18th Century Vienna was glamorous and corrupt, and the pathway to fame could not be trod in innocence. Count Maximilian discovers Klara in a Nightingale Cage, an orphanage for the abandoned children of musicians. He educates her, fosters her remarkable vocal talent and initiates her into the art of love, intending to create the perfect mistress. The Count controls every aspect of Klara’s life, until Fate, in the form of handsome Akos Almassy, takes a hand. The tall, dark Magyar violinist can make beautiful music and healing potions, too, but can he rescue Klara from the Count—and live?
Chapter One, NIGHTINGALE
Books We Love Ltd.
Copyright 2013 by Juliet Waldron
Cover art by Michelle Lee Copyright 2013
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book
All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author, and have no relation whatever to anyone bearing the same name or names. These characters are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.
Klara ached all over, but perhaps the bitter draught of willow bark and hot water which she had just swallowed would subdue it. The aristocratic audience, which contained two princes of the Blood Royal, was one she did not dare refuse.
In the winter twilight, servants had been lighting ranks of candles set upon the chandeliers. The task completed, those tinkling balls of crystal and light were hoisted towards the ceiling. A glow fell over the white wigs and court clothes of the guests, who were seated in a half-circle around four string players and a gilded harpsichord.
The January afternoon was cold, and her maid, Liese had scolded. In the end, Klara resigned herself to wear a silver wig. Very often, in Max’s absence, she did not. This, of course, quickly set her apart from the other ladies, but Klara Silber’s hair was her glory. Thick, lively, and the color of polished mahogany, it made a spectacular crown about her heart-shaped face. To atone for the absence of the required wig, her hairdresser would create a frenzy of curls. One auburn lock was often left loose to trail with lazy abandon over one shoulder. Today, however, she was simply too cold. Today she would gratefully accept the warmth that came with the wig.
The host of this “English Tea”, an elderly Baron, took Klara’s hand in his white kid glove, ready to lead her to the harpsichord.
“You appear a little fatigued, Fraulein Silber. Please don’t feel you must tax yourself too much on my account, especially when there is so much sickness about this winter. Perhaps just the poignant little piece of Kapellmeister Handel, the song of Queen Sheba, which the ladies love so much.” The Baron, unlike so many others of high rank, was always considerate of his performers.
“I do feel somewhat tired, sir.” Meeting his faded, benevolent gaze, Klara glossed her discomfort. “However, I would never wish to disappoint you, or your distinguished guests.”
“I think there is little danger of that, Fraulein.” He regarded her with a fatherly smile. “We wouldn’t want you to be ill when your patron returns from his labors in Silesia. I’m sure that after the fighting and the long labors of his absence, Count Oettingen will often require the healing solace of your voice.”
The Baron was making conversation, but Klara shivered.
Just the mention of Max!
Snow and continuing turmoil on the Prussian border had detained her patron, the Most Noble Maximilian von Oettingen. Klara had been gratefully thanking every saint in the calendar that he had not yet returned.
As she approached the fortepiano on the Baron’s arm, a tall, muscular young man in the black and scarlet livery of the Hungarian Prince Vehnsky stood and made a graceful bow. If Klara had only seen him and had not listened to his skillful harpsichord work for the last half hour, she would have believed him to be a member of the Prince’s guard.
“You have given in to convention today, but it seems there is another musician present who doesn’t care much for fashion.” The Baron alluded to the fact that the accompanist’s shiny black hair was worn in a simple queue. Klara, who found him handsome as well as talented, had wondered about this. If he were an ordinary servant, to be out of uniform would have been considered impertinent. Perhaps to dispel that notion, or as a kind of compromise, the man’s queue was heavily braided with a scarlet ribbon which exactly matched his livery.
“Allow me to introduce you,” the Baron gestured. “Fraulein Singerin Silber, this is Herr Akos Almassy, Concertmaster for His Serene Highness, Prince Vehnsky.”
The Baron’s usual harpsichord player was sick with the prevailing winter ailment, a fierce cold which ended, sometimes, fatally, in the chest. Prince Vehnsky had graciously provided his host with a replacement for their musical afternoon.
The topaz gaze which met hers was disconcertingly direct. Like locking eyes with a cat, she thought. The eyes of Akos Almassy were at once sensual, candid, and bright. She realized that she had seen him, had even heard him play before, although they had not been introduced. It had been the previous winter, at a charity concert.
There would have been no reason to introduce a reigning prima donna to a mere orchestra musician. Klara had been in the audience, her hand held by Max. She remembered Herr Almassy going to the instrument with none of the scraping bustle of a servant, but like a young aristocrat gracefully accepting a task somewhat beneath him.
“I am honored, Fraulein Silber.” His voice broke her reverie, so she extended a jeweled hand. Baritone, Klara noted, thinking that his voice matched him well. His German was accented by some exotic mother tongue.
“I sincerely hope that my accompaniment will be acceptable. And please let me add, Fraulein, that the memory of the Eurydice you sang last Christmas will only die when I do.”
At his side, the Baron gravely nodded his massive head. He, too, had much admired Klara in the role.
“Thank you, Herr Almassy.” Klara smiled at the compliment, offered by a musician who was fully competent to have an opinion. Singing Eurydice had been both a joy and a universally acknowledged triumph. What the nuns had taught was sinful pride – wicked, but apparently inextinguishable-insisted she should take pleasure in her vocal skill, in her achievements. She could feel a flush rising, coloring her cheeks and tinting her bosom. All the humility drummed in during childhood was often at war with the vainglorious world in which she now moved.
Herr Almassy’s eyes followed the progress of the blush with interest. They were extravagantly lashed and there was a hint of the exotic, a tilted fold at the corner. The color was interesting, a hazel that tended, not to green, but to amber, like one of Signor Manzoli’s exotic cats.
And how his eyes were looking, as if he could pierce straight through her chaste exterior to the white-hot essence!
She found Herr Almassys’ aquiline nose and high cheekbones compelling, and began to imagine him as some long ago Attila carrying fire and sword across the Hungarian plains. His black braid, thick as horse tail, slipped over one strong shoulder as he bowed to kiss her hand.
His lips grazed her knuckles, and Klara was struck by a series of inexplicable sensations. First, came a startling flash of déjà vu, as if this raw moment had already had a thousand repetitions. Hard on the heels of that came another sensation, one even stranger, perhaps because it had been so long since she’d felt it in relation to another human being – a rush of absolute joy!
His lips were soft and warm. They lingered. To actually kiss the hand and not the air above it was somewhat daring, but the feeling that they were already intimate was so powerful that she experienced, not displeasure, but a thrill. She caught the scent of him, healthy, manly, and something else as well, something musk and green, something from a wild, dark mountain forest.
The salute to her hand completed, he lifted his head. In the instant his eyes pierced hers again and the world of up and down was no more.
She was falling, head over heels, a long dizzying descent through clouds. Falling….
“Herr Concertmaster.” Klara lowered her auburn lashes, able to acknowledge little more than the bare fact of his existence. There was something she ought to be saying, a brief conversation to organize this impromptu collaboration between them, but the flood of unexpected sensation struck her dumb.
Maria Klara Silber was twenty four. She was beautiful and famous. Before Akos touched her, she had known by the deep breath he drew as he reached for her hand that he was not only a fellow musician who greatly admired her talent, but a man experiencing the body summons of a beautiful woman. This happened often, though she didn’t think she’d ever get used to it. Fame and fortune had come so suddenly, carrying her along like a flood. This year, all of musical Vienna resounded with her Christmas triumph, the role of Alceste. Nevertheless, passionate as worship of a Diva could be, she sensed there was more here than that. This was immense, tidal!
Suddenly nervous, Klara locked her fingers together. There was a drop of moisture in the palm where his hand had supported hers. She turned to the harpsichord, to the music set there, resolutely facing the work they must do.
Performing would cure for these queer, vaporish feelings! Klara straightened herself, placed her hand upon the top of the instrument, all gilded and painted with cherubs, and drew several deep breaths. Akos, following her, took a seat at the instrument and leaned forward to softly ask: “Shall it be Frondi tenere e belle , then?”
“Yes, Herr Almassy, for our kind Baron loves it even more than he says we ladies do.” They shared a smile, two performers who knew how to please their audience. They spent a few more minutes of collecting themselves, then Klara signaled her companion to begin. Warming her voice earlier with scales, she had experienced an annoying constriction in her chest, but the willow draught had helped. Now she felt a bit better, so supported by Herr Almassy’s elegant introduction, she was able to sing, to let the poetry of the words, the reflective beauty of the music, support her.
Beautiful plane tree, ruler of this mystic place,
Shade me from the cruel wrath of the sun,
From the envious strike of the moon….
Because they hadn’t performed together before, it was paramount to maintain eye contact. His interpretation of the score proved properly reticent, but as she grew more confident in their musical connection, Klara relaxed, allowed years of training to carry her. Herr Almassy wound his music around each note she voiced as skillfully as if there had already been twenty rehearsals.
Whenever there was pain in Klara’s life, she ran to Music, let it carry her to a world of calm, grace and balance. Music could heal any wound, dry any tear. Music was her tender Mother, the only one Klara had ever known.
She filled her lungs, felt the muscular pleasure of response in throat and diaphragm, heard the rich glory of her voice. As his strong fingers moved upon the black keys, his amber eyes stayed upon her. He was utterly focused on her every move, her every breath.
When the first song was done, Klara curtsied and smiled at the heart-felt applause. On the walls of this elegant reception room, ornamental details flowed up supporting columns and from these onto the vaulted, painted ceilings, where angels and cherubs flew into clouds. She turned to include Akos in the applause, but she didn’t quite dare to look into his eyes now that there was no music between them. Her heart raced, and not entirely from the exertion of song.
Perhaps, she thought, if I translate this sensation into something recognizable, I can dismiss these queer, disturbing feelings.
Klara was accustomed to the games the men she met played, either because they imagined it politic to feed her vanity, or for the very masculine reason that they had to feed their own. She had learned to flirt lightly, meaning nothing.
After all, who would dare to challenge Maximilian, the man who owned her, the man whose perverse desire had pierced her, a butterfly struggling on the jeweled pin of his passion?
Herr Almassy’s long elegant hands arranged the next score. A few moments later, after the applause had died, he’d begun, with a business-like nod of his head, to embroider the prelude to the next piece. When he cued her, Klara lifted her voice again.
Enchantress of the woodland,
Heal my broken heart,
Return me to delight….
A long set of birdsong cadenzas ornamented the bridges between each verse. Under the best circumstances, the song was difficult. This afternoon, although she was famous both for her range and vocal agility, Klara had to force the top notes.
At the end once more she thanked a rapturous audience, but this time she gestured for a servant to bring her a mixture she favored, made of lemon, wine and water. She drank deeply and then turned away from the audience to clear her throat and spit into a handkerchief. She usually loved performing for the Baron and his friends. They knew music; their applause mattered. She drew strength from their regard, but today she just didn’t feel well, and this new accompanist…well, simply his presence had put her off-stride.
One song followed another. Klara was happy the chosen pieces were so familiar and that Herr Almassy was proving to be a perfect support. She knew, however, she was not at her best.
Perhaps on this occasion, craft may masquerade as art….
Anticipating the end of her performance, she called again for the mixture. Then she asked the handsome gentleman to take up the last piece, a passionate love song. Klara pursed her lips, considering. In her present odd mood, she thought, this would not be the easiest route to a finale! Still, it must be sung. Her friend, the kind and generous Baron, simply adored it.
Your eyes blaze and
Your soul leaps to mine.
In the taste of your mouth,
I embrace delirium.
I can only surrender.
The sound came, smooth at last, pouring from her throat like cream and chocolate. Akos’ amber eyes burned and Klara felt herself falling again, spiraling into their ravishing light.
Together they were making glorious music, music which was like Love’s breathless clasping and twining….
Klara swayed, leaned against the narrow top of harpsichord. She couldn’t look at her audience, who had caught her fire and were now returning her offering in tumultuous applause. She certainly couldn’t look at Akos.
God of Love!
He didn’t touch her, but when she opened her eyes, he was watching her, his expression nothing less than pure joy. A shining bolt of mingled delight and pain struck her, square in the chest.
Quickly Klara turned away, curtsied to the audience, and, with her usual simplicity, said, “Thank you, my dearest patrons, both ladies and gentlemen.You are all too kind to your most obedient servant.”
She made a wide gesture to include Akos in the applause. He stood, and then bowed once more over her hand.
His warm breath, the soft touch of his lips upon her flesh! Her head was on fire; her heart thundered. There was a sweet longing, deep, deep, where she most feared….
Desire! Love! Did she dare to let even these words trip by?
Akos stepped back, made way for the audience, now flocking toward her, a sea of lace and satin, the swish of layers of clothing and the strong and conflicting scent of many perfumes, as lords and their ladies came to offer her compliments.
Klara curtsied and smiled and presented her hands and cheeks for kisses, but tonight the aristocratic admirers appeared before her as little more than a moving cloud of white, blue and silver. She went through the motions woodenly, still blindingly aware of Herr Almassy. He was not far away, now receiving praise and thanks from the Baron.
It seemed an eternity later, but finally a line of servants issued from a gilt door carrying trays of cheeses, sweets and wines toward a long table set on the far side of the room. As the guests drifted after, Klara turned and ventured to do what any prima donna might. Boldly extending her hand, she summoned her accompanist.
“Thank you, Herr Concertmaster Almassy, for such an inspired performance at short notice. You were most helpful.”
“It was an honor, Fraulein Silber.” He stepped forward to capture her delicate fingers. “And, I confess, a dream of mine ever since last year. I will set what I have heard today beside the miracle of last winter’s Eurydice.”
Klara felt herself flush as she gazed into the warm sincerity of Herr Almassy’s lion’s eyes.
“I am happy you think I did some justice to Chevalier Gluck and Herr Handel, but I am not in exactly perfect voice. I’m sure my Maestro, Signor Manzoli, would criticize. And he always says that praise is like a feast of sugarplums, liable to sicken if one devours every piece that is offered. Still,” she ended with a delighted smile, “I cannot resist accepting a compliment from such a talented fellow musician.”
Herr Almassy made a depreciating gesture. “To accompany you was my inspiration, but I’m afraid that exactly as my grandfather often says, I’m one of those people who are Jack-of-all-Trades-and-Master-of-None.”
“Don’t be humble. You were excellent.” Klara felt easier now, with the strain of performance and the mysterious high drama of their musical collaboration now safely behind her. “Tell your Grandpapa that I, Singerin Maria Klara Silber, have declared that the Genius of Music most certainly guides you.”
“Oh, but that is what he most fears.” Her companion’s smile developed a rueful edge.
“How can he not value your gift?”
“My Grandfather Almassy is apothecary to Prince Vehnsky. As a child, I helped in his garden and went with him into the woods to gather simples. He believes the life of a healer is a far more important calling than that of a mere musician.”
“If you are not a musician born,” Klara asked, now a little puzzled, “how did you acquire such skill?”
“The high nobility of Hungary adhere to the old practice of teaching all their servants music so that they may summon a well-trained orchestra whenever they wish.”
“And it early became apparent to your teachers that you were especially gifted.” Klara found herself relishing their similarity. The talent she’d witnessed him display had earned this grandson of a herbalist a better station in life, just as it had done for an orphan convent girl.
“Well,” Almassy replied softly, “music transports me from our less than perfect world. I have studied and I have a certain skill in my hands, but really that’s all. Composers are the ones who carry fire from the gods.”
Admiring his assurance, his musicianship and his sentiments about equally, Klara wondered what Akos’ other ‘trades’ might be. “I believe as you do about composers. Without them, what would there be for those of us who can only perform? Nevertheless, I take pride in being a good instrument, in giving my best to what some genius has composed.”
The conversation was what Maximilian condescendingly called ‘musician’s babble’, but Klara didn’t care. Max was not here, thank the Blessed Mother! She was perfectly happy to go on talking about anything with this striking gentleman.
“But where is old Concertmaster Novotna, who used to travel with your Prince? Has he passed away?”
“He is ill. My Grandfather says the apoplexy stalks him, for his color is high and his wind is short. Sometimes now he faints and then awakens confused and lethargic.”
“Ah, poor man! Still, his passage to heaven will mean a promotion for you.”
“Yes, but it’s not pleasant to know that my fortune comes by his death. Herr Novotna has always been kind to me.”
“Merit alone, as I am frequently reminded, is not a completely reliable support.” Klara spoke with feeling. “In this world, extraordinary luck or patronage decides the fate of people like us. Rarely does talent alone tip the scales.”
She was, of course, thinking of her own situation. Her powerful patron had spared her many of the rebuffs and delays the careers of other less well-protected singers suffered. Whenever Max wanted to humble her, he’d point this out.
“But to anyone with half an ear, your talent is supreme, Fraulein Silber. Why, your range, your tone….”
“Is perfection itself.” A commanding voice interrupted them.
Klara and Akos started, then lowered their heads, puppets on the same string. They had been so engaged that they hadn’t noticed the approach of Prince Vehnsky.
“We have been intending an entertainment to celebrate the opening of our winter residence in Vienna, Fraulein Silber.” Herr Almassy’s master was an old man, well over sixty, and apparently in the habit of coming straight to the point. “It would please us if you would honor the opening of our winter season with your talent.” The Prince appropriated her hand, and Klara felt his within the glove, knotted with age.
Why, the Prince himself was asking for her services, had not delegated to a chamberlain the task of speaking to a mere performer!
“The honor would be all mine, most noble and serene Prince.” She only rose from the deep curtsy she’d made when he lifted her up. Deeply gratified, Klara gazed into the Prince’s black eyes. Though set in a hawkish, weathered face, they were lively, and still held a sparkle of youth.
“If you will only sing half as beautifully at our residence as you have done tonight, Fraulein, we shall be delighted. However, like our friend the Baron, we have some particular rarities which we would like you to perform for us. Concertmaster Almassy will bring you the music and shall be at your disposal for whatever rehearsal as you might require.”
A servant passed with a huge candelabrum. Light struck a nearby mirror and illuminated a flock of fat gilt and plaster cherubs, fluttering a delirious ascent up the column toward the painted ceiling. Klara felt as if she ascended with them.
“I am entirely at the service of my Prince, and Prima Donna Silber,” Akos said. His eyes touched hers and a shiver shot through her. It was if she’d been kissed.
Stop this! An inner voice scolded as Klara sat shivering beside Liese in the carriage. The party was over, and singer and servant traveled through a snow-filled winter night.
Remember how it was with Giovanni. His love, all his promises, all were lies! The madness you felt tonight was only because you are so lonely, because you have foolishly learned to have these sinful desires. You must never again – never again…!
Klara thought that Max’s twisted kind of love must suffice. Anything else was too dangerous. Hadn’t he taught her about illusion? About what it was like to see a love she’d imaged to be real die in a mire of deceit and betrayal? She would never love any man again, not after Giovanni, not after what he and Max had done!
Remembering, Klara shivered and then shivered again.
“What’s wrong, Liebchen?” Liese, beside her, was all attention.
Klara had been thirteen when the Count had sent Liese to be watchdog and nursemaid to his ‘Little Nightingale’. She still performed the task with a fierce devotion.
“Can’t you fools hurry?” Liese pounded her fist on the roof of the coach. “Fraulein Silber is cold!”
Klara covered her face with both hands and huddled back into the cold leather. Suddenly, she felt as she couldn’t breathe.
After meeting Concertmaster Almassy, after experiencing this sudden, violent attraction, it was absolutely clear what she felt about Max’s imminent return. Sheer, soul-shriveling dread!
From her palm came a scent which allowed Klara to conjure an image of the tall, dark Concertmaster, his broad, straight shoulders, the adoration she’d seen in his mysterious topaz eyes. Immediately, the counter image arose: Maximilian, elegant, graying – her sensual, cruel Master!
A bolt of pain shot pierced her forehead. Klara began to cry in long, drawn out sobs.
“Klara! Stop that!” Liese seized her shoulders and shook. What the Court physician had diagnosed as ‘hysteria’, had been a fact of life since ‘that business’ with Giovanni.
“You will injure your voice.” Liese began here, with this most terrible consequence of tears. “Stop at once, Klara, or I’ll call for the tincture of poppy as soon as we get home.”
Klara, knowing Liese was in earnest, and loathing the shadowy half-world in which the drug enveloped her, tried to choke back her tears. She slumped against the cushions, hugged herself and shivered ever harder
Oh, she had loved Maximilian von Oettingen once, as only an innocent and guileless girl can! In the miracle he’d worked upon her life, she’d imagined him the good magician of a thousand fairy tales.
But Love involved risk, and Max never took risks. Klara was a rare object, one that gave him artistic and sensual delight, her flesh and blood only one among many treasures. Even the delight Max had ordered up for her at his country house, the passion so falsely expressed, could never, ever be again!
In the blinding, snow-swirling darkness, as Klara was handed to her door by the footman, she stumbled and nearly fell. The bright exultation of the Baron’s party, the burning musical connection with the Concertmaster, had flown. She was empty now, drained.
At least, she thought, as she slowly made her way up the stairs, Max was not yet in Vienna. There would be some time to imagine freedom, a few more weeks before she would have to make the difficult choice over which she’d been hesitating.
Comforting herself with the idea that a new friendship could aid her in the terrible decision she’d been contemplating, Klara mastered herself. She would be rehearsing with handsome Akos Almassy daily. The command of Prince Vehnsky would be an adequate reason to seek his company.
After undressing and washing away powder and rouge, after sitting in her shift beside the stove while a thin young maid administered one hundred strokes to her thick ruddy hair, Klara was ready at last to subside into her narrow bed. Liese bustled, making sure that the stove was sufficiently stoked, that her mistress’ fine green silk gown and the heavy quilted petticoat were carefully laid away.
Klara faced the curtained wall and thought of the Concertmaster, remembered the glorious music they’d made together, remembered the magical connection. At last alone in the dark, she lifted her hand, caught the faint enigmatic scent of a wild wood, one which fine Castile soap and hot water had somehow not quite washed away. Praying to escape, she prayed to dream of the golden eyes of Akos Almassy, gazing upon her, alight with a true and noble passion.