Previously on The Ringstetten Saga:
A cadet offshoot of the Ringstetten dynasty is returning home to court (being one of the Queen's ladies) in an elegant baroque carriage, after visiting the Governor of Värmland and taking part in the revels of the Midsummer Green. And Caroline's stay at Vänersvik and her impression of Ulrika (not noticing that the girl's perfect French is spoken with a Wallonian accent) convince her to adopt the young blonde. At first, her parents are reluctant for Ulrika to start a new life at Drottningholm, the Swedish royal court, but they finally yield to Caroline's idea of introducing such a belle in society.
Ulrike is surprised by the plan. The farewell knows no equal. Cue Gustav Adolf and Katarina worrying about their daughter in all that elegance, among all those self-centered strangers!
Life ain't easy for an upstart at court. Just ask Sansa Stark. Or Ulrika von Ringstetten, who has finally succeeded to fit in at Drottningholm. Imagine that! For instance, she needs to change her accent, because she speaks Wallonian French! It seems that her fairytale dream has come true, but it will prove no bed of roses...
So many halls and mirrors, so many ladies in petticoats chattering in French, and a hedge maze in the vast royal gardens... and the "Cap and Hat" issue.
She is asked by the Queen's other ladies whether she is a Cap or a Hat, and she doesn't get what the question is, answering: "Well... guess I'm a Ribbon" for the bow in her hair. She decides to remain neutral after discovering that the Cap and Hat parties are two opposite factions, that even tear her foster parents, and even the royals themselves, apart. Queen Louisa (the de facto ruler of the land, in spite of loving books and fairies) and Madame Caroline are jingoistic Hats, bent on declaring another war on Russia for revenge after the Poltava debacle (and to expand the fallen Swedish Empire), while King Adolphus (weak-willed, fond of sweets and amateur woodcarver) and Monsieur Gabriel are Enlightened Caps bent on securing peace, supporting culture and education. Ulrika is neutral, a "Ribbon", and she soon meets her match in a Prussian dignitary's eldest son Fritz, nicknamed "Frédéric le Beau", neutral being a foreigner. Pretty soon, as the dashing Fritz finds a niche at court, Ulrika becomes his bride and, later on, his spouse.
As their marriage takes place, the Swedish government undergoes a turning point: when King Adolphus unexpectedly dies of a heart attack and his dashing son Gustavus returns from France to inherit the crown, the new ruler's supporters take Parliament by storm and dissolve it. After the successful velvet revolution (force was used, but there was no bloodshed or any casualties), Sweden has no longer Hats or Caps, just courtiers, gentry, and common people, subjects of an Enlightened despot.
Ulrika spends her life in a dream, attending fêtes and balls, playing soubrettes (clever maidservants) on stage, dancing the minuet and the gavotte with young officers of the Royal Guard, playing croquet with her fellow courtiers, stuffing herself with candied chestnuts, macarons, peaches and cream, ice cream... and getting dead drunk on eau-de-vie (fruit liquor), champagne, or Cognac behind Fritz's back. For le Beau has shown his true colours: a vain, self-centered, narcissistic fop who married Ulrika to get part of the Ringstettens' fortune. She is his trophy wife: his precious and lilywhite porcelain doll. And an unhappily married court lady can only escape her scenario in two possible ways: living up to her dreams and being unfaithful. She's doing both. And the naive ingénue has finally become a social butterfly with the reputation of an epicurean.
Queen Sophia, Gustavus III's spouse, to whose entourage Ulrika belongs, is unhappily married as well. She came over from Denmark as a child to marry a boy three years her senior, as a symbolic wedding to turn the traditional hostilities between Sweden and Denmark into an alliance. Decades have passed since that day, and Gustavus still prefers the company of young men (and the spotlight, being quite the outspoken attention seeker! He loves acting on stage, playing the lead role, especially as Apollo, with whom he identifies himself). Thus, there are rumors at Drottningholm that the young royals will soon die childless. The Queen herself has told Ulrika her plight, and vice versa.
One summer evening, while King Gustavus is doing reforms in the provinces (which considerably lowers the mood at court), the Queen leaves the ballroom and sneaks into bed with Head Stablehand Munck. They don't notice they are being watched by one of the ladies, dressed in a blood red brocade skirt and wearing a ruby heart parure. Guess who? (Ulrika von Ringstetten!)
A fortnight after His Majesty's return, Sophia starts to put on weight and wear larger petticoats to conceal her secret, not without arising suspicions. Gustavus III accepts the unborn child as his own, in spite of the courtiers' whispers about lovers and affairs, led by Queen Mother Louisa and her favourite child: Gustavus III's dashing, vain, epicurean and weak-willed youngest brother Frederick (There is a middle brother, reserved and stern Charles, in charge of the fleet and thus rarely seen). The newborn? It's a boy, named after his royal father. The heir to the Swedish throne, despite being an actual bastard.
Ulrika is soon inspired by the Queen's adultery to carry her foul play even further, into her bedchamber. At the ballroom, she gets completely wasted and confesses to a young Finnish ensign of the Royal Guard. For the occasion, our court lady is wearing a blue satin skirt and a parure of forget-me-nots tied with a blue satin ribbon in her hair, to fit the colour of her eyes and the uniform of her beloved.
However, her Prussian husband is half drunk, incensed by the effect of liquor and that of his spouse skipping through the maze with the young officer. In a fit of rage, without doubting, he throws his right glove at the ensign while calling him out: "Tomorrow at dusk, in the English Garden! (English Garden of Drottningholm: the woods beyond the hedge maze) Let me see how great a marksman you are!"
The officer picks up the glove, and a startled Ulrika starts coming to, weary and dizzy. The challenge has the effect of a cold water shower upon her.
The next day, she doesn't witness the duel, since Fritz has coldly explained: "It's an issue for gentlemen", the last time they will ever see each other. The next day, the confrontation is the talk of the palace. Both contenders have fallen: the young Finnish ensign, shot in the right side, and the older Prussian, with a bullet right through the heart.
A war on Russia, that has just broken out, is the second most important topic of conversation.
A widowed Ulrika takes leave of the royals and leaves the royal court for her hinterland birthplace, in a baroque carriage draped in black like her crepe dress and veil. Upon reaching the estate, she is welcomed by her old parents, who help her unpack her trousseau.
At first, Ulrika is desperate, having lost her husband and her place at court, and now bereft of the exciting social life she has led. For three days, she keeps on drinking brandy and weeping endlessly on her black handkerchief.
She has to sleep in the bedroom that was hers as a little girl. And soon, on the fourth day, the young dowager remembers her childhood and its more innocent pleasures, accepting her return to provincial life.
The Count and Countess of Ringstetten inform their daughter of everything that has happened at Vänersvik in her absence: it has been raining frogs one summer, good old Etienne is deceased (which causes Ulrika to feel guilty and regret her departure), and the Crown has opened a new orphanage, that also serves as public school, on Midsummer Green, with the Ringstettens' support and consent (Gustavus III himself opened it, while his Queen was having her affair). "It's that white schoolhouse on the Green, beside the church. You see the walls all covered with honeysuckle, like a bower?" Ulrika has finally awakened from her dream, and she turns over a new leaf as a teacher for unwanted and orphaned children with flaxen hair and sky-blue eyes. Her own childlessness and need of support are soon compensated by the love and enthusiasm she brings to the young wards of the State: they gather around her black skirt to listen to fairy tales, and she lovingly kisses them every night at bedtime, before going to bed herself, sober, secure, and innocent. Every now and then, upon returning to Vänersvik from the Honeysuckle Farm Children's Home and Public School, she passes by the churchyard and leaves some flowers on Etienne's grave, stopping for a while before resuming her walk.
This becomes her new life, to a ripe old age, until she falls asleep forever.