside her again.”

The mirror fogged over with Klara’s breath, and she closed the case and put it into her pocket while holding back stinging tears.

“Why did you despise your mother?”

Klara pulled her coat close to her neck and tried not to spit out the words, but a tear rolled down her cheek — warm, then cold and hard, and she wiped it away. “She was weak …”


† † †


Klara held Frank’s hand as she climbed out of the carriage onto the cobbled road. “I’ll be furious if the man hasn’t waited.”

“André’s standing there. He wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to meet Hanover’s main lady.”

A young man of perhaps five and twenty, wearing a black hat, stood outside an inn, his black-bearded chin raised. His cheekbones had a sharpness, his nose a needle point, and his beady eyes scanned the lane dulling and fading into the night.

Klara stepped forward. “He has the look of a ferret.”

“A landless one.” Frank pulled Klara back against a doorway. Another carriage, taking up almost the width of the lane, rumbled past, throwing out a gush of wind and spluttering mud over her shoes and coat.

She cringed. “Urrg! Do they not know who I am?”

Frank gave a little guttural moan as if to pass wind. “I doubt it, otherwise it might be more than your coat and shoes ruined.”

“Tut, tut ...” She glanced sideways at her fifty-five-year-old husband. His mannerisms were starting to annoy her more than in past times.

André stepped forward. “Baron Frank von Platen, I was about to leave. A councillor of Hanover should understand how important my time is.”

Klara studied Baron André Bernstorf’s stern face, his eyes focused on Frank as if Klara was no one. If the man had any doubts of her importance, she’d change that quickly.

Frank clapped his hand on André’s back. “Calm down. We’ve been to the funeral of my wife’s father, and the weather is inclement.”

André looked uncomfortable then and offered his hand to Klara. “Baroness, my heartfelt condolences. A carriage ride for twenty miles over slushy roads for a day has made me forget my manners.”

She nodded. “It’s been a sad day. Thank you for your kindness.”

André waved them toward the entrance. “Let’s sit by the fire.”

Klara followed Frank into the room full of warmth, laughter, and beer. She would have snatched a beer from the closest person, walked through the crowd and crossed to a fireplace, the mats splattered with black spots from flying sparks, but the heat emitting from the grates warmed her face and made her feel sickly.

Frank, being the mind reader he was at times, removed his gloves and clicked his fingers at the fat and bald innkeeper. “Bring us three of your best beers, then wine.”

Klara removed her fur coat and placed it over the chair’s back. She sat and settled her skirts about her legs, sensing André’s eyes turned to the little ruby on her bodice to accentuate her cleavage. She looked up, but André was now arranging his hat beside his legs.

When André sat his back against his chair, he pushed his fingers into a steeple and tapped the tips against each other as if listening to a fiddler. “I have kept our part of the bargain, but Duchess Eléonore has her sights on French nobility for her daughter.”

Klara played with the tips of her gloves. She gazed steadily and neutrally at André, satisfied when he looked down at the table and wiped beads of sweat from his forehead. She knew the roaring fires had not caused the sweat, but nervousness and the knowledge of all he could gain from her. She had hinted in her letters, that her association with Duke Ernest of Hanover could change André’s fortunes if he allied himself with the Hanoverians.

Frank wrapped his arm around Klara’s shoulder and cleared his throat. “We wanted to thank you for organising the meeting between our Dukes. It was a long time due.”

A tavern worker brought the drinks, and Klara was grateful. After a few more drinks, Klara knew, just by the way André mopped his perspiring face, he would soon see the way to his future. She sipped her beer, letting it trickle down her throat. “I must apologise. In our grief my husband and I forgot to acknowledge your promotion.” She raised her glass. “To the new Chancellor of Celle. I see a change in Celle’s government can benefit both territories.”

“I’m humbled.”

She held André’s gaze over her glass. “You must tell us your ambitions, plans for Celle. Few men are witty enough to gain such a high seat.”

André’s eyes darted around the room as if fearful someone would see him. He swallowed a mouthful of beer, sat back, his fingertips now annoyingly tapping his thighs. “George William employs in his household and army too many French. It should be rectified, but Duchess Eléonore contradicts me on any matter. She has too much influence over George William.” He mopped his brow again and picked up a wine glass sitting beside his half empty beer stein. “She rules Celle and advises George William. Not his councillors.”

Klara leaned forward. “Out of Duchess Eléonore’s earshot, keep George William convinced that his daughter deserves nothing less than a prince with close connections to many Royal Houses.”

“Eléonore won’t be kept out of any decision affecting her daughter.”

“If you subtly draw George William’s attention to his public being unhappy that French officers in his own army and household out-number the commissions of his subjects — chip away at the Duke’s pride — George William will soon see that he loses respect daily throughout his territories by allowing his Duchess, his French Duchess, to exercise influence over sovereign matters.”

André rolled his shoulders as if to remove tension, likely considering where his alliance lay and if he would overstep the confidentiality of his position farther than he already had.

She smiled sweetly. “Duke Ernest will make it worthwhile for you.”


† † †


Klara stood up from straddling Ernest’s lap after his moans and groans ceased and a playful slap on her buttocks told her the job was done. She straightened her green skirts, their rustle silenced by the two spaniels barking at the window. Hammering and banging continued on the drawbridge being built across the River Leine.

Ernest sat on a chair — the Persian rug underneath its legs had crinkled into folds. He didn’t resemble the handsome man in state dress in the portrait hanging on the wall, painted when Ernest was young and still blond, though it did show a glimpse of the man he had become. Now, sitting bald and with a head as pale as a baby’s bottom, his red tunic tangled around his waist and his legs in white stockings and boots, he looked far from majestic — far from the man who had entranced her ten years before.

“A cloth,” he said, predictably, and she handed him a towel and continued straightening her bodice. He put on his wig, pulled his chair back near the cluttered desk to sit again as if he had just eaten lunch, and yawned. “I see you’ve missed me since we’ve returned.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. “I’m lonely. I grew fond of sharing your bed every night in Venice.”

He laughed. “Klara, I’m getting old, but I’m no fool.”

She raised an eyebrow. “My lord, you no longer mind sharing?”

“I could run a sword through anyone who dared to touch what’s mine.” He leaned back in his chair, studying her. “But I’m wise enough to know, if you set your mind on someone, the poor man would have no hope of resisting you.”

“You’re sounding weary, my lord.”

“What did my brother’s Chancellor say?”

She pouted. “Straight to business, my lord?”

He laughed. “You’re taunting me. Tell me now, my girl, what you discovered from André? I’ve let you have your way.”

Klara sat in a chair, adjusted her skirts, then brushed lint off her bodice. “Duchess Eléonore wishes Princess Sophia Dorothea to marry a French count. He is a close relation to King Louis.”

Ernest sat on the edge of his desk. “George William’s politics are German. He will never align himself so close to France.”

“The marriage is Duchess Eléonore’s wish.”

He frowned. “André can continue to be bought?”

“He hankers for a handsome estate. Duchess Eléonore contradicts him, much to his embarrassment and torment.”

Ernest crossed his arms. “You’ve done well, but I can’t do much with my son in England. Have André hold off my brother accepting any marriage proposal.”







September, 1682—Herrenhausen Castle



Bernadette thought if she took another mouthful of the citrus duck, nut stuffing or spiced wine, she might choke. So much for our private supper. She pushed the plate to the middle of the little table on the terrace overlooking the gardens. She looked at Ernest and grimaced as he sat back in his chair and stared up at Frank Platen.

“The word from Celle,” Frank said, “is that a new suitor, William of Orange’s nephew, has put forward his hand for Princess Sophia Dorothea. George William has told his daughter she can decide which suitor she wants when she turns sixteen next week.”

“Least it isn’t another French man,” Bernadette said. “But she is a child. She should not be left to decide state matters.”

“As usual, George William has given way to his wife’s demands.”

Ernest slammed his fist on the table. “I want this matter settled.”

Bernadette grabbed her plate to stop it crashing onto the floor. It had been months since they started negotiations with Celle, and she still found the entire matter disagreeable. She wished that Sophia Dorothea would disappear. She would sooner have had Ernest’s other brother John’s girl for a daughter-in-law, even if she would come with a small dowry since her father was now dead. At least that girl was a princess by birth. “What you’ve asked for from George William to take on his daughter is reasonable considering the circumstances, perhaps it’s time to —”

“No, Bernadette,” Ernest said. “I want the succession of Celle settled once and for all.”

Frank smiled. “Duchess Eléonore and her daughter are now at Wienhausen and not due home for a day.”

Ernest rubbed his chin. “Make another offer. Take out my most exorbitant demands, send it to Celle before Eléonore and her daughter return, and make it clear this is my last offer for the girl. Have my brother give his word and hand before his wife returns.”

“Yes, my lord.” Frank bowed and left the room.

“George William might give his word and hand,” Bernadette said, “but his honour is changeable.”

“Bernadette, you take the offer to Celle.” Anger thickened Ernest’s voice. “You convince my brother that there will be no more animosity between you and Eléonore.”

Bernadette felt slapped in the face and leaned toward her husband. “I went out of my way to be polite to the fraud on her last visit, but sarcasm abounded from her lips.”

“What did you expect?”

“Well, excuse me,” Bernadette said. “Your brother has forced us into this ridiculous situation.”

“I’m tired of this,” Ernest said, “sick to the death of it. Your jealousy of Eléonore is the problem … it has always been the problem. This is why she resists.”

“I recall you once refusing to call her Duchess.”

“But it is done. Now I want … I demand it ends now, so our House, our son, our family will benefit.”

Bernadette rubbed her temple, considered her husband’s words, then called a page. “Find Prince George. Tell him, come now.” She turned to Ernest. “We should not have to take Eléonore’s daughter for a pittance.”

“It won’t be,” Ernest said. “Frank will relay my final offer to André. The Chancellor of Celle is greedy and not altogether stupid. He knows it’s likely one day, even without this marriage, Celle will be mine then George’s anyway.”

George walked barefooted into the room, his fair hair needing a brush. “Mother, Father, I sense I will not like this news.”

Bernadette sat back and folded her arms. “Your father is sending a final offer to George William this afternoon.”

George raised his chin. “Wasn’t the last offer the final offer?”

“Adjustments needed to be made,” Ernest waved at the servant to fill his beer stein, “or we’ll lose the opportunity.”

George stared at his feet, unmoved.

“Well?” Bernadette said. “You can hear, can’t you?”

“I didn’t think you would insist I marry the canaille.” His face screwed up as if fed horse dung. “Recalled from England when close to gaining Princess Anne’s hand, for this?”

Bernadette snorted. “Playing in London’s brothels wasn’t going to warm the heart of any young woman, especially an English Princess.”

“She knew not about that.” He shrugged. “Hardly matters now.”

A lot of money had been wasted spent on chasing her English dream with probably the wrong son. The five younger boys were not like their eldest brother, who was short in statue, coarse of manners with an arrogance bordering stupidity. George was not assez beau to resemble a Palatine in any way. The other boys were already tall, handsome, with the Bohemian dark looks and manners fitting for princes. George’s saving grace was his father’s wonderful blue eyes, though they lacked the mischievousness twinkle Ernest’s had. “There was a reason for tutors —”

“I speak German, French, Latin … well.”


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