Over the years (and ten Pink books), Miss Gwen has gotten rather good at this whole spying thing. When we first run into her at the beginning of The Passion of the Purple Plumeria, she’s on the trail of a particularly big fish, Napoleon’s twisty foreign minister, Talleyrand.
(p.s. seasoned Pink readers will also recognize another character from previous books in this scene.)
Read on for an excerpt from Chapter One of The Passion of the Purple Plumeria….
Plumeria redoubled her speed as the footfalls of her pursuer pounded ever closer, reverberating through the close confines of the subterranean passage. Her breath rasped in her throat as she spied a faint gleam of light in the distance. At last! But could she reach it before it was too late?
—From The Convent of Orsino by A Lady
(and if you were any kind of gentleman, you would stop trying to inquire into her identity!)
The spy wore purple.
Only amateurs wore black. Miss Gwendolyn Meadows knew that the true color of a Paris night wasn’t a flat black, but a deep purple, comprised of a hundred shades of shadow. Coal smoke masked the moon, diffusing the light of the lampposts, dirtying clothes and shading faces. Tonight she had left off her gown, her gloves, her elaborately curled plumes. She had even, with some reluctance, left behind her trusty parasol and taken up a cane instead. A sword cane, of course. Paris was a dangerous city, even for those engaged in innocent pursuits.
Gwen’s pursuits were anything but innocent.
No one of her acquaintance would recognize her as she was tonight. For tonight’s romp, she had dressed as a dandy in breeches that hugged her legs and an elaborate frock coat of deep purple brocade. The stiffness of the fabric disguised any unseemly curvature of the chest, the tapered silhouette the same as that of any other fop in Paris. Her Hessian boots had been made to her own specifications, supple enough to allow for easy moment, the soles muffled with a thin layer of soft leather.
Her face was masked by a set of elaborately curling sideburns and matching mustache. Not that any of the young bucks who regularly shied away from her in the drawing rooms of the Tuileries would recognize her face. They were usually too busy sidling past in the hopes of saving their shins. Tall for a woman, she was comfortably average height for a man. Long and lean, her body might have been made for breeches roles. In this getup, she looked no different from any of the other gallants who thronged the cafés on the Rue de Richelieu.
There was one major difference. None of them were crouched on the corner of a balcony.
She had followed Bonaparte’s foreign minister from the Théâtre des Arts, marking his limping progress. Talleyrand had gone masked too, but his uneven gait made him easy to follow. They hadn’t far to go. She had tracked him three houses down, to this ramshackle inn. Talleyrand had taken the stairs; Gwen had taken the trellis. Whomever he was meeting, it must be important for Bonaparte’s foreign minister to come himself, and in this much haste.
A light guttered in the room. “Not so bright!”
The voice was the barest whisper, yet still recognizably female. Recognizably female and almost recognizable. Gwen knew that voice from somewhere—she was sure of it. She slouched closer, pressing her ear to the side of the shutters. The overhang of the balcony above shrouded her in shadow, the railing shielding her from the gaze of curious passersby below.
“No one followed me,” said Talleyrand soothingly.
Ha. That’s what he thought. Gwen nobly forbore to preen. There was no point in gloating until she knew what there was to gloat about. He might be meeting a mistress. But if so, why such subterfuge? Talleyrand’s many affairs were fair game; he made no move to hide them.
She would give him one thing: The man recognized his bastards. Not every man could say as much.
“You’re back sooner than I would have thought,” he said. There was an edge of censure in his voice. Gwen heard the shuffle-thump of his passage across the room, the sound of a drink being poured.
“Not from dereliction of duty.” The female’s voice was stronger now, her French lightly accented with a hint of the south. Italian. Not the coarse Corsican of Bonaparte’s cronies, but pure Tuscan, the accent of Dante and the Medici. And of the opera.
Gwen crept closer. Through the shutters, she saw the lady ease back her hood, revealing a rich mass of auburn hair, elaborately arranged. “I have not forgot our bargain.”
Talleyrand’s voice was dry. “I should be very surprised if you had. Have you secured our prize so swiftly?”
“His Supreme Majesty was not so easily wooed.”
The lady turned, giving Gwen a clear view of her profile, a profile that appeared on countless prints and snuffboxes throughout London, the handsome features of the famed Italian soprano Aurelia Fiorila.
There was just one problem. Fiorila was meant to be in England, recuperating from a nasty bout of something or other.
Yet here she was, as large as life, meeting with Talleyrand in the back room of a none-too-prosperous inn. “The Sultan was much put off by Brune’s clumsy handling.”
Brune. The man had recently returned from a stint as envoy to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. A sultan with a noted taste for opera. And opera singers.
It was an open secret that Bonaparte sought to seduce Selim III away from his alliance with Britain. Bonaparte had bullied the Pope into crowning him emperor not four months past, but the Sultan, entwined in old alliances with England and with Russia, balked at recognizing the imperial title. It was a thorn in Bonaparte’s increasingly rotund flesh. His choice of ambassador, however, had only widened the breech. Brune had been sent back with a flea in his ear.
It shouldn’t have surprised Gwen that Talleyrand had taken matters into his own hands; Talleyrand was a wily old fox. What did surprise her was that Aurelia Fiorila was the means of doing so.
Gwen heard the snap of a snuffbox lid. “Sending Brune,” said Talleyrand, “was not my decision. I trust you were able to sing the Sultan into sweeter temper?”
Fiorila’s voice, the voice that had seduced audience after audience at Covent Garden, was ruefully amused. “Even my voice, sir, has not such power as that.” Talleyrand must have made some move, because she added hastily, “I did gain audience with the Sultan. He told me what he will require to meet your desire. He says he will consider no treaties without a token of France’s good intentions.”
“I should have thought,” said Talleyrand, a courtier to his bones, “that the presence of a beautiful lady would have been token enough.”
Fiorila’s voice was pensive. “The Sultan has beautiful women enough in his harem, sir. He requires no more.”
“Not even one with a voice such as yours?”
Fiorila’s voice sharpened. “I have no desire to sing from a cage. That was never in our bargain.”
That was rather sweetly naïve of her, thought Gwen. She suspected that the terms of Talleyrand’s bargains shifted with his needs. For all his courtly aspect, the man was as slippery as an eel.
“Certainly,” said Talleyrand smoothly. “You know I would never ask that of you.”
Gwen stifled a snort. Talleyrand would ask what he pleased, and they all knew it.
Talleyrand sniffed delicately at a pinch of snuff, coughing neatly into a lace-edged handkerchief of the very finest lawn. “What does the Sultan desire, if not your own fair form?”
Fiorila twisted her hands together. Her face was still youthful, but her hands were beginning to show the signs of age. “He had a more specific token in mind.”
“Which was?” Beneath the charm, Talleyrand was all business.
The singer looked him in the eye. “The Moon of Berar.”
For once, Talleyrand, Talleyrand the unflappable, was genuinely unsettled. “Good God,” he said. “Would the Sultan rather have feathers from the tail of the phoenix, or a ruby made of the final drop of dragon’s blood? They would be as easily obtained. The Moon is a myth.”
“I sang of it in an opera once,” said Fiorila. “Not a very good opera, but the story did catch the imagination. A jewel that makes the wearer impervious to harm, bright enough to blind the most determined assassin, a shield for the body and a mirror for the soul.”
“Stuff and legends,” said Talleyrand. “Not that one might not try to manufacture one . . .”
“But the effects would hardly be what the recipient would expect,” said Fiorila practically. She began to turn up the fabric of her hood. “I have brought you what you required. My part is done. If you would . . .”
Talleyrand moved to block her egress, surprisingly quickly. But then, he had been limping his way in and out of bedchambers for years, thought Gwen cynically.
His voice was gently sorrowing. “Is this the way you requite my generosity, my dear? Feeding me fairy stories? If you think so little of our arrangement—”
“No!” There was no mistaking the alarm in Fiorila’s voice. “I swear, I have relayed it to you as he did to me. The Sultan believes it to be real. He claims it was in the royal treasury of Berar.”
“The Rajah of Berar kept a legendary treasure with the ordinary run of pearls and rubies.” Bonaparte’s foreign minister was politely skeptical.
“According to the Sultan, there was nothing ordinary about any of the treasure of Berar.” Fiorila held out both hands in supplication. “If you bring him the Moon of Berar, he will break with England. But only for that.”
“And how are we to set our hands on it?” There was no mistaking the implication of that “we.” Whatever hold he had on the singer, he wasn’t prepared to relinquish it.
Fiorila’s voice was quiet. “He claims you have it already. He says it fell into the hands of one of your agents at the sack of Berar.”
“One of mine . . .” The tone of Talleyrand’s voice changed.
He knew who it was. Gwen would be willing to wager her favorite parasol on it. She leaned forward to hear better, but she misjudged. The shutters, inexpertly attached at best, rattled against the frame.
“What was that?” demanded Talleyrand.
Gwen didn’t wait for him to find out.
The Passion of the Purple Plumeria makes its grand appearance in just under a month, on August 6th!