Anastasia, can I ask you a question?"
Our cook cursed, levering a tray of buns from the oven. The kitchen was her unquestioned domain, but still she always seemed slightly harried, even in her element. She put the tray on the cooling rack and turned back to me, wiping her hands.
"Ask quickly, girl."
"You know how to mix . . . medicine." She had told me never to call it what it was; even the floorboards had ears in our house.
"Aye, medicine," Anastasia replied, tipping me a wink. Above our heads, the wind hooted in the rafters. A storm was on the way for Christmas, such a fearsome storm that the railroads had been shut down, the sailors on the river forced to spend Christmas Eve lashing ships to the dock.
"Do you know how to make other things?"
"Like-" I swallowed. "Like a love potion?"
She froze in the act of glazing a joint of beef, fixing me with a cold glare.
"And if I did know such a thing?"
"I don't know. I just thought-"
"Thought what? Would you be like your mother, gazing into a crystal ball for what you can't have? Would you seek by foul means what you cannot get by fair?"
I shook my head, feeling my cheeks burn.
"I know you've lost all sense about that Liebermann boy, but only the foolish meddle with love magic, child. Being adored is for pretty girls; you must be content with what you are."
"Were you a pretty girl, Tasia?"
The moment I asked, I regretted it. Anastasia was old, with whitening hair and a spinster's sticklike body. But she didn't seem to take offense. She dipped the brush into the sauce and made slow, deliberate strokes with it, as though she were painting a masterpiece rather than glazing a side of beef.
"No, not pretty, Nat. Not unloved, but never adored. And I'll tell you something else: a man like your Conrad may like a plain girl, may even come to care for one. But she'll always be the one he settles for in place of the beautiful woman he can't have. And when the opportunity presents, he will not hesitate."
I shrank from her words, the hopelessness in them. Conrad didn't love me, I knew that. But he could. He could. If I could only do the right thing, say the right thing, find the lever that made him look at other girls with such admiration, things might change.
"Are men really so terrible, Tasia?"
"Not terrible. Not even bad-hearted, most of them. But fools, girl . . . men are such fools for beauty."
"It seems unfair."
Anastasia snorted, hefting the tray of beef toward the oven.
"You'll find no fairness in my kitchen. Whatever you feel for that boy will only end in grief; leave him behind."
"I've tried to leave him behind. I tried so hard."
"Try harder, then."
Feeling myself dismissed, I left the kitchen. I shouldn't have ventured in there at all on a day when Anastasia was preparing for a party, and I certainly should never have asked her about a love potion. She had left the country years before, traveling to the cities as so many villagers had since the death of the old king, seeking a better life and more food. Her people were superstitious; Anastasia knew the tarot cards, and would even read palms if she was in an expansive mood. But I should not have asked her about a love potion. I had never sought to entrap Conrad, as other girls did their men, with a full belly or the threat of an angry father, but deep down, I knew that I might have tried such a thing if I thought I would get away with it. I was not the sort of girl men married; Drosselmeyer had seen to that. But hope was a devilish thing. One morning Conrad had torn his cuff climbing down the drainpipe, leaving a thin scrap of white cloth, and I had clambered out onto the sill in the frozen dawn, reaching as far as I could across the gap between window and drainpipe, nearly falling from the icy ledge in my determination to grab the piece of cloth, to have this one thing that would not vanish in the light. Once in a while, I would take the scrap out to look at, to touch, but most of the time it was enough to know it was there, proof that I had not imagined all those nights when we rolled on the bed in a facsimile of love. Bishop Theofan would undoubtedly have called me a harlot, but even the threat of hell did not come into the nights when Conrad climbed through my window. He would knock, and I would let him in, always, because having the nights was better than having nothing at all, even if those nights were no more real than the fog that melted away with the dawn. Conrad did not love me, but that didn't mean he never would. Even the storm outside seemed to feel my certainty, for it picked up suddenly, making the candles flicker, wind screaming against the windows as I left the kitchen.
In the parlor, servants were decorating the tree. We had no ballroom, as the city's truly wealthy families did, but our parlor was certainly large enough to host a party. Our Christmas Eve parties had become something of a neighborhood tradition, but the neighbors didn't know of the penny-pinching that went on behind the scenes to make them as lavish as possible, just as they didn't know how much of our current lifestyle was bankrolled by Drosselmeyer. My father had ordered the tallest tree the woodcutter could find: a bright fir that stretched nearly twenty feet to the ceiling, so fresh that the house still smelled of sap, and later on Drosselmeyer would pay the woodcutter for his trouble, hiding our penury like a magician doing a parlor trick. We couldn't afford these parties, but all the same, we would have them. To do anything else would be to admit our diminished circumstances, and Father could not bring himself to do that.
The youngest of the houseboys, teenage Joseph and Arne, were hanging the tree with tapers and holly now, laughing and throwing berries at each other. They could afford to do so; Mother was shut up in the parlor with the medium, Madame Margritta, a pungent woman, swathed in shawls, who came to our house at least four times a week. She and Mother would sit for hours in Mother's private parlor, wailing over lost relatives, dead royals, and someone named Dominic. Mother spent a fortune on the unseen world, and sometimes Father would complain, but not too much. Father had his own diversions, and he was no more anxious than Mother to have them brought into the daylight, to account for where the money went.
I moved on into the entrance hall, where the dark of late afternoon held sway. Here, Drosselmeyer gazed down from his portrait, his eyes gleaming redly in the shadows. Those eyes followed me as I went up the curving staircase, and though I knew it was only a trick of the painter's skill, still I looked away, quickening my steps. The old man in the portrait frightened me as much as ever, and I wasn't alone. Father had once asked our priest, Father Benedict, to come in and break the spell that fixed the portrait to the wall, but not even the priest wanted to tangle with Drosselmeyer. The neighbors said that the old sorcerer had cursed our house, but they came to our parties all the same, just as a child would poke a stick at an effigy of the devil. Our neighbors might be in Drosselmeyer's pocket, just as we were, but none of them had to live under his eye. The portrait was still watching me; by a trick of the light, it seemed to wink as I went up the stairs.
When I got to the top, I heard Clara humming to herself, some new tune from the latest season. Clara was invited to every ball, even those of old wealth, the landowners and nobility, for she was too charming to remain anonymous among Father's class of merchants and entrepreneurs. Father always said that she would marry well, and his eyes would gleam at the idea of it: our Clara, moving among dukes, duchesses, earls. Father stood at war with his own heart in these matters. He hated the aristocracy, and yet his hate was born of envy. He did not care about ancestral names or heredity; what he really wanted was their ancient, unassailable wealth, and particularly the respect that came with it. Father would have given anything to seal his letters with an ancestral ring, to be invited to the Royal Palace for shooting, to have this and that business associate bow to him as he ambled up the street.
Downstairs, Anastasia's voice echoed from the parlor, exhorting the servants to hurry, the first guests would arrive soon. I should have been getting dressed, but still I paused in Clara's doorway for a long moment, staring at my twin as she stood sideways before her mirror in her shift, staring critically at her own reflection. She had turned her foot out, an affectation she had learned from dance class. Mother had warned Clara that training as a ballerina would thicken her legs and reduce the size of her breasts, but as far as I could see, Clara's body had not altered one whit. She had a beautiful figure, and I felt unexpected jealousy prick me with its claws, Anastasia's words echoing in my head. If I looked like Clara, Conrad would surely have fallen in love with me long before.
"If you're going to stand around in nothing but your shift," I said, swallowing my envy as best I could, "then you should at least shut the door."
Clara shrugged. "The servants have better things to do today. As for Arne, he's already seen it all."
I came inside, closing the door behind me. Gleaming eyes stared down at me, the dolls and stuffed toys and porcelain figurines that seemed to decorate every inch of shelving. My twin's room always reminded me of a fright house, the dolls slumping about like dead children. Clara didn't notice my distaste; she was too busy looking critically at her reflection, relaxing her shoulders and pushing her stomach out.
"It doesn't show yet," I remarked.
"I know it doesn't. I just want to see what it will look like in the spring."
I hesitated, wanting to ask her the question I had been holding back for some weeks: how had she been so careless? After the first night Conrad had climbed through my window, I had gone to Anastasia for help, imagining the worst case, always the worst case. Clara had never taken such a step, though Arne was not her first bedpartner, or even her first servant. But I did not want to accuse my sister, who had never once remonstrated with me for a single one of my mistakes. I envied Clara nearly everything she had, but the envy had never turned to hate, as it did in fairy tales. We were too close for that.
"Does Arne know?" I asked, watching Clara poke her stomach forward again.
"No. I thought to tell him, but-"
Clara reddened and shrugged, and I nodded, thinking of a time when we were little, four or five. We had stolen a chocolate cake and two spoons from Anastasia's kitchen, then run off upstairs to hide in a wardrobe while we ate the entire cake. They found us hours later, asleep in each other's arms, and we were not punished, as I surely would have been if I had acted alone. Things would work out well; so Clara had always believed during every crisis of her life, and she had always been proven right. Even a full belly was not enough to merit serious concern.
"You're right not to tell Arne," I said, perching on the edge of Clara's settee. "He might insist on marrying you, and then Father would sack him. Have him flogged, even."
"Father wouldn't do that!"
I looked at her, surprised and a bit amused, as always, by her strange blend of innocence and experience. Father had flogged two servants when we were young, both for the crime of thievery. How had Clara never heard of it? Father would certainly flog Arne as well, for Clara's purity was worth much more than a stolen cigarette case.
"Does Arne love you?"
Clara shrugged again. "If he does, he's a fool. But I think I was only a bit of fun."
I stared at her, wanting to sit in judgment, yet unable. I, too, had spent many nights with a young man who was not my husband, and I hadn't even been smart enough to pick one I didn't care about, as Clara had. Who was to say that her choices were sins? Not I, for certain.
"Do you think my bosom is bigger?" she asked, taking a deep breath and standing straight, so that her breasts strained the top of her shift.
"I don't know. Why?"
"Arlette said when you're in a fix, your bosoms grow."
"Well, Arlette would certainly know." Arlette was Clara's friend, a pug-nosed blonde who would reputedly show her own bosom in exchange for a box of expensive chocolates. Clara was content with such friends, for she had many, but I had only Clara, and I wished that she would take her situation a bit seriously. If Father didn't find Clara a husband soon, her belly would begin to show, and then the game would be up. Several young men of the city had already offered for her, but none of them were up to Father's standards. We needed money to buy our way clear of Drosselmeyer; Father understood that, even if Clara didn't, and our debt was too great to be satisfied by the salary of a clerk or an architect. Father was determined that Clara should have a noble's son, at the least, but noblemen didn't marry girls with rounding bellies. I knew that much from my books.
"You should be careful," I told her.
Of consequence, I meant to say, and then shook my head in silence, feeling the futility of the words. It was not in Clara's nature to count cost.
"What are you going to wear?" Clara asked, sitting down at the vanity and taking up her hairbrush.
"My green velvet."
Clara's mouth pursed, as it always did when she disagreed with something but did not think it worth argument.
"That dress hardly flatters you."
"No dress flatters me. And Conrad likes green."
Copyright © 2023 by Erika Johansen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.