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.”

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
“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.
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.