I confess it: I love playing a long game in planting foreshadowing and setting things up. The failure mode is having some readers complain that I stick in random events and people as if they were meaningful and then drop the thread unresolved. You can't take every single reader aside personally and assure them, "Trust me, it's going to be relevant. Just hang on."
In The Mystic Marriage, Iulien Fulpi gives Margerit a notebook to read...and Margerit sets it aside and misplaces it. It drops out of sight--both literally and figuratively--and the thread isn't picked up again until Mother of Souls, when an anonymous novel is published that contains some clear, though coded, implications about Margerit and Barbara's relationship. The joke is that Iuli didn't understand the truth of what she wrote. She just felt that two people who were so clearly in love as those two were, by rights ought to be characters in a romantic adventure novel.
The book becomes the catalyst for some unfortunate events, but is also the door for Iuli to be let into their secret. It shouldn't be any surprise that Iuli accepted their relationship joyfully. After all, she'd already concluded that they ought to be married. At least in their fictional guises.
But The Lost Duke of Lautencourt isn't done with being a catalyst for character awareness. It might feel like Roz is being hopelessly naive at not realizing that Maisetra Sovitre and the baroness were a couple. But that is because we're looking at her not only with the knowledge that they are, but with modern people's assumptions and understandings about domestic arrangements. And this is where it's tricky to lead readers into thinking like an early 19th century working class girl.
There were class-based differences in assumptions about women's emotional relationships with each other. European society in general was going through several century-long swings between assuming that all women were capable of erotic feelings for other women, and assuming that erotic desire in women (regardless of object) was inherently lower class. Within that context, it's perfectly plausible for a housemaid who is quite aware of her own desire for women to assume that middle and upper class women "wouldn't do that sort of thing," that their affection for each other is purely platonic.
So Roz is in for a bit of a revelation when she happens upon Iulien's own copy of The Lost Duke of Lautencourt in the wake of the news of the attack on Barbara, when she recognizes Iulien's characteristic writing style, and when she understands who the characters are meant to be.
This is a bit of a long excerpt, but since it's all about the novel it isn't giving away much in terms of spoilers for Floodtide.
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I don’t have much time for reading. We’d take turns passing around tattered books, bought cheap at the bookstall because they’d been discarded. Charsintek didn’t like them but she never forbade it. Sometimes Celeste and I would take turns reading from the fashion journals while we worked. But now reading was something to keep me awake while I watched over Maisetra Iulien.
If it had been a hard book, I don’t think I would have kept at it, but it was the sort that put pictures in your head. The words were fancy in a pretty sort of way, like the ones Maisetra Iulien used when she was telling me stories. In fact, the more I read, the more I could hear the story in Maisetra Iulien’s voice and I was more and more certain it was one of her stories. I mostly skipped through looking for the name Lautencourt but sometimes it would pull me in and I’d read pages at a time.
It was exactly the sort of adventure Maisetra Iulien loved, about a beautiful woman who inherited a fortune, and a bad man who wanted to marry her for the money. She was an orphan and her guardian wanted her to marry the bad man because he was going to be the Duke of Lautencourt. That didn’t make sense from what Maisetra Iulien had said before. The Duke of Lautencourt was supposed to be the hero. But he wasn’t the duke yet. There was another man who might be the old duke’s heir but no one knew where he was. The woman refused to marry the bad man and her guardian set it up so he would kidnap her.
You didn’t need kings and castles to put that sort of thing in a story. Women got forced to marry men they didn’t like all the time. It didn’t need kidnapping, just being caught alone with him so that you had to say you were betrothed or you were ruined for life. That’s one thing armins were for, after all: to guard a girl’s reputation. It was why Maisetra Iulien wasn’t supposed to go anywhere without me or Maistir Brandel or both of us. It was why she was never ever supposed to be alone with someone like Mesner Aukustin, because he’d never be allowed to marry someone like her who wasn’t noble. She’d just be ruined with nothing to gain from it.
The rich girl in the story didn’t have an armin, but just as the bad man was about to carry her off, another man showed up and rescued her and begged her to let him serve as her armin. That’s not how it works at all. You don’t hire someone with no name and no reputation—that’s no better than being with a stranger in the first place. And it was clear that he loved her. There was this place in the story where he says, “I would die for you. You mean more to me than my life and my salvation. I would go to the ends of the earth to bring you your heart’s desire.”
I think I would have melted if someone said that to me. If it was someone I loved, that is. I read that bit over and over until I could say it by heart. And the girl loved the armin too, but she knew they’d never let her marry a nobody.
I skipped through a lot of the story that was about balls and clothes and such nonsense. I suppose it might be fun to read if you thought you might have such things, but I wanted to know what happened to the girl and the mysterious stranger and I wasn’t sure how much time I’d have to find out.
So I went to the end and read bits backward to figure out what happened. I still didn’t know what the Duke of Lautencourt had to do with the maisetra and the baroness. Then everything fell into a pattern. It was a pattern I hadn’t even imagined. I should have guessed how the story would end because fairy stories like this always ended that way. The mysterious armin was really the lost heir, and he fought a duel with the bad man for the sake of the lady’s honor, and killed him, and then everyone found out who he was. So the armin became a duke and married the lady and they were happy together for the rest of their lives.
I’d gotten so tied up in the story that I’d almost forgotten why I was reading it. When I remembered, my stomach knotted up all sick-like. Because if Baroness Saveze was the Duke of Lautencourt… Baroness Saveze had been the maisetra’s armin before she found out who she really was and became a baroness. That meant that the maisetra must be the rich lady in the story. And it made sense because she was rich. The maisetra and the baroness lived together in the same house and even slept in the same bedroom. I’d never thought anything of it because people did that, you know? Maisetra Fillert’s daughters shared a bedroom with their cousins when they came visiting. I’d never had a bed to myself until here at Tiporsel House and that was because Charsintek didn’t want me getting in trouble. But Maisetra Iulien had said, “The Duke of Lautencourt saves his true love and they live happily ever after.” And the baroness was the Duke of Lautencourt. And Maisetra Sovitre was her true love. And they were supposed to get married and live happily ever after.
I knew the maisetra and the baroness were friends who loved each other, but I’d never thought about them being in love. Not like me and Nan. I never imagined them lying in the big fancy bed they shared doing the things a man and woman who were married did. The things Nan and I had done. Maybe it should have made me feel glad to think the maisetra and I were alike that way, but instead I was frightened. It was one of those secrets Tavit warned me about. The kind that were dangerous to know and even more dangerous for people to know you knew. I thought about how the maisetra had hired me, even knowing why I’d lost my last place. Maybe that had been a part of it—thinking that we were just a little bit alike—but it wouldn’t go any further than that.