After the bloody French Revolution, Emperor Napoleon’s power is absolute. When eighteen year old Marie-Louise is told that the Emperor has demanded her hand in marriage, her father presents her with a terrible choice: marry the cruel, capricious Napoleon or refuse and plunge her country into war. To save her father's throne, Mary-Louise is determined to be a good wife. But at the extravagant French court, she finds many rivals for her new husband’s affection, including Napoleon’s sister Pauline, who is fiercely jealous, utterly uncontrollable, and the only woman as ambitious as the emperor himself. When war once again sweeps the Continent and bloodshed threatens Marie-Louise’s family, the second empress is forced to make choices that will determine her place in history—and change the course of her life.
The Second Empress will transport you back to Napoleon's empire where royals and servants alike live at the whim of one man, and two women vie to change their destinies.
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Maria Lucia, Archduchess of Austria
Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna
I study Maria Ludovika's face in the fresh light of our studio, trying to determine whether I should paint her with or without the golden diadem in her hair. A few steps away, almost close enough to touch, she is holding up a paintbrush and studying me. The courtiers in my father's palace call us the Two Marias, since we share nearly everything together: our shoes, our hobbies, even our names. We are second cousins, but whereas I am tall and buxom, with pale gold hair and wide hips, Maria Ludovika is small and thin. Her dark hair falls in waves around her shoulders, and she has not inherited the Hapsburg lip as I havefull and slightly protruding. Anyone looking at the two of us would think that I am older, because of my significant height. But I am eighteen to her twenty-two, and while she is the empress of Austria now, I am simply an archduchess.
When she came from Italy, I imagined it would be strange to have a stepmother only four years older than me. She is my father's third wife, my mother having died two years ago. But since her arrival in Vienna we have been like sisters, laughing over foolish palace intrigue, arranging trips to the Christmas markets in the city, and painting portraits in our cozy artist's workshop overlooking the winter gardens of Schonbrunn Palace. I have never had another woman my age for entertainment, since I am the eldest. My sixteen-year-old brother, Ferdinand, is the closest in age to me, but he was born dull-witted, as was my little sister, Maria-Carolina. So even as a child, I was lonely.
"Shall I put Sigi in your picture?" Maria asks, looking down at the small spaniel sleeping at my feet.
"I don't know," I say. "What do you think, Sigi? Would you like to sit for a portrait?"
My little Schnuckelputzi opens his eyes and barks.
"He knows you're talking about him!" Maria laughs.
"Of course he does." I put down my paintbrush to pick up Sigi, cradling him in my lap. "There's not a dog in Vienna that's smarter than him. Isn't that right?" Sigi buries his head under my arm. In all of Austria, I have never seen another dog with ears covered in such long, fringed hair. He was a gift to me from Maria when she first arrived at Schonbrunn, and now he goes wherever I do.
"If you make him sit still, I'll paint him on your lap."
"Sigi, behave yourself," I say sternly. He rests his chin on his front paws and looks up at me.
"Exactly." Maria dips her brush into the black oil, but before she can apply the paint to the canvas, he has already moved. "Oh, Sigi." She sighs. "What's the matter with you?"
"He's nervous," I say. "He's been like this since the emperor came," I whisper.
"I'm not surprised. Even the animals despise that man." She means Napoleon, who came to us last month with the humiliating Treaty of Schonbrunn, determined that my father, the Emperor Francis I, should sign it. Our English allies were bitterly against my father's surrender. But in his war against Napoleon, three million lives had already been lost.
The terms of Napoleon's treaty were harsh, demanding that we cede our cities of Salzburg to Bavaria, Galicia to the Poles, East Galicia to Russia, and much of Croatia to France. So four hundred thousand citizens who speak only German, eat only German food, and know only German customs woke up to find themselves belonging to four different nations. Yet the rest of the kingdom remained intact, and for this, my father owes Prince Metternich. They say there has never been another diplomat like him in the world. That if not for Metternich, the great Hapsburg-Lorraine empire would have been reduced to nothing.
When the treaty was signed, I heard courtiers whisper, "Better to be a beggar in the streets than a coward." They believed my father had sold the Adriatic coast for the price of his crown. But they were not the ones with sons or husbands in the army. They did not have to receiveweek after week, month after monththe terrible lists of the dead. I did. I was there, in my father's Council Chamber, as one day I will be regent when Ferdinand takes the throne. I know the price Napoleon exacted on Austria. But the courtiers seem to have forgotten what the French are capable of. How only sixteen years ago they beheaded my great-aunt, Queen Marie-Antoinette.
There are few people who understand the true cost of this treaty to my father, but Maria is one of them. She was still a child in Italy when Napoleon's army appeared thirteen years ago. The soldiers swept through the streets taking whatever they pleased: carriages, villas, valuable china, women. Her father, who was the governor of the Duchy of Milan, gathered her family together, and they escaped with only the clothes on their backs. When they arrived in Austria, he was made the Duke of Breisgau. But Maria has never forgotten the loss of Milan, her childhood home, and it was with great unhappiness that she watched her husband sign the Treaty of Schonbrunn, surrendering to her family's most bitter enemy for a second time.
"And do you remember how small he was?" Maria asks, and I know she is about to continue with a familiar tirade.
"I only saw him from a distance," I remind her. I refused to enter the Council Chamber when my father was forced to sign away parts of his empire.
"Like a little gnome. Prince Metternich says that in France his enemies call him the King of Diamonds, a squat little emperor wrapped in red velvet and fur. Who is he?" she demands, and her voice is rising. "Where does he come from? And to think we had to bow to that man! A Corsican. Do you know what they do in Corsica?" She doesn't wait for me to answer. "They send their daughters to brothels to earn extra money. Even the nobles!"
I don't know if this is true, but Maria believes it.
"Just look at his sister Pauline." She leans forward, and our painting is forgotten. "What sort of woman poses nude for a sculptor? Nude!" It was a scandal all across Europe, that the emperor of France could control an army of three hundred thousand men but not his own family. First Jerome Bonaparte married without Napoleon's approval and fled to America to escape his brother's wrath. Then Lucien Bonaparte took a wife without his brother's consent. Now Pauline has left her second husband in Turin to pursue the life of an unmarried woman in Paris.
They are not a family fit for any throne. I think of my father's continuous sacrifices to be a Hapsburg king his people can respect: the nights he has stayed up balancing accounts, the mistresses he has refused in order to be a moral husband, and his vigilant oversight of the nation's treasury. It is not exciting work, and it is hardly glamorous. But a people are a reflection of their monarch, and we must provide a good example for them. My siblings and I have all been taught to keep records, so that we know exactly how much was spent keeping us in silk slippers and warm cloaks. For the month of November, I cost my father nearly twice as much as Maria-Carolina. Next month I will be more careful. "A king who rules without watching his treasury is a king who will soon be without a crown," my father says.
And it doesn't help that the Treaty of Schonbrunn has bankrupted our empire, forcing my father to make reparation payments to Napoleon of more than fifty million francs. Napoleon had wanted a hundred million, but no kingdom in the world can afford such a sum. So he settled for half, and my father has had to abandon silver coin and begin printing our money on paper. If there are hungry women and children in the streets, it is because of this treaty. It is because Napoleon could not be satisfied with Croatia, or Salzburg, or even Tyrol. He wanted the world to know that the Hapsburgs had been defeated, and now the German people must suffer for daring to believe they could stop him from consuming all of Europe. And even Europe was not enough.
Eleven years ago Napoleon marched an army of nearly forty thousand soldiers into Egypt. We were told he wanted to take control of the Indian Empire from the British. But the truth was something different. Prince Metternich lived in Paris as Napoleon's ambassador for more than three years, and he has told my father that the French emperor went to Egypt for one reasongloryand that nothing is more important to him. He wanted to rule the land once conquered by Alexander the Great. He wished to hear his name echoing around the world.
To rise so high, so fast, you would think that God Himself was on his side, pushing him to even further greatness. But how can that be when his actions have deprived our people of food? When his treaty has impoverished the most benevolent empire in Europe? The Hapsburg-Lorraines have ruled for almost eight hundred years. Who is this man who thinks he can conquer the world before he's even forty?
I am about to reprimand Sigi for not staying still when a sharp knock on the door sends him jumping from my lap. I frown at Maria, since no one disturbs us in our artist's retreat.
"Come in," she calls.
Sigi growls at the door, but it is my father and Prince Metternich who enter, and immediately we rise. They are two of the most handsome men at court, with thick golden hair and slender waists. Even at forty-one and thirty-six, they are the picture of vitality, and both have the famous Hapsburg skin that made Marie-Antoinette so admired.
"The Two Marias," my father says in greeting, and although we are standing, he waves this action away. "Keep painting," he tells us. "That's why we've come."
"For a painting?" I ask.
"Your most unattractive portraits."
I am about to laugh, but there is no humor in his face.
Prince Metternich explains. "Napoleon has requested paintings from every noble house in Europe. He is particularly interested in Europe's unmarried princesses."
"But he's already married!" Maria exclaims.
"There is talk of a divorce," my father says quietly.
Maria and I exchange looks.
"It will likely come to nothing," Metternich says smoothly, "but he has made the request, and we cannot deny it." As usual, Metternich's voice is calm. If Napoleon had asked for nude statues of us, he would have passed this along in the same even tone.
"You are to choose your least attractive portrait," my father says.
My hands are shaking. "But I thought he loved Josephine," I protest. After all, he forgave her even after all of Europe came to know of the affairs she conducted while he was in Egypt.
"Certainly he loves her," Metternich replies. "But the emperor needs an heir."
"And he has gotten a child on his mistress," my father says contemptuously, "proving he's not infertile."
"Do the scandals never end with this family?" Maria stands. "We shall send him the very first portraits we made of one another. Then he will never look to Austria for a bride." I follow her across the room to the wall where all our efforts at portraiture have been framed. "That one." Maria points. Aside from my blond hair and blue eyes, I am unrecognizable.
Prince Metternich clears his throat. "Mockery may be inadvisable," he says.
"This is no mockery!" my father shouts. "Does he think he can do away with his wife as easily as he did away with Egypt's mamelukes? The pope will not have it. Europe will never consider another wife of his legitimate!"
"Then he might choose to proceed without the pope," Metternich replies.
The three of us stare at him.
"He is a bold man, Your Majesty. Nothing can be discounted. I would consider sending that one," Metternich suggests, indicating a large, oval painting from three months ago. It is the best likeness of me: my wide-set eyes are a vivid blue, and in life they are probably my best feature. But it also captures my too-strong jaw, the length of my nose, and my Hapsburg lip.
"No," my father rules. "It is too pretty."
Metternich looks from the painting to me, and I flush. "He will want a good likeness" is all he says.
"And how should he know?" Maria demands. "He has never laid eyes on her!"
"Your Majesties, this is a man who may choose to visit Vienna tomorrow, or next week, or even next month. What will he think if he sees the archduchess and realizes that you have made a fool of him? Please, give him something that will not make him suspicious."
"Send whichever one you want," my father says. "Just do it quickly, so we may stop talking about this man."
Metternich bows. "There is still the matter of your wife, Your Majesty. He also wishes to see every member of the royal family. Is there a painting you prefer"
"Yes. Whichever's cheapest. And do not send him anything in a gilded frame." My father pauses at the door, then looks around. "That one," he says, pointing to the unfinished canvas on my easel. I have already painted Maria's black eyes, her small, pretty lips, and the abundant curls that hang in dark clusters on either side of her head. Although her dress remains to be done, there is no one who will look at this without thinking that my father has chosen well.
"When will you be finished?" Prince Metternich asks.
I feel the heat creep back into my cheeks. "Another five days. Perhaps a week."
He crosses his arms over his chest, scrutinizing the painting. Then he looks up at me. "You have talent."
His sudden interest makes me uncomfortable. "Not much. Not like Maria."
"How long have you been painting?"
"And how many languages do you speak?"
"What is this about?" My father steps back into the room.
"Nothing." Prince Metternich is quick to add, "Just idle curiosity." But when he looks back at me, I feel compelled to answer.
He smiles widely. "As accomplished as any Hapsburg archduchess should be."
Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese
Fontainebleau Palace, south of Paris
I stand in front of the mirror before he comes in, and as usual, I am shocked to see just how beautiful I am. I don't mean beautiful in the way that Josephine is beautiful. All that woman has are her great cow's eyes and a head of thick curls. I mean exquisitely beautiful, like one of Bartolini's marble statues. At twenty-nine, you would think I would already be losing my looks. But my waist is long and slender, and because I only gave birth once, my breasts are still high and taut. I turn, so that I can admire the effect of my Grecian gown from behind. In the candlelight, it is perfectly transparent.