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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2. Chapter 1

Innsbruck, Austria

August 1765

I am to wear a gown of deep scarlet and sing and dance at my brother Leopold's wedding. He is to marry a Spanish, Princess Maria Luisa, a kind, unpretentious blue-eyed twenty-year-old beauty. My part in the wedding is exceptionally important and it will not be successful without me, I do say so myself. Not even Maria Carolina (we call her Charlotte, to ward off the bad luck from inheriting the name of a dead sister before her) will surpass me now.

Maria Luisa has come all the way from Spain by sea, as per Empress Mother's order. No one dares contradict her, for she has long overruled Emperor Father and controls everything that goes on in the palace. The bride to-be arrived a seasick, sopping mess and was made to see Empress Mother immediately. I heard she entered my empress mother's chambers cheerfully and exited quite subdued into her expected role of a loyal, filial wife.

Perhaps I will be treated the same when I marry in the future. But I shall not meet anyone in a sobbing heap-my Austrian upbringing will not allow that. I will extend my hand gracefully to my mother-in-law and say, "I am your equal, if not in status, then in terms of nobility and etiquette. I too, am the wife of one of your sons, and I will be no different from the other women whom have married your eldest and youngest." That'll put her right in place.

When the time for exchanging vows comes, I will kneel and bend my head so goddess-like before the altar that my people will cry out that an angel has descended upon them.

I am ten, due to be married within the next seven years. I am destined to be married off in the service of my country, the key in keeping perpetual peace between Austria and some other rich kingdom. My governess tells me to be thankful that God has called me into his duty and to not hope for more than being a mother and basking in the joy of having my children all gathered around me. I sit as maidenly as I can and pretend to listen demurely, while secretly I think that the old woman knows nothing, and I will never be treated like some mule to produce heirs. I shall be viewed as an equal, bear children not by duty but by choice, have everything and anything my heart desires and not be suppressed by anyone, not even the King himself. I shall make sure of that.

***

Empress Mother has a private meeting with Leopold before the wedding. My empress mother wants to make sure that Leopold is a loving spouse to Maria Luisa, and I nearly snort at that, but it is quite an unfeminine gesture, so I check myself in time. Leopold is such a cold, unforgiving creature-personally, I feel that no amount of lecturing will ever be able to change his attitude. He is quite unlike Emperor Father, who is jovial and friendly, even to my eldest brother Joseph's boring and unattractive wife Grand Duchess Maria Josepha. No one would ever take them for father and son when they are placed together. The contrast is too great- a smiling, benevolent monarch and a cool, stern prince. Among all my siblings, I think I am the least close to him.

 Grand Duchess Maria (my empress mother decreed we simplify her title while speaking informally as my eldest sister shares the name Josepha) takes up the task of keeping Maria Luisa company. Joseph does not care much for his wife and hardly even speaks to her, so perhaps the princess sees another lost soul like hers worth comforting in Maria Luisa. 

The two lonely women stand at the window speaking in hushed tones, and I, being curious, sneak closer for a listen although it is rude. 

"Are you happy with your betrothal?" Grand Duchess Maria asks.

My soon-to-be sister-in-law wears a jewelled Spaniard veil which hides her lower face, but I think I can make out the barest hint of a smile from my place in the shadows.

"Est meun officium patris tui et velle." Maria Luisa replies in Latin which I cannot follow. Thankfully, she attempts to translate in stilted German, "It is my father's wish and thus my duty."

"Leopold will grow bored of you soon, like how Joseph never desires me," Grand Duchess Maria warns. Two handmaidens curtsy as they pass the two nobles. "Joseph has never loved me like how he adored his first love Isabella. I pray that the same does not happen to you. If it does, assume the role on an onlooker, and you shall be tolerated."

Maria Luisa bows her head in a saintly manner and whispers, "It is God's will."

As the two women leave their post at the window, I think that it is very stupid of Maria Luisa to accept her fate without question.

***

The wedding is a complete success, and as usual, Empress Mother takes all the credit. The ceremony is held at a church and all my brothers and sisters are there, dressed in their very finest. Even the youngest, Ferdinand, is there, laughing and giggling the way only babies do. I keep catching the eye of a certain attractive young knight and Charlotte whispers in my ear that he might have taken fancy to me, and we giggle until Governess looks over at us sharply. We try to quieten down and seem solemn, but the knight glances over again and Charlotte nudges me so hard that I feel that I really must laugh again.

Empress Mother sits very still and regally upon her throne, which has been specially moved from our palace in Vienna. Emperor Father is next to her, beaming and exchanging warm words with the Spanish philosopher in Maria Luisa's entourage. They discuss the strangest things, like why women only bleed once a month and not twice, and whether the Earth is a square or a straight line. It is utterly ridiculous and boring. I cannot follow their rapid garble of Latin and French anyway.

The Spanish court mingle with ours without formalities, flirting and chatting away, adding to the general hustle of the church. But when the wedding begins, everyone has the sense to fall silent.

Maria Luisa is dressed in a gown of the finest white, angelic and every bit the model wife. Tradition decreed that the spouses must kneel before the Emperor, then the Empress, to pay their respects and receive blessings before the altar. Leopold kneels first, stony-faced and Maria Luisa obediently follows.

Emperor Father pats her gently on the cheek in a fatherly manner, and I think to myself that the only kind and unveiled person in this court must be my emperor father. I remember how he used to take me by the shoulders and bounce me on his knee when I was very young, take me horseback riding and pat me the same way he did to Maria Luisa. It is almost laughable how Empress Mother assumes the role of a monarch while Emperor Father takes time to love us like a mother should. 

Empress Mother may be second after the Emperor, but Maria Luisa knows that she must please Empress Mother first before any other. My empress mother leans to whisper something meant only for her ears, and seems satisfied when her daughter-in-law nods respectfully. She bestows her blessings generously but with little warmth.

Afterwards, we watch from our places in the pews as Maria Luisa exchanges her vows with my tight-lipped brother before God and hundreds of people. Her court is teary-eyed, and someone calls out, "Vivat Reginae! Long live the princess!"

I cannot help but think how wonderful it will be when I am married one day. It shall not be any less grand than this, perhaps even grander if I dare dream. My dress will not be plain and white but embroidered with gold in the most exotic patterns. I will invite everyone to see me in my blazing glory.

***

The evening feast is excellent. Emperor Father's men have been out hunting in our grounds and their kill is roasted and served spread out before us. Grand Duchess Maria Luisa and Grand Duchess Maria eat from the same plate as they are now of equal rank. 

Emperor Father sends dishes down to his low-ranking mistresses sitting so far down the table that they might as well be standing, and I know that Empress Mother will not be pleased at his indulgence of those whores, who are of common blood. Leopold does not even bother to send anything to his new spouse. He simply sits there talking in deep tones to Joseph, whom he is very close to. I find him terribly selfish, although Grand Duchess Maria Luisa smiles and says nothing.

After the feast the real celebrations begin. Emperor Father has spent a fortune on music, dances and festivities to mark this terribly vital union. The whole point of this is to show the world that Austria and Spain are now friends and at peace; should our enemies be foolish enough to take the offensive, Spain will send her armies in our defence.

The orchestra strikes up a jolly tune and my eldest sister Maria Josepha takes to the dance floor in a swirl of frills and fast-paced movements. Her face is beautifully flushed from wine and exertion, pink and rosy in the warm light. Her deft and small hands and feet make me feel quite inferior when I look down at my own. 

I glance over at the foreign ambassadors, who are watching Maria Josepha closely. They are noting every single detail of her and if she is fitting, a courting will be initiated between her and their king.

When Maria Josepha is finished, Joseph and Leopold keep the mood up, dancing with their spouses. The court cheers-this is what they want to see and believe: two happy marriages of the court. On closer inspection one will identify the stiffness of Joseph as he twirls Grand Duchess Maria around-he looks as if he is made of a block of wood. Leopold's face is a mask, he barely looks at his spouse for more than two heartbeats at a time before his eyes flick away disinterestedly.

I wish them all the best at the sides of these unfaithful, unloving men.

 

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