Title: A Friendly Wager
Author: Valerie Meachum
Summary: Mozart is the unwitting object of a game between a pair of bored socialites...or is he?
Author's note: An experiment in complete and utter froth. Not my usual forte, but I had fun. :-)
Publication history: Faded Roses issue 2, published by Cheryl Duval.
"Liesl, there he is!" Fredericka von Gerlach was a most excitable young lady, given to giggles and squeaking at the slightest provocation.
In this case, the provocation was slight indeed--physically, at least. "What, him?" the country cousin at her side asked incredulously. "That's Mozart?" Liesl Schroeder was not impressed. "Ricki, I have to tell you, I can find short men at home. I didn't need to come to Vienna for that."
"Oh, shut up and come meet him! Height isn't everything, you know!" Ricki's grip on her hand left no room for argument, and Liesl was dragged across the noisy room to meet the composer who was shorter than the brown-eyed lady on his arm.
"Ricki?" the small man said uncertainly when he noticed their approach, then a delighted grin covered his face. "Ricki von Gerlach, it is you! God, it's been forever! How have you been?"
"Simply splendid, Wolfi," the girl replied, coyly presenting her cheek for the young composer to kiss. Pointedly ignoring his companion, she went on, "And what about you? Your opera was just marvelous -- and so daring! A harem, Wolfi, really! But you must have just worked those brilliant fingers to the bone writing it."
Wolfgang's smile widened at the praise, and he answered, "Oh, I'm just fine. Couldn't be better, in fact! My fiancée makes sure I take care of myself--right, Stanzi? Stanzi, do you know Ricki?"
"We've met," Constanze replied--a little shortly, it seemed to Liesl.
"Yes, we have," Ricki agreed. "What a lovely dress, Constanze dear," she remarked in as condescending a tone as she could muster, the one she practiced by complimenting her servants.
Wolfgang jumped in, interrupting what had promised to become an interesting exchange. "Oh--how unforgivably rude of me! Who's your friend here?"
"My cousin, Liesl Schroeder. Liesl, meet Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart."
"Delighted!" Mozart made a bow, then turned to introduce his companion. "And this is my fiancée, Constanze Weber."
"How do you do?" Liesl said, squeezing the girl's hand and trying to make it apparent that whatever bad blood was between her cousin and Constanze, Liesl wanted no involvement. The message got through, for Constanze squeezed back and her warm smile was genuine. There was something Liesl had seen little enough of since arriving in Vienna.
"Well, now we're all friends!" Wolfgang announced. "Let's enjoy the party, shall we?"
The rhythmic rustling of Liesl's hairbrush sounded several more times before she replied. "All right, Ricki, you win. I think he's very funny, and charming, and delightful. Satisfied?"
Fredericka laughed. "How could I not be? That's precisely my opinion of him."
"Good. It's settled, then." Liesl turned back to the mirror and returned to brushing her hair. "But he's still short."
This last comment was swiftly rewarded by the impact of a flying pillow on the back of her head. "Hey!" she cried, snatching up the little satin thing and preparing to return fire.
"Of course, they say that small men aren't necessarily small everywhere..."
The pillow hit the floor again as Liesl realized what her cousin meant. "Fredericka Johanna Agnes von Gerlach!"
"Oh, don't look so horrified, Lies. I don't believe for one minute you're a virgin, and if I know Konrad Hintz--"
"--and if you are, well, more's the pity. At any rate, the subject at hand is Herr Mozart."
"Ricki, if you're thinking what I think you're thinking, you'd better stop thinking it. He's engaged, remember?"
"So? Signore Salieri is married."
"What has that got to do with it?" Liesl asked, uncertain if she wanted the answer. She didn't like the turn this conversation was taking at all.
"Ask Katherina Cavalieri," Ricki replied airily. "My best sources say she's been with both."
"Sources?" No, she didn't like it at all. "Would you please tell me, in plain German, what you're getting to?"
"Of course, cousin dear." By now both girls were in their beds, and Ricki snuffed out the candle on the little table between them, announcing into the darkness, "Constanze Weber, the little rodent, thinks she has Wolfgang all wrapped up like a Christmas gift. I intend to prove her wrong."
Two o'clock, the chimes sang, and not a word had passed between the cousins since the night before. The neat little stitches in Liesl's needlework came into being precisely in time with the ticking of the clock, but her thoughts were on neither. Over and over the previous night's discussion repeated in her memory; at last she came to a decision. All right, Ricki," she said abruptly, earning a startled look from her cousin for breaking the silence. "I have a challenge for you."
"A challenge?" Ricki repeated, brow lifting in interest. "You know I love a challenge. What's yours?"
Liesl took a deep breath, looking around to double-check that no one could hear, then answered, "I'll wager you my garnet bracelet against...your silver combs that I can get him first."
"Liesl!" The older girl sounded scandalized and looked delighted. "My dear, we're going to make a cosmopolitan of you yet!"
"I should think this sets me well on my way."
"We'll see, we'll see." A wicked little grin lifted Ricki's mouth, never touching her eyes. "Garnets against silver, eh, little cousin? Very well, then. Done."
In the ladies' salon, about halfway through the evening, Fredericka pinned her cousin down for a word. "Why are you hiding in here, Lies? Surely you haven't given up the chase so soon."
"Of course not," Liesl sniffed, her tone telling Ricki just how little progress she had made. "I haven't noticed you doing much," she added.
"Just giving you a head start, to be fair. After all, I am more experienced at this sort of thing." It was said with studied modesty, the sort that would be insulting if the intelligent listener didn't realize that it was false. Ricki's command of tones that were socially proper and tastefully insincere never ceased to amaze her cousin. And they were never wasted on anyone who would not fully understand the meaning behind her pretty words, for a guiding principle of her life was never to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent. Since all of life was, to Fredericka, a battle of wits, it was a very important guiding principle, part and parcel of her dedication to avoiding the pathetic fate of boredom.
"Be careful, though, little cousin," she warned Liesl now. "Best take advantage of this head start while it lasts."
"You needn't worry about me, Ricki darling," Liesl assured her, rising to go and pausing to pat her cousin's cheek in Ricki's own condescending, annoying way.
For shame; she really shouldn't have been enjoying this so much.
Merging into the ball proper, Ricki spotted Lies and nearly laughed at the provincial girl's tactics. How did the nit expect to win the race to one man's bed when she was spending all her time and attention with another?
This other did seem worth the time and attention, though, if not worth Liesl's garnets. Ricki could already feel the weight of the stones at her wrist, imagining how their dark fire would set off her favorites gowns.
Yes, let Liesl dally with another while Fredericka strolled past the finish line. There would be other parties, and if Liesl's tall friend were sufficiently interesting now, he would be later as well.
This decided, Ricki made her way to the knot of people surrounding Mozart, slipping through them to the composer's side. "Wolfi, how nice to see you! Really, I've been the most appalling hostess -- haven't spoken to you all evening."
"Oh, that's all right, Ricki," Wolfgang replied cheerfully. "It's been a wonderful evening, and you must be ridiculously busy making it run smoothly."
"Not too busy to dance with the best of guests," the girl said. "Come on, you must be my partner for the next minuet. I won't take 'no' for an answer!"
"I guess I can't offer it, then," Mozart answered, bowing a little and holding out a hand in invitation to his hostess.
"Oh, really, Herr Mozart, I have the worst luck!" cried a voice nearby. Wolfgang and Ricki turned to find the tall, dark-haired young man Liesl had been talking to minutes before. "Just when I think I've finally captured our charming hostess for a dance, you whisk her away. Would you do me the honor, Fraulein Gerlach, of holding the next dance for me?"
Ricki was a little annoyed at the interruption, but it was effectively superseded by the handsome young man's attention. "Of course, Herr...?"
"Hecht, Fraulein," he responded with a bow. "Siegfried Hecht." As Mozart and Fredericka headed for the dance floor, Hecht turned to Constanze, who stood nearby with a slight scowl. "Fraulein Weber, it seems we've both been stranded. May I be so bold?"
Constanze nodded, accepting Hecht's outstretched hand. "Thank you, Herr Hecht."
They left the chattering group behind, and Hecht said, "We have a mutual acquaintance in Liesl Schroeder, you know, and I've just been having the most interesting conversation with her..."
Fredericka frowned as the clock on the mantelpiece struck eleven and there was no sign of Wolfi. It had been annoying to see him snapped up by Lies for the next dance while she was trapped with the charming-but-inconvenient Siegfried Hecht; but surely he wouldn't forget that he had agreed to talk to her in private now. Unless, of course, her cousin had more cunning than expected and had said something...
Ricki literally jumped several inches in the air, and Mozart burst into giggles at the sight.
"Stop that!" the girl hissed, softening the embarrassed indignation with the dimples of an 'only-joking' smile.
"I'm sorry, Ricki," Wolfgang said, stifling the laughter with considerable difficulty. "But your eyes got so huge!"
"That's all right," the hostess assured him. "I suppose I must have looked pretty silly."
"You could say that," the composer agreed, composure quite regained. "Now, what's this mysterious meeting all about? You said you had something important to tell me?"
"Terribly important," Ricki confirmed, gesturing for him to sit next to her on the couch. "What I'm about to tell you is the most important secret you will ever hear, and you must swear never to tell another living soul, at peril of your own."
"What is it?"
"Swear, Wolfi, you have to swear!"
"All right, all right, I swear," Wolfgang assured her. "I'm not a talebearer, Ricki. You know that."
"I know. The secret is..." The girl trailed off, shifting on the couch so that she was closer to Mozart. "Lean over here so I can whisper it."
"No, please, Fredericka, said a voice behind them. "I think we're all interested in what you have to say."
Ricki whirled to find three people in the doorway: Constanze, who had made the sarcastic announcement of their presence; Liesl; and Siegfried Hecht. She recovered from her shock with admirable speed and turned on her cousin with a tight smile. "You double-crossing little cheat," she said quietly. "I have to admit, it's a move I'd be proud of. We were never playing the same game at all, were we?"
Liesl shook her head silently, and Wolfgang took the opportunity to jump in. "Game?" he repeated, edging away from Ricki, but with one corner of his mouth threatening to turn upward into a smile. "What's this about, Ricki, and why do I suddenly feel like some kind of carnival prize?"
"That's not what it's about at all!" Ricki protested, but got no further.
"Don't waste your charming act, Fredericka," Constanze snapped. "Save it for your pet gentlemen who don't know any better, and leave Wolfi alone."
Wolfgang looked about to say something, then merely bowed slightly. Despite the expressions of amusement and outrage on the various faces before him, his own was one of sly amusement. "Why, I'd no idea you were interested," he told Ricki with a grin, "but I'm afraid your timing was a bit off. Thank you, anyway, for the compliment." Then he walked away with the others at his heels.
"Oh, look at those!" Wolfi enthused, catching sight of the just-unwrapped gift in his bride's lap. "Who did you say that one was from?"
"Liesl Schroeder." A smile crossed Stanzi's face as she read the letter accompanying the ornate pair of silver combs.
The groom puzzled this for a moment before recalling the name, and Constanze handed him the note:
First of all, I'm sorry I couldn't accept your invitation. Please accept this gift along with my best wishes for a lovely wedding and a happy life together.
P.S. -- She does admit defeat gracefully; but it seems more appropriate that her penalty go to you.
Wolfgang was in the dark for a moment, until Stanzi whispered an explanation; and she was the only one who ever knew what prompted that particular burst of laughter.
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