The Empress' Royal Daughters

Follow the well-known Marie Antoinette as she grows from a young and innocent child into a woman of a foreign court.

Was she manipulated? Was what she did ever her choice? What did she really want?

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3. Chapter 2

Bats fly past the window as I glide down the cool gallery. The palace is quiet tonight; Emperor Father and his usual jolly laughter are absent. He has gone for the recent popular opera at the city square alone, despite Empress Mother's half-hearted attempts to dissuade him.

The candle in my hand flickers gently as the night breeze toys at my loose locks and tugs at my evening gown gently. It is at these times that I wonder whether my future husband's country will be as peaceful and tranquil as Austria. 

Sudden, hurried footsteps break the silence of the night. Whispers echo from the hall and I turn quickly enough to spot the royal pageboy rushing past the guards at the entryway. I tiptoe down the hall to see what is so urgent that half the guards at the door are abandoning their post and running helter-skelter for the stairs leading to the privy chambers.

I watch the lad speak in muted tones to Empress Mother's head lady-in-waiting, the Mistress of the Robes, standing guard outside Empress Mother's rooms. The usually calm Mistress lets out an audible gasp and her hand flies to her mouth. She turns sharply on her heel and hurries into the salon. 

Soon after a maid emerges from the rooms and she goes swiftly down the stairs and runs past me to the chapel, not even bothering to stop and curtsey! It is as if I am not there at all! Such insolence! I am about to call her back and make her kneel in apology, but she moves like a streak of lighting and is gone before I can even speak a word or shout.

The maid returns, this time with Father William the Bishop, moving along on fleet feet. I stop them in their tracks and curtsy.

"Whatever is the matter?" I ask.

Father William's face blanches and he says faintly, "May the Lord our God bless us and our king."

And he walks past me without truly answering my question, as if I am a mere child who is intellectually and morally incapable of keeping whatever secret they are muttering amongst themselves!

I am truly furious but at this time Mistress opens the chamber doors to let Father William in and she spots me standing outside, flushed with impatience. We curtsey to the same depth. The Mistress of the Empress' rooms is the most important lady of the court after Empress Mother and she is considered an equal to us Archduchesses. 

"Go to your governess, my lady." The Mistress catches me by the arm, her voice so sombre that I begin to feel a little frightened. "Countess von Brandeis will be comfort when you hear the news."

I am anxious to know what exactly is going on, but I know deep down that something is terribly wrong, and I would rather not find out myself.

I return to my rooms. Governess is knitting a sock and Charlotte is already in bed. I go over and sit next to her, almost tripping over the side table, of which a bible and cup of tea are resting.

Governess notices my disorientation. "Is anything the matter, my dear?"

I long to lean into her warm embrace and tell her of what I fear might be happening, but I know I must be strong and face the news which will surely reach us soon. I don't trust my voice either, so I merely smile nervously and twiddle my thumbs together. 

Sure enough, there is a pattering of footsteps. A light knock on the door. 

"My ladies, the Empress summons you to her salon immediately."

Charlotte stirs awake and fumbles around for her nightgown. Governess rushes to assist her. When we are all properly dressed we open the door and fall in step with the knight outside. 

"What is the pressing issue, brave knight?" Governess questions.

"You will know soon, Countess." The man answers stiffly, eyes bloodshot and somewhat blank.

A small assembly is gathered in Empress Mother's parlour. I recognise my siblings and a few familiar faces of men who are devotedly loyal to the throne. We curtsy low enough to greet the Empress but rise quickly so that the others cannot take credit.

My empress mother gestures for me and Charlotte to come closer. We go over and kneel next to her throne. Empress Mother appears to be shaken, but composed. She takes our hands in hers.

"Children, have strength and courage for what I am about to say," Empress Mother pauses to let her words sink in. Your emperor father has gone to be with the Lord our God."

There is absolute silence.

"Pardon?" I finally say. I can hardly believe it. Beside me, Charlotte lets out a little gasp.

"How?" Joseph, ever the logical one, questions. His voice is cool and steady; he is pillar of strength in this despair and uncertainty.

"No one knows for sure, your highness," Duke Fervidor speaks up. "All you need to be aware of is that you are expected to ascend the throne in your father's place. A kingdom without a ruler is defenceless."

Empress Mother rises from her place on the throne tottering unsteadily for a second, but she rights herself in time. Instantly all eyes flick to her, just as how moths are drawn to light and flies are to honey.

"Let us mourn our Emperor's passing in silence and hold the him dear in our hearts forever," Empress Mother's voice comes out in barely a whisper. I can see how much it pains her to accept the fact that her spouse has gone to Heaven. Stronger now, she turns to face Joseph. "But as the leaders of Austria, we must always keep our eyes trained on what is to come next. My son, I trust in you to rule Austria and bring her to greatness."

The chant begins piecemeal, voices calling Joseph's name scattered around the room. Then slowly, slowly, the audience add their voices to the pledge, and it resounds throughout the parlour with furious loyalty.

"Joseph. Joseph. JOSEPH."

Brother's ascension is a sombre affair. Everything had to be done in a haste. There are no festivities, no fireworks, feasting and dancing. We are all to wear drab and dark mourning clothes - such a waste of the fine gowns I have kept away in my wardrobe.

Father's death has changed us. Charlotte turns away when I approach her - she is inconsolable and no longer cares for fashion or gossip. Even Maximilian Fran seems to understand that something grave is happening and does not laugh as much, which adds to my uneasiness. Empress Mother -no, Dowager Mother now that Joseph is on the throne - is emotionally burdened. She has not just lost her emperor, she has lost her husband, her companion, her confidant. It was father who had courted, warmed and eventually filled the gaps in Empress Mother's lonely heart, accompanying her through the years of war and unrest during their rule. Perhaps now that he is gone she will pine for him and regret all those times when they'd argued over the smallest and silliest things. She has cut her beautiful dark hair short and wears nothing but black, black and more black. She has nothing more to be happy for. Oh! When will all this misery end? I do so wish we can return to our former happy days, when galas and gowns were the only things important to our pretty little heads.

They say the reason for father's death is uncertain. He left us under mysterious circumstances while returning home in his carriage from the opera. 

I find that the longing is felt at its greatest in everyday life. When I enter the dining hall, the centre throne is occupied by my brother Joseph II. His skinny frame can barely fill out the luxurious chair, and my little biased mind can't help but notice how much more suited the throne is for Emperor Father than Joseph. When I stroll past the study, where Emperor Father used to sit for hours smoking cigars and analysing geographical maps, I miss the times when I would hear him slam his palm down on the table and shout an 'Eureka' when he has discovered something new and interesting about the world. Even as I visit my pony Midnight in the stables, my eyes drift to the meadows where Emperor Father and I used to gallop across, and I wish with all my heart that God will bring him back to us. 

One morning after Emperor Father's funeral, I am returning to my room from the chapel when I see Joseph coming from the opposite direction. When he sees me his already bloodshot and tear rimmed eyes turn redder and he starts to sob. He spreads his arms out wide and I run to him, desperate for the comfort that is scarce in this stone-cold palace. I nearly trip over the hem of my skirt in my haste.

I wrap my arms around him and we lean into each other.

"Sister," Joseph says thickly.

"Brother," I cry out. It is as if we are both grappling for a sense of kinship and closeness in our changing world.

"I can never hope to live up to the people's expectations as the emperor," Joseph says shakily, releasing me. "They viewed Emperor Father as their comrade, their trusted ruler. And who am I to them? It will take ages for them to accept me, to come to terms with the fact that I am nothing like my father." His words grate against my ears like some irritating scab.

"Shut up!" I spit harshly. "You are father's beloved son, an Austrian duke, the born heir to the throne. You cannot say such things, it is shameful!" The rage in me fizzles into agony, which coils in the depths of my belly.

We fall into silence, our harried breathing the only sounds in the quiet hallway. I lean forward and grasp Joseph's face in my palms.

"Listen, brother. There will never be another emperor like father." The words catch in my throat and behind my teeth like tar, but I force them out. "But now the people have you, Joseph. An emperor who will rule in his own right and rules."

Joseph closes his eyes and breathes in deeply. He seems to stand a little straighter, shoulders a little more back. 

"You're right." He declares, and his face no longer seems streaked with the trails of long forgotten tears, but seems to glow with ethereal light. 

"And they will love you." I say confidently, trying desperately to stem the tears forming.

"And they will love me." Joseph echoes.

This is the end of our childhood. We must accept the life we once knew is gone, torn from us by the cruel claws of fate. Although we are grieving and in pain, we are the royals of Austria, models to the common people. We must forever hold our heads high and exude elegance and nobility. I shall live up to these expectations, and I hope the others will too. 

It is in our duty.

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