La Duchessa

This story is just a flight of fancy I got watching an old sci fi movie one night. Some guy noticed the same face kept showing up in photos of disasters. I don’t remember the rest but that part stuck. The whole plot of this story is built around how photos are all around us, but who actually pays any attention?

As a personal peeve, when reading the story, please use the Italian pronunciation of La Duchessa. It is doo-KAY-sa.

La Duchessa
Mont Azure
San Giorgio
2000
“So, what’s up, Sis?”
“Yeah, what’s this big discovery you said you have?”
Kat’s two brothers had gathered with her in the study after she told them she had big news. Although Carlo at 18 was older and Paulo at 15 was younger than her, they were like two peas in a pod. No one would mistake them for anything but brothers. They had their father’s Mediterranean coloring while Kat more closely resembled their Scandinavian mother.
“I’ve uncovered information about the Spook,” she said in a heavy whisper. ‘The Spook’ was the nickname they had given to Duchess Demidova. La Duchessa, as she wished to be addressed, cut a striking figure in the San Giorgian court. She was whip thin, jet black hair always pulled back in a tight bun, slightly bulging eyes in a sharp, severe scowl for the world. She always dressed in black and crept about the palace quiet as a spider. No one knew how old she was.  It was said she came to the palace when their father was a boy, a minor royal displaced by Communist expansion. The three children felt she was extremely creepy. Paolo once referred to her as ‘the Spook’ in jest and it just stuck.
            Kat had a mass of books and photos on the table.
“I found all this in some chests in the west wing. I think it’s fascinating.”
“You know we aren’t supposed to go there. Papa said it’s dangerous. A floor or roof could collapse at any moment,” Carlo said. As heir he often felt he should lead them on expeditions and chide them when they did something he deemed dangerous.
“It looked pretty safe to me. I’m wondering are there other reasons they want us out of those rooms.”
“You and your conspiracy theories. You’re always trying to make normal things seem mysterious and just cause a stir,” Carlo said.
“Yeah,” Paolo echoed, as he did most things Carlo said.
Kat just rolled her eyes and began to show them what she had found.
“Here’s Papa and Mum’s wedding photos. He looks so dashing in his uniform and Mum’s dress was just the best. Here are some of the crowd scenes from the reception.” The boys looked at the color pictures from before they were born with interest. Grand Prince Giovanni’s wedding to Sweden’s Princess Diana was the social event of the season some twenty years ago. Some smirked or made whispered comments that the groom was more than twice the age of the bride but they had always seemed happy together. His first wife had died after giving birth to a girl, their half sister Victoria. If Giovanni did not have a male heir the entire country would revert back to a Papal State. Mum had done her duty providing an heir, a ‘spare’ and Kat.
“So?” Carlo said.
“Look, here in the back of the crowd. It’s the Spook. Notice anything?”
“She’s wearing black and looks pissed off. That’s how she always looks.”
“What else?”
“I don’t know. She just looks like she always looks,” Carlo said exasperatedly.
“Exactly,” Kat crowed. “She hasn’t changed a bit in twenty years. Here are some closeups I made. Not one bit of difference.”
“Well, that’s probably make up. And it’s not like she actually does anything, other than haunt the palace,” Carlo said. This caused Paolo to giggle.
Kat looked down her nose at him.
“And this is a picture from Papa’s first wedding, thirty years ago.” The color photograph
was a bit faded but the boys could see where Kat pointed was the scowling face of the Spook.
“Once again, no change.”
“And this photo from Papa’s coronation over forty years ago. Back here in the back of the crowd. The Spook.”
“So, what are you saying? She’s some kind of immortal?” Carlo wasn’t sure whether to just laugh in his sister’s face or go on to more interesting activities. Paulo however, was rapt.
“I’ve done some research. La Duchessa Natalia Michailovna Demidova. Supposedly Romanian nobility of Russian extraction. I cannot find any record of her before 1950.”
“Isn’t that when the Communists took over? I remember Papa talking about it. He was just a kid.”
“Close, 1948. The royal family and most of the nobility fled Romania. But no word about la Duchessa.”
            “Yeah, well many records were lost or destroyed. What do you want? A birth certificate?”
“Actually, that would be great.”
“Yeah,” Paolo joined in. “Duchessa Demidova, born 1700.” He and Carlo snickered.
“Okay. So this is what really got me going,” Kat said, opening a large book. She turned to a marked page. “Recognize the picture?”
“Uh, not really.”
“I’m not surprised. The caption says it’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie taken moments before he was shot. It started World War I in 1914.” The boys looked at the old photo of a couple in an open car. The man was portly, wearing a big hat with feathers. The lady had on a white dress and large bonnet. Kat turned the page. There were several more photos.

“Here in the car behind them were the king and queen of Romania. Who’s that in the car with them?” Kat produced an enlargement of the photograph. The angle showed the backs of the king and queen and a fairly good shot of the person sitting opposite them. The boys both audibly gasped.

“I’ll be damned,” said Carlo. It looks like the Spook. But it’s a man. Her father maybe?”
“Best I can find is he’s one Count Sergei. Cousin to the king. He apparently disappeared sometime after World War I. He wasn’t with the royal family when they escaped. It doesn’t say if he had a wife or family,” said Kat.
“You know I like history and look at old picture books a lot. I stumbled upon this one.” She opened another book. Anyone who had ever seen pictures of old royalty would recognize the picture of the round huddled woman in black as Queen Victoria of Great Britain. “It says this was taken at Balmoral at Christmas in 1888. It is a group picture of them leaving for church services. And look here at the back of the group.” Once again, the boys were faced with a picture of a man who was the living image of La Duchessa. “The text says some of the Romanian royal family was visiting the Queen for the holidays.”
“And finally this.” She took out a print of a photo showing a man in a turban with a large gem in the front and a feather sticking up. He had bulging eyes and an impressive mustache. “Here’s a photoshopped image where I removed the mustache.” Once again it was the image of La Duchessa.
“I have to say I’d recognize that scowl anywhere. Who is this?” asked Carlo.
“Vlad Tepes Dracul.”
“Count Dracula? Are you kidding? Sis, you have lost your freaking mind.”
“But it all makes sense,” she argued. “And he was King of what would become Romania in 1450.”
“Yeah. The Spook is a vampire? That makes a whole lot of sense. I think you’ve been watching too much ‘X-Files’.”
“You know how she is. She creeps around like a ghost at night. Suddenly appearing in a dark corner of a room. Never going out in the daylight.”
“Those pictures in the car were in daylight. And you said they were going to church. Don’t vampires explode or something if they enter a church?” Carlo challenged her.
“Well, I haven’t figured that part out yet,” she admitted.
“So you want us to believe she’s like Dracula in drag?” asked Paolo.
“Yeah, Count Dragula,” said Carlo, causing Paolo to laugh.
“Well, not when you say it like that.”
“Like what? You mean sanely?” countered Carlo.
“I never should have told you. We could have a monster right here in our midst and you don’t even care!”
“A monster? Really?” came a deep, even voice from a dark corner of the room. La Duchessa stepped into the light as Kat gave a little squeal of surprise. So did Paolo but he would forever deny it.
“Have you been spying on us?” Kat asked hotly.
“No. I just came in a moment ago to get a book. Did you not notice me?” La Duchessa said calmly. “Do you really think me some kind of monster?”
When Kat noticed the look of hurt on her face she was immediately ashamed.
“I’m just an old relic of a bygone era that no one needs anymore. We royals are becoming more and more irrelevant.”
“I’m sorry if I’ve hurt your feelings but the pictures and you’re so mysterious and all,” Kat realized she was babbling. La Duchessa walked over to the table and looked at the pictures. With a wry grin she then said, “Well, I guess you’ve found me out. Let me tell you the real story.”
“Shit! You’re really a vampire?” Paolo squeaked.
“Paolo! Language! And no, I most definitely am not a vampire or any other creature your silly science fiction movies portray. But I’m also not La Duchessa Demidova. She is just a fiction your grandfather and I created.”
            “Count Sergei was my father, a cousin of the King of Romania. My mother was a commoner so we weren’t recognized by the family. My real name is Wotilja Hunyadi. Many say I am the image of my father.”
“You really are a dude?” asked Carlo, amazed.
“Yes, Carlo. When the Communists invaded Romania the royal family fled. Father had disappeared, mother was dead and I was left behind. I was not totally a babe in the woods, so to speak. I had seen the end coming and had taken certain steps that weren’t necessarily inside the law. I was the last to flee just moments before the Communists broke into the palace. I escaped with only the clothes on my back and a suitcase.”
“Wow,” whispered Paolo.
“Of course, the suitcase contained the crown jewels and financial notes that allowed me to transfer most of the national treasury into a private Swiss account.” It was obvious that Hunyadi was quite pleased with himself.
“I lit out of the country like a bat out of hell and didn’t stop until I got here. Your grandfather was a friend and agreed to give me asylum. We knew the KGB would be after the money and might connect me so we decided Wotilja should disappear. La Duchessa took his place.”
“But the KGB is no more,” said Carlo. “You could go back to being a man.”
“I have been La Duchessa for 50 years. I’m not sure what I would be without her. It would raise too many questions and draw unwanted attention. I am content as I am.”
            “I sleep much of the day because I have insomnia. I stay indoors mostly because the bright light hurts my eyes and ages this old skin. And what else have I to do to fill my time? There are many secret passages and short cuts in old palaces like this. Over my fifty years here I have found most of them. As to being ageless, posh child, I wish. You would scarcely believe the horror I am faced with each day at my dressing table. The makeup it takes just to make me presentable. Sometimes the Spook spooks herself.”
“You aren’t supposed to know about that,” Kat looked mortified.
“Dear child, I know everything that goes on in this palace. I have eyes and ears everywhere. It is how a monarch survives. Prince Carlo, as the next leader of this country you should be creating such a network. I will be pleased to offer assistance.”
“Uh, thank you.”
“And you, Princessa. You have discovered what has eluded KGB for fifty years. Brains and beauty all in one package. Now, it would honor me if you would keep this to yourselves. I would like to spend my final few years in relative peace, as I’m sure you understand.”
“Of course, Duchessa,” Carlo spoke for them all. “We’ll keep your secret.”
“And now my children, the wolves are gathering on the hill and the children of the night are calling. It is time for this vampire to retire to her coffin.” She gave them a big grin and Paolo looked closely to be sure there were no fangs. Just to be certain. Chuckling to herself, muttering “vampire my ass”, La Duchessa shuffled out of the room.
The boys looked daggers at Kat. She shrugged.
“It was an honest mistake. Anyone could have made it.”
Later La Duchessa knocked on the door of the Grand Prince’s private study.
“Enter.”
As she opened the door the Grand Prince called out heartily, “Duchessa, come on in. To what do I owe the honor of this visit?”
“They know, Vanni. The children know about me.”
The Grand Prince dropped his smile. “How much?” He took on a look of concern.
“Only what they need to,” La Duchessa smiled.
“Whew, Sergei. That’s a relief.  Don’t frighten me like that.” And La Duchessa added silently to himself just as you know only what you need to know.

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