Changing of the Guard

            As I said, I sometimes like to go back and revisit a character from a former story for various reasons. This story does just that. If you haven’t read La Duchessa, stop and read it now. If you don’t have the background from that story, this one will not make much sense. So stop. Go read it now. I’ll wait.

            I home that La Duchessa left you wondering. If so, Changing of the Guard should answer some of your questions.

Changing of the Guard

            “Come,” the Grand Prince called in response to the urgent knocking on his bedroom door. It was not yet seven o’clock in the morning, when he usually arose. His personal assistant, Andre entered looking concerned.

            “Your Serene Highness, I apologize for awakening you at this hour but we have a ‘situation’. It seems her grace La Duchessa has passed away. Her maids say they have been unable to rouse her.”

            Grand Prince Giovanni sighed. La Duchessa, who in reality was Prince Sergei of Romania, had said he did not know how long he would live but expected it to be very long. He said he had been subjected to Soviet experiments before the last World War. Experiments on prolonging life. The Grand Prince was unsure how a royal had managed to run afoul of the Soviets but Sergei in person was proof enough. His documents showed he was born before the turn of the century. The twentieth century. Now in 2010 he was at least 110 years old. Not that he didn’t look it. Even in his makeup and disguise as La Duchessa you could see he was at a very advanced age.

            “Send for the palace doctor. I’ll meet him at La Duchessa’s rooms.”

            “He’s already on his way, your Serene Highness.” Andre was always one for efficiency and calm action. I need to give him a raise, Giovanni thought.

            The palace doctor, Dr. Longini, was examining La Duchessa’s body, in his bed, when the Grand Prince arrived. His two maids stood cowering in the anteroom, weeping.

            “Well, he’s dead alright,” was his greeting. “Looks as if he died in his sleep. All in all, not the worst way to go. Must have been early in the evening judging by the low body temperature. Unusual there’s no lividity but that sometimes happens in the very old. No rigor yet, either.”

            “Sergei thought he might live forever,” the Grand Prince mused. “Sorry he missed it. He was a great friend to me and to San Giorgio. I know Carlo will be upset. The two of them have been quite the odd pair of late.” Someone would need to tell his son. Well, I guess I’m the logical choice for that, Giovanni thought. Currently he, the Grand Princessa, his four children, the doctor, Andre and the two maids were the only ones who knew that La Duchessa was actually a man. Even the maids did not know the man was over 110 years old.

            “I’ll have the body transported to the palace morgue. I know it was Sergei’s wish to be buried in your family vault, without embalming. A bit old fashioned, but when you’re over 100, I guess you can have whatever you want.,” Dr. Longini said.

            “Yes, see to it. I’ll have Andre make the announcements and set up arrangements. Dress him up as best you can, as a man. The funeral will be closed coffin, per his request, but he said he wanted to meet his maker in his original state. Well, not totally original state. He does want to be clothed. But as a man. He has a suit selected. I’ll have Andre deliver it to you. I need to go talk with Carlo.”

            “So he’s really dead. I can hardly believe it.” Carlo, with his morning stubble and still only dressed in the t-shirt and gym pants he slept in looked sadly at his father. “I don’t think I really believed he was near immortal, but on the other hand, I guess I always hoped it was true. Old as he was, he always seemed so full of life.”

            “Yes, it will be strange without him, always available for consultation. And so valuable. He seemed to be a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge of how a monarch should be,” Giovanni agreed. He eyed his son, now 28. He had grown into a fine man. Well-built, intelligent and compassionate. He decided his son will be good as the next ruler of San Giorgio. He had already assumed a number of tasks for his father in preparation.

            “Thanks for throwing him at me, Father,” Carlo said somberly.

            Giovanni grinned. “You were not so sure about working with him at first, I’ll admit. But it’s done wonders. He’s molded you into the man I always hoped you’d be.”

            “I was scared as hell of him at first. So severe. And that scowl! Once we got used to each other I realized he was just an old softie, though.” Carlo smiled at the memories.

            “Don’t mistake love and loyalty for softness, son. He taught you better than that. He could be a formidable adversary. I would not call him cruel, but I’ve seen him do some things people might call vicious. He was not one to be crossed. He was a man of strong emotions. He loved you like a son. It’s a love you earned. You should be proud of that.”

            “I am so proud to have known him and had the opportunity to learn from him. I’m going to miss working with him. He was so keen; had such sharp insight. Paolo and Kat thought I was nuts when I told them how much I respected him. They just knew him as ‘the Spook’, the crazy old Duchessa.”

            “He played the part well. None would guess the machinations he was involved in. The stories I could tell. Ah, well. He told me he has a will, I guess it’s in his papers. I’ll have to put that into motion. He has or had I should say quite a considerable fortune.”

            “Yes, he told me he’s left most of it to someone named Orloff,” Carlo said.

            “Orloff? I knew a Count Leopold Orloff once. But he was killed along with the Ceausescus back in what was it, 1989? Poor Nicolae and Elena never deserved what happened to them. They were just victims of the Communists. I never heard Orloff had relatives. I assumed the line ended with him.”

            “Well, I guess we’ll know soon enough.”

            “Yes, we will. Dr. Longini is preparing Sergei for burial. It will be a closed coffin funeral at his request. Will you join the doctor and me for a private farewell tonight? Also at his request, he will be dressed as a man. I don’t believe you have seen him as such, have you?”

            “No, I haven’t. I guess I’ll always remember him as a sharp-eyed old lady. But I would like to say good bye. And see him as he really was. Thank you, Father.”

            Three men, Grand Prince Giovanni, Crown Prince Carlo and Dr. Longini stood in the palace morgue gazing at the man in the coffin.

            “It’s just the three of us Antonio,” Giovanni said, addressing Dr. Longini. “You didn’t need to go overboard with the makeup.”

            “I used very little makeup. Just a little rouge to relieve the pallor of death.”

            “But you must have done more. He hardly has a wrinkle. If it weren’t for the gray hair, I’d swear I was looking at a younger man. Much younger than 100 years.”

            “That sometimes happens. You remember how he always held his face in a scowl? The famous Duchessa Scowl? Now that the muscles have relaxed, perhaps the skin has fallen back into more normal lines. I’ve seen many corpses with very few wrinkles. It is sometimes a bit unnerving. And perhaps it is due to the anti-aging experiments. Who knows?”

            “He looks as if he could get up and speak to us,” said Carlo wistfully.

            “Anyway, farewell old friend. Till we meet again,” Giovanni said as Dr. Longini closed the coffin.

            The royal family gathered outside the small chapel where the Duchessa’s funeral was to be held. She was a little-known figure among the nobility so there would be no star-studded cast of mourners, probably very few people would turn out at all. But Giovanni demanded that the entire royal family attend to show their respect for such a remarkable person and good friend. He got no dissention from anyone. Even Kat flew in from Sweden, her new home.

            Giovanni nodded for Andre to precede them into the chapel and make the announcement.

            “Their Serene Royal Highnesses the Grand Prince Giovanni and the Grand Princessa Diana of San Giorgio.

            “Their Royal Highnesses Crown Prince Carlo and Crown Princessa Carolyn.

            “His Royal Highness Colonel Prince Paolo.

            “Her Royal Highness Princessa Victoria.

            “Their Royal Highnesses Prince Carl Gustav and Princessa Katarina of Sweden.”

            They marched in, headed for the royal box. Giovanni visibly started and Carlo was heard to softly gasp. The chapel was filled with people, taking all but the royal seats and standing several deep along the back and sides. It seemed La Duchessa had a loyal following. By their dress you could tell none were noble. To the nobility, La Duchessa was simply a forgotten old woman who served no purpose. Someone best forgotten. But to the hundreds of workers, staff, dependents and others surrounding the crown, she was revered.

            As was expected the royals formed a receiving line for the mourners exiting the chapel. Giovanni was touched by the sincerity of the grief he saw. One elderly lady said that in all her time at the palace La Duchessa never forgot to ask after her sickly husband and sent flowers when he died. Another recalled that when her child was ill, La Duchessa came in person with a tonic that worked like magic. An old gardener said when his wife was ill and he couldn’t afford the medicine, the pharmacy sent it, saying it had been paid by a friend. He found that La Duchessa had paid the bill. Again and again, Giovanni was told the simple kindnesses Sergei had visited upon these common people that had endeared La Duchessa to them forever.

            “I knew he had an extensive network but never expected that kind of turn out,” Carlo said later, after the funeral reception. “Sergei told me that he secretly employed scores of servants to keep him in the loop on everything going on. He told me knowledge was the currency of a monarch. But he also drove home that one couldn’t just collect information and sit on it. Intelligence should be acted upon. The simple kindnesses he was able to give these people cost him very little, took little effort but reaped immense benefits. He had a very loyal following. And it was true. Nothing happened in the palace that he did not know. He taught me all of this. I only hope I can be half as incredible as he was.”

            Finally, La Duchessa was interred and her apartments were sealed pending the dispositions of the will. Life in the palace went on.

            There were few surprises when the will was opened. Sergei left all his considerable collection of jewelry to the San Giorgio crown. Diana and Carolyn were delighted. His library and personal papers were left to Prince Carlo along with a hefty endowment. As crown prince, Carlo had a palace allowance, but the endowment made him wealthy indeed. The rest of the estate was left to Count Franz Orloff. No one knew who he was. Andre said the attorneys were searching for him.

            About a month later Grand Prince Giovanni was meeting in the throne room with his cabinet. They were all gathered around a long table spread with papers. San Giorgio was a well-run principality, but there were always little snags that needed attending to. Prince Giovanni prided himself on keeping tabs on as much as possible in his little domain. He was much loved by his subjects for his personal touch.

            The chamber door opened and Andre waited to be addressed.

            “Yes, Andre, what is it?” asked the prince.

            “Your Serene Highness. May I present his grace, Count Franz Orloff.”

            A thin but strong looking man strode into the chamber.  His dress was formal, and faintly military. He had several medals, perhaps insignia of his noble rank on his lapel. He walked directly to the chair where the Grand Prince sat and sketched a short bow.

            “Your Serene Highness, I am Orloff.” Giovanni was shocked. The smiling man, with the slightly bulging eyes, sharp cheeks, luxurious raven hair and brief mustache was nearly identical to the man he had buried not two months ago. He finally found his voice.

            “Yes, Count. We have been expecting you.”

            “My apologies. Matters in my estates have detained me. However, now I am at your disposal. I bring you belated greetings from my late mother Contessa Andrea. She spoke well of you. She and I barely escaped the madness in Yugoslavia many years ago, that claimed my father. I was just a child at the time.” He stared at the Grand Prince steadily. Giovanni felt as if a daze swept over him. No, Orloff didn’t look all that familiar after all. Just a trick of the light.

            “Yes. I met Count Leopold and the contessa a few times. It was so long ago.”

            “Perhaps when there is time, you could tell me more of my father. All I have are the memories of a child.”

            “I’d be delighted. And let me introduce you to my son and heir, Crown Prince Carlo.”

            Count Orloff turned in the direction of Carlo, gave him a large smile and bowed.

            “I am honored to meet you, your Royal Highness.” Carlo just stared as if entranced by a snake.

            “Uh, likewise.”

            “You seem preoccupied, Highness?” Orloff noticed.

            “What? No, it’s just that you remind me of someone,” Carlo said. That was an understatement. If he had not seen Sergei’s coffin interred he would swear that this was him brought back to life, albeit not much older than himself.

            “I have been told I have a passing resemblance to the royal Romanian line. The Orloffs descend from a second son. That must be it.” With this he caught Carlo’s eyes. They stared at each other momentarily. Carlo broke the stare and put his hand to his head as if trying to clear a dizzy spell.

            “Yes, that must be it,” he said.

            “Yes, of course,” smiled Orloff.

            The following week Grand Prince Giovanni vested even more of his ceremonial powers in his son, saying that he wanted to enjoy a little peace in his ‘twilight years’.  In light of his new duties, the Crown Prince needed to appoint a chief of staff. Everyone in the palace was surprised when he named newcomer Count Orloff to the important position. The Count quickly began reorganizing the Crown Prince’s offices. In reviewing present personnel he brought one in particular to the attention of Carlo.

            “Highness. This man, Khanis Zaytoun. He is Turkish, yes?”

            “Yes. He’s been my press secretary since I was invested at 21.”

            “He will need to be dismissed.”

            “What? Khanis has proven to be an asset to us.”

            “Nevertheless. He will need to go. I do not care to work with Turks.”

            “Franz. Remember, I’m the Prince, I make the decisions,” Carlo did not like the tone the Count had been taking with him.

            “My apologies, Highness. No disrespect was intended. However, I believe I can be of great benefit to your household. I see the makings of a great monarch in you and see many ways I can help you get there. But you must trust me in the decisions I make. I have found time and again that Turks are untrustworthy. I cannot and will not work with them. If Khanis must remain, I ask that I be re-assigned.” Count Orloff stared at the crown prince as he made this statement.

            Carlo felt a momentary dizziness, but shook his head to clear it. Orloff was right. He needed to trust his chief of staff. And it was the chief of staff’s duty to fill the positions in the Crown Prince’s office.

            “Well, if you think we should rearrange my staff, go ahead and do it. That’s what we hired you to do,” Carlo said.

            “Of course, your Royal Highness. I will take care of everything.”

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