This third “Alpennia” book formed a marvelous introduction to this series. Set in the mid-19th Century in an imaginary land somewhere between France and Switzerland, the story has very much the feel of historical fiction in its rich detail and well realized social, economic, religious, and cultural institutions. As in the real world, most women are constrained to be wives and mothers, married for the wealth or political alliances they can bring to their families. Also as in actual history, extraordinary women transcended these boundaries, becoming scholars, artists, writers, scientists, and more. Their lives are often portrayed only in the context of the male-dominated society. In Heather Rose Jones’s Alpennia, however, women’s lives are central: their complex, richly-imagined relationships, their talents and skills, their resourcefulness and strengths. Yet this is not a “domestic” tale in the sense of smallness of scope; the fate of Alpennia (and its European neighbors) is at stake as the land comes under magical attack, and the key to its defeat lies in the gifts of the women and their ability to work cooperatively. With intelligence and insight, Rose spins a tale of international intrigue, suspense, treachery, and loyalty. – Deborah Wheeler
High in the mountains to the east and south of Alpennia, spring rains and warming winds wash the winter’s snow from the peaks and send it tumbling down the valleys. The melt gathers in rivulets; rivulets turn to streams; streams feed rivers. The Esikon, the Tupe and the Innek swell the Rotein, which flows through the heart of the city of Rotenek. And the city flows through the Rotein: in barges bringing goods up from French ports, in riverboats rowing passengers along the banks and up the narrow chanulezes that thread through the neighborhoods of both the upper and lower town.
They celebrate floodtide in Rotenek when the waters turn muddy and rise along the steps of the Nikuleplaiz as far as the feet of the statue of Saint Nikule, who watches over the marketplace. Sometimes the floods come higher and wash through Nikule’s church and along the basements of the great houses along the Vezenaf. Then the streets of the lower town merge with the chanulezes, and all the putrid mud from the banks and canals is stirred up, bringing the threat of river fever. For those who can leave the city, floodtide signals an exodus to the pleasures of country estates. Those who remain light a candle to Saint Rota against the fever.
But sometimes floodtide fails to come. When the weeks stretch out long past Easter into the rising heat of the late spring, and the falling level of the chanulezes turns the exposed banks rank and fetid, the priests at Saint Nikule’s will raise a bucket of water from the river and splash it over the feet of the statue and ring the floodtide bell.
The first notes of the clavichord were sure and clear, then Luzie winced as her student’s fingers stumbled on the keys. Just let Helena get through a few measures, soon she’d forget that her mother was listening. Yes, now the music was surer and more precise. One could almost see when the music seized her and carried her along. The notes filled the corners of the parlor, softening its stiff formality until one could imagine the designs on the carpet as a bed of flowers and the fringed swags of drapery as the boughs of trees. The high part soared over it all like birdsong.
“What a charming tune!” Maisetra Zurefel leaned over and whispered. “I don’t think I’ve heard that one before.”
“It’s just a little fribble called ‘The Nightingale,’” Luzie whispered back. “Meant to loosen up the fingers.”
She slipped a glance sideways at Maisetra Zurefel who was nodding and smiling. Good. Helena Zurefel had begun the year awkward and uncertain, able to play with careful precision but too unsure of herself to address the music with spirit and grace. And so young to be told that her hopes of a good match might rest on her accomplishments! Helena was at that awkward age: still dressed in the plain short calico gowns of girlhood but reminded at every turn to behave as a young lady.
“You’ve done wonders with her,” Maisetra Zurefel confided. “Her governess was in despair.”
Luzie kept her voice soft, though Helena was past the point of noticing their presence. “She always had the talent, I’m sure, but she has such dainty little hands. So many pieces have intervals that were beyond her. A little confidence helps. I’ve been writing arrangements more suited to her fingers.” Helena’s hands were small, but that wasn’t the whole of it. Still, it was a reason that would flatter both mother and daughter.
“I didn’t realize you were a composer,” Maisetra Zurefel said in some surprise.
“Nothing like that, just little amusements.” Luzie winced. Why did she always do that? Today was not the day to set her worth low.
Helena had finished and stood with a curtsey to her mother. “May I go now, Mama?”
“Yes, that was very nice.” Maisetra Zurefel waited until the girl had left and continued, “Well, I’m quite pleased. I do hope you’ll be able to continue her lessons when the season begins again in the fall.”
“I would be happy to, Maisetra,” Luzie replied. “And…” She steeled herself and hoped the struggle didn’t show in her face. “Perhaps we should settle the fee. You know how busy everything gets around floodtide. I wouldn’t want it to be one more tedious task to remember when you’re trying to get the household packed up for the summer.”
“Oh, yes. Yes, of course,” Maisetra Zurefel said. “That would be ten marks?”
“Yes, for each quarter,” Luzie emphasized. “There’s still the winter quarter to cover, you remember.” It seemed an outrageous sum to charge, but if she asked for less, they wouldn’t value her services.
“I’m not sure I have that much in my purse at the moment. Perhaps you could return later. My husband will settle the account.”
That was the same story she’d heard when the winter’s fee came due and she hadn’t pursued the matter. Money hadn’t been tight then. Now she couldn’t afford to let the matter slide. She glanced around at the lavish furnishings of the parlor, the newly upholstered chairs, the striped wallpaper in the latest fashion. If Maisetra Zurefel’s purse was thin at the moment, it wasn’t reflected in her house.
“You know how men hate being bothered over household expenses,” Luzie said, trying for a light, conspiratorial tone. “My own Henirik—God rest his soul—could never trouble himself over pin money and butchers’ bills. If I told him that wine and tea were dear, he’d think I’d been spending it all at the dressmaker. But if it’s not convenient for you to pay at the moment I can stop by this evening and speak to him.” From what she’d heard of certain card parties, Maisetra Zurefel’s expenses would be harder to defend than new gowns—hard enough to be worth calling her bluff.
“Oh very well,” the woman said. “Let me look in my desk and see what I have on hand.”
She disappeared upstairs long enough for concern. But at last she returned with a discreet envelope. Luzie ran her eyes over the contents while packing up her music case. It was the full fee and a little more. A sweetener, perhaps, to forestall rumors.
A brief shiver of discomfort overtook her when the Zurefels’ front door closed behind her. What would Henirik have thought? Dunning their old friends like a common tradeswoman! But if Henirik were here to see it, there would have been no need. It had been almost ten years—far more time than they’d had together. His image was blurred in her memory, replaced by the echo of his features in his eldest son’s face. She still ached for his presence. For the solid comfort and reassurance it brought. For the beginnings of something else that time and custom had only just begun to kindle in her when he’d been taken from them. She shook off the mood. There was business to do.
Luzie tucked the music case more securely under her arm and glanced down to the corner to look for a waiting fiacre. A driver caught her look and swung down off his perch in readiness but in that moment she had made her calculations. It would be a long walk to Fizeir’s place on the eastern edge of town, but the afternoon was still young and the weather was fair for now. Better to save every teneir to give the boys a real holiday when they came home from school. She shook her head briefly at the driver with an apologetic smile and walked on past. When her errand was done, perhaps she’d treat herself with a ride back from a riverman. They’d take a half fare if you weren’t in a hurry and were traveling downstream.
* * *
The composer received her in his cluttered office. There had never been even the pretense of more than business between them, no need to waste time lingering awkwardly over tea or for her to inquire after Maisetra Fizeir’s health. Once, long ago, her father had been one of Fizeir’s teachers. That had given her a foot in the door. It was hard to imagine two more different people than her father, with his unruly white hair perpetually standing on end from running his large-boned fingers through it absently, and Fizeir with his neat and dapper appearance, more like a banker in his sober black suit than an artist. Her father had been Fizeir’s colleague, she was a paid assistant.
Luzie set the neatly copied scores before him and ticked off the inventory of assignments on her fingers, concluding with, “I finished adding all the revisions to The Prince in Hiding. Will it be performed again next season?”
Fizeir only grunted in response.
The opera’s debut last year had been only politely successful, but Luzie thought it much improved now. She continued, “I’ve copied out the parts for the three quartets. There was one place—” She hesitated to choose her words carefully. “I wasn’t entirely certain about this section here. Perhaps my eyes were tired that evening. I’ve set out the cello as I thought you intended it, but perhaps you could look it over and check? If I’ve made an error, I’ll re-copy that page.”
It was simple tact to imply the manuscript had been unreadable. Fizeir was a busy man and he relied on her to catch such oversights. He was no Ion-Pazit to break the rules of harmony by intent.
He grunted again and set the pages aside.
“And that leaves only the violin concerto. I’ll have it finished before floodtide. You’ll be leaving for the holiday?”
The question was unnecessary. A composer of Fizeir’s standing would have any number of invitations from his patrons. The exodus of the upper crust from Rotenek at the declaration of floodtide was as much of a sacred ritual as any feast of the Church. No matter that the Rotein remained sluggish and low so late this year.
She waited with eyes cast down while Fizeir counted out the fee for her copywork. There was never the same awkwardness that sometimes rose over her students. Business was business for the composer. That was why her heart beat faster for her next question.
“I was wondering if you’d had time to look over that piece I showed you last time.” The bank notes were quickly tucked away in a pocket of her music case beside the envelope from Maisetra Zurefel.
“Ah, yes. Whatever made you think of trying to compose a motet?”
It was an innocent enough question, but Luzie shrank inside. “I…I’ve always wanted to try a sacred song. There was an idea—a phrase—that came to me one day. I thought…”
Fizeir waited as her words trailed off, then said gently, “Maisetra Valorin, I have a great admiration for your student études. Your talents are very well suited to the family parlor. I’m not saying that the piece you showed me does not have promise. Perhaps in other hands…”
The disappointment was sharp, but she was no judge of her own work. Back before her marriage, her father had urged her to compose, but one couldn’t trust a parent’s fondness. “If you think—”
Fizeir mistook her intent. “Yes, if you like, I might find some use for the motifs. I’ll buy the work from you for two marks. Unless you’ve offered it to someone else already?”
It would be very little for a finished composition, but better than what the manuscript would bring lying in the back of a drawer with the others. She nodded and took the additional notes he offered before tying the music case closed again.
* * *
A light spring rain was beginning as she descended the steps next to the bridge to reach the public landing. The waiting riverman handed her a piece of sacking to hold over her bonnet when he saw she had no parasol. Luzie considered waiting to share the fare with a stranger, but the weather would grow worse before it was better. Thinking of what Fizeir had paid her for the motet, she gave the man two teneirs to row briskly.
At the direction she gave, he countered, “Water’s low in the chanulezes. Might be mud. Better I let you off at the Nikuleplaiz where they clean the steps regular. A month past Easter and still low! Time was it always flooded before Holy Week. Late last year as well!”
Luzie interrupted him long enough to agree to his suggestion. It was only a few blocks more. “But Easter was early this year. Do you think the weather’s broken at last?”
“Not likely, maisetra. The river doesn’t smell like it should.” He looked over his shoulder as he pulled out into the center of the current. “Rain here doesn’t matter. Floodtide comes from higher up. They’ll have to throw the bucket at Saint Nikule soon, mark my words.”
The weather was the safest conversation anywhere in Rotenek at the moment. Everyone waited like racers at the line, listening for the sound of the flood bell at the Nikuleplaiz. That held true whether one left or stayed.
Mefro Alteburk met her at the door to take her coat and the music case. A heavenly scent beckoned toward the kitchen and she asked the housekeeper, “Have the lodgers dined yet?”
“Maisetras Halz and Lammez have eaten and left already,” Alteburk answered. “And Maisetra Ponek told me she’s dining from home. But Maisetra Mazzies waited on you.”
Even with her stomach calling, Luzie went upstairs to change first. It was no time of year to let damp clothing give her chill and a fever. Floodtide meant the risk of river fever, whether the waters rose or not.
Her nose hadn’t deceived her; Mefro Chisillic had made potenez. The rich aroma of duck and garlic and lentils brought back a flood of childhood memories. “Oh Silli, how did you know exactly what I’d be wanting today?” she said. Nostalgia brought the childish nickname easily to her lips.
“Because my bones say there’s a storm brewing,” Chisillic answered. “And you always did like potenez when it’s wet outside. You know what they say, ducks like rain and rain likes ducks.”
Silli could always take her back to her carefree girlhood when her only worry had been whether Papa thought she had practiced enough for the next concert. The cook was her only everyday reminder of those days. She had scarcely been married a year when Papa had stopped performing and her parents had left Rotenek for Iuten to live with her brother Gauterd. Gauterd’s wife ruled her own kitchen and had no need of Mefro Chisillic’s services. And so Silli had stayed on in Rotenek and joined the Valorin household. Her loyalty had been a rock after Henirik died.
Luzie shook off the memory. Twice in one afternoon he’d crept into her thoughts. She lifted a spoonful of the thick soup to her lips and teased, “I’m not sure there’s enough for two.”
“You won’t think to be taking Maisetra Iustin’s share,” the cook scolded, reclaiming her spoon.
Silli claimed the familiarity of treating all the lodgers as if they were her mistress’s daughters—even Issibet Ponek who had been sewing costumes for the opera since Luzie herself was a girl.
“Send Gerta to fetch her down then. I’m famished.”
They acted out the trappings of a family—it was better than constantly being reminded that she’d turned Henirik’s family home into a boarding house. Those had been desperate months after his death. Bills from the physicians and thaumaturgists had stolen all their savings. Iohen and Rikke had been too young to leave her time to earn a living even had there been work available. She’d been too numb to know where to turn.
Issibet Ponek, out of her own need, had been the first to gently suggest the idea of lodgers. Once Luzie had agreed, word of mouth and a certain sympathy had done the rest. It was all very respectable. She took in no opera dancers or acrobats. Just good, steady women of sound reputation. And if their work around the theaters meant odd schedules and quirks, they put up with her music at all hours in return.
But it wasn’t a family. Her family were all far off in Iuten and she barely saw them once in two years, except when Gauterd picked up or delivered the boys for school. The lodgers might gather in the parlor, on evenings when their lives intersected, talking and sewing and listening to her play. But there was always a certain distance. In time, they would all drift out of her life. Even Issibet had talked of retiring to the country some year soon.
Her family were distant, her neighbors had become customers, and in place of friends she had paying boarders. Luzie did her best to pretend it was enough.
“Do you think floodtide’s come at last?” Iustin asked as Chisillic served out the potenez, echoing the question on everyone’s lips. She waved out the window where the rain was now falling in sheets.
Luzie smiled up at the cook. “Thank you, Silli.” She always felt guilty to see her serving. There should be a real parlor maid, not just Gerta who kept the front rooms in order and helped all the women dress, and Mag who scrubbed pots and kept the fires, and Mefro Alteburk who kept them all in order and hired out the rest of the work. It wasn’t right to have Silli wait on the table. It wasn’t fair.
She returned to Iustin’s question. “I hope so. The riverman who rowed me down from Fizeir’s this afternoon was doubtful, though. They always know before anyone else. Do you have a floodtide invitation you’re waiting on?”
Iustin nodded. “I’ll be spending the summer season with the Chaluks. They asked Maistir Ion-Pazit to oversee the entertainments at Falinz and I’m to bring my violin to play in whatever entertainments he comes up with. Filip is all out of sorts because he knows they won’t stand for his usual compositions. But they aren’t waiting on the river. We leave next week, high water or no.”
So it was Filip now, Luzie thought. She only said, “That will give me a few days to make your room up for the boys. The term is already over, but they have to wait on Gauterd to bring them.” Luzie frowned. “Have you met my brother? You share an instrument, but…” No need to remind Iustin that Rotenek’s fraternity of musicians had not exactly welcomed her. Only the patronage of the Vicomtesse de Cherdillac had finally opened the concert halls to her.
Iustin shook her head and turned the subject back to the boys. “Iohen must be getting tall by now. I remember last summer he was almost to your shoulder. And Rikke won’t be far behind. They grow so fast!”
And so much of that growing happened out of her sight, Luzie thought with regret. She wondered if it were truly worth the cost to send them away to school—both in money and to her heart. But Henirik had made her promise. It was the academy he’d attended in his youth, and one of the best. Even more important than the studies were the friendships they made there that would serve them in good stead later.
* * *
Plans, it seemed, were made to be overturned. Two days later, the carriage that arrived just after luncheon was not Mari Orlin being delivered early for her lesson. It was a dusty traveling coach, disgorging two laughing boys and an assortment of trunks.
Rikke ran to her arms, shouting, “Mama! Mama!” while Iohen held to his fourteen-year-old dignity.
“What’s all this?” she asked after kissing Iohen’s forehead where the auburn curls had grown long and fallen across his eyes. “Your Uncle Gauterd was supposed to bring you next week!”
“The Perkumais offered to bring us home,” Iohen said, with the air of a rehearsed speech.
“Because Efrans asked Hennik to spend the summer with him,” the younger boy burst in. The interruption earned him a scowl from his brother.
Luzie’s mind spun. The Perkumais! Such an opportunity, but…
One of the grooms who had been unloading the trunks into the front hall pulled an envelope from his pocket and offered it to her, saying, “It’s true, Maisetra Valorin. Mesnera Perkumai asked me to give you this.”
She acknowledged the man with a nod and fumbled in her reticule for a few coins to offer as a gratuity. “We’ll discuss this later,” she told the boys. “Now come on in. We need to figure out where to put you.”
Iustin was only a little dismayed at the early invasion. “Of course I can pack up my things to make room. I’m sure I can find someone to take me in until we leave for Falinz.”
“Are you sure?” Luzie was doubtful. The weeks at the end of the season left every household in an uproar, even those who remained in Rotenek. “It’s only a few days. Maybe Maisetra Ponek…”
But that wouldn’t do. Issibet was always jealous of her privacy and she paid extra to keep it. Charluz and Elinur were already crowded in the room they shared. On impulse she offered, “You can just share my bed. I don’t mind. Better than packing twice in a week.” And that was settled.
There was still the other matter. Hours later, Luzie weighed and considered and lay restless through half the night, not only for the unaccustomed presence of Iustin in the bed beside her, but running sums over and over again. The Perkumais’ invitation to Iohen for a summer visit was an honor—an opportunity—but it was a burden as well.
When she broke the news to Iohen, she thought at first to spare him that calculation. “I haven’t seen you since I traveled to Iuten at Christmastide. I don’t want to lose a moment of my summer with you,” she began.
But at his crestfallen and rebellious look, she sent Rikke away and spoke to him as a man. “It’s one thing when you’re at school together. There’s a certain…equality between all the boys. But the Perkumais live a very different life than we do. It’s a life that requires the right clothes and the right…well, everything. I haven’t the money to set you up properly for a whole summer with Efrans Perkumai. And I don’t want you embarrassed to look like a poor cousin or a charity boy.”
She watched him turn red as he took in the implications of what she was saying.
“It’s not fair,” he said.
“No, it’s not fair, but it’s the way of the world. Be Efrans’ friend, but don’t try to be his equal. Not outside of school. Now let’s sit down and write a letter to thank him and explain that you don’t want to leave your poor Mama alone for the summer.”
He loosed one last dart. “We wouldn’t be poor if Papa were still here.”
She’d thought the same thing too many times for it to sting. “No, we wouldn’t, but the angels saw fit to take him and that isn’t for you to question. And we aren’t poor, we simply aren’t rich. If we were poor, we wouldn’t have this nice house to live in and you’d be prenticed out by now. So give your thanks to God for that.” Perhaps someday it would occur to him to give thanks to her as well.
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