There was then a great to-do in the ballroom, and the solemn occasion turned into a party, with King Max presenting a bust of me made entirely from butter. We feasted upon roast boar with spiced turnips and pickled calf’s ear jelly. There were mounds of potatoes and field peas, and the king’s favorite pheasant soup, with curled carrots floating on the top. It was good, simple, hearty fare, as favored by us Wittelsbachs, and lots of ale in honor of the surprise guest—the man who had established the very first Oktoberfest, the exiled King Ludwig himself.
He had been snuck in for the festivities, and when he made his entrance the entire hall burst into deafening applause. Nobody was happier to see him than Mummi, who had always been fond of her elder brother. Oh, how merry were my relations in that moment, and all the sobriety of the renunciation melted away with the clinking of steins.
But my fascination and focus began and ended with Little Ludwig and Amalie, who were seated near the other Royal Wittelsbachs at the head table. I winked and nodded in their direction, and they back at me throughout the festivities. As they had a reputation for eccentricities and outbursts, they were closely monitored by their attendants, but I yearned to speak with them—for I had some questions.
After the second dessert and before the brandy, I saw my opportunity, as that is the traditional time for ladies to excuse themselves to the dressing room to loosen the laces of their corsets. I took my leave, passing the odd butter sculpture that nobody dared dig into, and slipped off down the hall, glancing behind me to see if my cousins had taken the cue.
It had been more than a year since my last conversation with my odd cousins, and I recalled the incident with the vision locket, and how the photograph inside had shifted from pustule-faced Karl to the handsome Count Sebastian as soon as I’d acknowledged a change of heart. And then there was that curious behavior from Amalie in the Schönheitengalerie, and her caution regarding Lola Montez—back when I thought the witch merely a beguiling courtesan, a benevolent faerie.
I yearned so to share with someone the odd events of the past year—Amalie and Little Ludwig would be my only real option for confidante, and even then, I worried they would think me mad. Madder than my dear spinster cousin who only wore white and thought that she’d swallowed a glass piano. I was laughing to myself at the very thought—Amalie and I linked arm in arm, skipping forever in the Palace Garden. Both of us perpetual children under Lola’s spell, when I heard Little Ludwig galloping up behind me. “It is just as I wished! You will be the most exquisite of all princely figures there on that Austrian throne.”
Little Ludwig’s face had stretched beyond the chubby cheeks of boyhood, and he wore proper formal attire, but around his neck was wrapped a garland of pink ostrich feathers, and on his feet, women’s slippers. We embraced, and I whispered, “Let us find a quiet place; I must tell you everything, but they will not give me much time before sending the army round to find me.”
He took me by the hand and led me to a cold room, where we were quite in the dark but for the waning light through the window. We crouched behind an ornate settee, then sat cross-legged on the parquet, like small children in front of their toys. “Oh, but how Vienna will adore you, meine Sisi,” he squealed.
I could not continue the charade one minute more in front of this boy, who was so eager to place a crown on my head. I reached for his cheek, but instead found myself snatching up a pretty pink feather. I thought of my parrot, and wondered if, should I choose Lola’s bargain, I might bring the bird with me in my exile or if that pet would be shipped off to Vienna with my sister.
“There are some things, Little Ludwig. Some things I must tell you.”
“Are you not a virgin?” he inquired, his eyes round and big. “Did you lose your heart to a rogue? Will the archduchess turn you out in the street when she uncovers the truth?”
My cousin was quite theatrical in his assumptions.
“I did lose my heart, my cousin. But not my virtue.”
I began my explanation with the changing face in the Vision locket—which Little Ludwig himself had fixed just recently. “I know all about that,” he said. “Your governess was quite in a stew about these trinkets.”
“Yes, well, there is more.” I painted the picture of all that transpired in the past year: Lola’s magic, Baroness Wilhelmine’s secret that she was once in love with my father, and then, the larger confidence. Lizbeth of the Future. The odd Peasant of Port Land. I twisted and squirmed the Virtue keepsake out from underneath my renunciation gown. “Despite Baroness Wilhelmine’s request that I trade this keepsake for the one which bears the face of my betrothed, I find that I cannot separate myself from this odd maiden.”
The young man peered over the likeness of the girl, and his face turned down in disgust. “She’s quite plain!” he bellowed, as though that were the ultimate sin.
“There is more yet,” I said, hastily, worried that at any moment a search party would commence. “I have been told by this peasant that I must find the other locket. A keepsake that may very well be in the possession of our dear Amalie.”
I then told Ludwig of my recent exchange with that witch, Lola. It felt as though I were weaving a fairy tale. As though I were reciting the Heine poem: Lorelei, full of sirens and heartbreak and throes of desire and love. At the end of my tale, I asked my young confidante his advice, my heart hoping he would counsel happiness. “Ludwig,” I said, “Should I relent, I might forever be free to love whom I choose. Is that not what we should all seek? Our heart’s desire?”
Little Ludwig looked stricken. “You mean,” he said, “that you would not be empress after all? That your boring sister would instead take the crown and do Lola’s bidding?”
His face slowly broke into smile. “Then, perhaps, you can be my queen when I become king! For you know that my father is sickly. I expect he will perish before my eighteenth birthday.”
“No, Ludwig, I cannot be your queen. Remember, I just took a vow of renunciation. And beside all of that, I would be forever living in secret, with Count Sebastian, my one true love.”
Just uttering the word love sent my fingers to my throat to feel for the chain attached to the virtue keepsake. Little Ludwig peered down my neckline. “So, what does this freckled, speckled girl from the future advise?”
Just then the door burst open wide and I crouched down, Little Ludwig’s ostrich feathers tickling my nose, threatening a sneeze. Then, the advancing light of a candelabra, and soon thereafter, a familiar shard of glass piano sound poked through the nursery song:
“London Bridge is falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
And so are my dainties!”
Little Ludwig and I let out our common breath and stood to see Amalie advance toward us, her face eerily cast in the shadow of firelight.
“Take a key and lock her up,
Lock her up,
Lock her up.
Take a key and lock her up,
But bring back my dainties!”
“Oh, dear,” offered Little Ludwig. “She is in a state.”
I reached out to embrace my cousin, but she recoiled and said, “Where for art thou, my butter-brained cousin, the beauty of the Balkans? The belle of the ball. What brings you to my quarters?”
“Why, Amalie, do you not recall?” queried Little Ludwig. “She had to sign the document. But now, I fear, all manner of evil will envelop our continent, for that changeling Lola has her hooks deep inside of our Sisi.”
“She, took, my dainties,” sang Amalie.
“I beg your pardon, Your Grace,” I ventured. “But I have found myself in quite a pickle.”
“A pickle? Why, when last I checked, you were in a mound of butter! Hahahahahahahahahahahaha!”
“Shhhhh,” warned Little Ludwig.
Amalie grabbed at my locket, which now hung outside of my clothing for all to see. “Yet another of these enchanted necklaces,” she said. “What does this one make you do?”
“Enchanted?” I said.
“Handed down from tart to tart, these twisted bits of metal.”
“But it was gifted to me by my governess,” I said. And then, “You have one as well, yes?”
Amalie thrust the candelabra above her head and sang,
“I once was lovely,
I once was haughty.
Now I’m nothing but a throwaway daughty.”
“Daughty?” said Little Ludwig
“Oh my, that doesn’t work at all, does it?”
“My dear Amalie, you are mad. Madder than ever.” Little Ludwig swiped his boa round his neck and tossed his head back. “But let us get back to the matter at hand. It is an abomination, Sisi, that you would festoon yourself with such tawdry relics. And such a tragedy that you would forsake a pageantry in favor of peasantry.”
Before I could respond, Amalie burst forth with the next round of song:
“Silver and gold will be stolen away,
Silver and gold will be stolen away,
Just like my dainties.”
“Stolen away? What will be stolen away, Amalie?” I asked.
My mad cousin moved in close to me, her nose against my nose. “It is the way she got to me. The way she gets to everyone.”