The soiree had merged into the evening ball, and Ursula was already heartily sick of being the center of attention. Even the glorious décor of the great ballroom failed to distract her for long. She felt the need for an ally by her side but Mary Amadeus had been absent for a long time that afternoon. When she finally appeared she looked decidedly thoughtful. "What's wrong, Mary A?" Ursula asked, taking her arm and steering her away from the crowd that perpetually hovered nearby.
"I spoke to your father. He gave me my dispensation."
"That's good news – isn't it?"
Mary frowned. "I have the distinct feeling he's working to keep us apart."
Ursula frowned. "Oh, really!"
"That's my feeling. He advised me to go home to visit my father and decide what I want to do with my life."
"As one door closes, another opens. You wanted to see your father anyway, my dear."
"Well, yes. But I still feel worried."
"Please, don't be. I thought father would be above such things." Ursula squeezed Mary's hands. "Don't worry! I won't let you be kept away from me. You know I won't."
"I'm sure of it."
Ursula winked. "And you have your assignation tonight!"
Mary colored up. "So I do! I wonder where the Blue Parlor is?"
"I've found a Yellow Parlor, a Green Parlor, a Red parlor, a Gold Parlor, and even a Brown Parlor, but no Blue one yet." Ursula shook her head. "I'm baffled! How many parlors does a bloody Bishop need?"
"Language, Ursula!" Mary grinned. "We mustn't give these refined ladies the vapors if they overhear!" Ursula replied with a word that would have floored a whole room of refined ladies and Mary guffawed.
Ursula noticed the censorious looks Mary's laugh garnered and grinned. "I feel better already! Oh, this is so tiresome!"
"I think you'll feel better yet in a moment," Mary said, looking over her shoulder. "Here comes Lieutenant Horngebläse. Wow! He looks very fine!"
Ursula turned. "He does indeed!"
Horngebläse was approaching, his bearing stiff and formal. Ursula guessed he was feeling the multitude of gazes directed his way. He wore his full dress uniform of deep blue coat and snowy white britches and stockings. His cocked hat was tucked neatly under his arm, and a beautiful sword hung by his side, although Ursula noticed the buckles on his shoes were only pinchbeck. They do not pay these riverine navy fellows enough.
"Your Excellency," he replied with a bow.
"I thank you most kindly for your noble services in rescuing me and my friends, Lieutenant," she said loudly. "Your actions were most brave and considerate."
"It was my pleasure as well as my duty, Excellency."
She gave him a warm smile. "My name's Ursula, Horatio. Remember?"
Instead of glancing to gauge the reaction of those watching to such intimacy he met her gaze squarely. And I like you all the more for it! "Ursula," he said with a smile.
"Good. I do thank you, Horatio, most sincerely," she said quietly then grinned. "Now the formal nonsense is out of the way, let's go eat!"
Mary Amadeus led the way to the buffet.
* * *
Konrad lay in a private room within the barracks infirmary, feeling feverish. The wound in his side had been diagnosed as a through-and-through, and was worse than the four wounds he'd suffered in the course of his military career. A hole the size of his palm had been blown out of his side below the ribs. The surgeon who'd operated was satisfied no major organs had been damaged, although his muscles had been badly torn. I'll always be stiff there now. But an inch to the right and… Quite.
Even so, some matter had been carried into his wound by the gendarme's bullet. It was causing an infection, and he knew very well what that could lead to. A deep sense of anxiety was clouding his mind.
Colonel Schmutzgräber entered the room bearing a bottle of port and a box of dried fruit. "How's the invalid, then?" he inquired, pulling a chair up to the side of the bed.
"Bored and worried, old friend," Konrad replied with a wan smile.
"The sawbones said your wound was healing."
"It feels hot."
Schmutzgräber's face turned thoughtful. "Ah. That's not good. Shall I call the surgeon?"
"In a while." Konrad raised a hand, feeling as if it weighed a ton, and pointed to a packet of paper on the bedside table. "There is my report on all that occurred. I'd be much obliged if you'll see it safely into the hands of General Rauppen-Schlepper."
Schmutzgräber reached for the packet and tucked it away in his capacious coat pocket. "Of course."
"Ursula did well, Willie."
"Did you have any idea who she really was?"
Konrad laughed and winced at the stab of pain in his side. "No. Some field agent I am!"
"She fooled a lot of people," Schmutzgräber said, pouring the port into a glass. "Drink this."
Konrad took the glass and drank. The fortified wine felt good in his dry mouth and throat. "I'm surprised Ursula hasn't come by to see me."
"Don't fret so, Konrad." Schmutzgräber patted his shoulder. "She's a great lady now, for all her tender years. Her time won't be her own from now on."
Konrad managed a smile. "Knowing Ursula that's something she'll rectify with speed!"
"No doubt. I've heard all kinds of rumors about her friend."
"Mary Amadeus? Willie, that girl is a genius! What she doesn't know about explosives isn't worth knowing."
"Really? Really!" Schmutzgräber looked thoughtful. "It's of an accord with what I've heard. Graf Philip is of a similar disposition and is said to be quite taken with her."
"I doubt he'll be allowed anything more than a friendship with that erudite young woman."
"I think you're right. Still, I'd like to meet this paragon."
"She went to the palace with Ursula I think."
"The General arrived today. I'll see if I can hunt her out when I deliver your report to him."
"What happened to Baron Ehrgeiziger?"
"He's staying in town on parole."
"You know he's the chief intelligence agent for the Sicherheits-Büro in Randstadt?"
"Oh yes, but he's observing his parole." Schmutzgräber winked. "We're keeping an eye on him, and making sure he knows it."
"He was wounded when Ursula and Mary Amadeus pulled him aboard the Acheron."
"Yes, but he was not wounded as badly as was thought. The same surgeon treated him as treated you. He says the ball that struck him was nearly spent. It hit his right shoulder blade and merely dented the bone. He lost a lot of blood but was otherwise unhurt."
"He was lucky." Konrad thought on the matter. "From the sound of things one of his own men must've shot him in the back."
"It happens," Schmutzgräber said sagely. "You get a hard-driver, constantly on the backs of the men under his command. And anything can happen in the middle of an action."
"Yes. It might be worth speaking to the Baron. There may be some division within the enemy intelligence service we can exploit."
"Indeed, but not now, old friend. It's time for you to rest; you're looking most shockingly pale and sweaty." Schmutzgräber rose. "I'll send the surgeon in, and go about my duties. Rest well, Konrad, and I'll call later in the day."
"Thank you for coming by."
Schmutzgräber hesitated. "If I see Ursula – I mean, the Grafin – I'll ask her to attend upon you."
"I'd appreciate it, Willie. Thanks again."
Schmutzgräber left, his expression thoughtful. Konrad settled back as the surgeon entered the room. He didn't need to be psychic to know Willie was thinking I'll ask her to attend upon you – before it's too late…
* * *
"What's next for you, Horatio?" Ursula asked, helping him to a plate of vol-au-vents.
He pursed his lips. "At the moment we're going to remain in Kimmelsbrücke. I know the formal negotiations concerning our being at war or not have yet to take place, but it's possible the Margraf's army may attempt to surprise us before our army has fully assembled. The Gravies may storm Regentropfen and try to gain the bridge, or perhaps attempt to cross the river either above or below the town." He smiled, looking tanned and confident. "If they do try something, the flotilla will be there in harm's way."
Ursula nibbled on a vol-au-vent and looked at him thoughtfully. "You're a career officer, Horatio, and going into harm's way is what you do. But I hope you'll be careful." For my sake as much as yours!
His expression took on a troubled guise and that hint of melancholy showed. "I must do what I must do in the course of my duties, Ursula," he said softly. "After our adventure you know there are no guarantees."
"I know." She managed a smile. "In time to come you'll be a fat old admiral, taking copious quantities of snuff and boring the britches off all who stray within range with your anecdotes!"
"I'll take that as a command," he grinned.
"I'll damned well see you do!" she grinned back.
A few feet away from them Mary Amadeus had a small mountain of food piled on her plate and was wielding a fork with all the gusto of someone who'd been on short commons for too long. She watched the interplay between the two, and watched also the judgemental expressions on the faces of those around them.
Ursula doesn't know – or more likely doesn't care – what kind of effect she's having here. If her grumpy old daddy were to see them together it'll be her for the Grand Tour and marriage, and poor Horatio for the coldest, remotest posting that can be found!
Even as she thought of the consequences the Bishop's chamberlain announced the arrival of the principal guests in the great ballroom.
"My lords, ladies and gentlemen, His Grace Archbishop Wolfram! His Excellency Count Ostenberg! His Excellency Graf Philip! His Grace the Bishop of Kimmelsbrücke!"
"Philip!" Mary's great heart gave a lurch and she hastened to the door to peer out.
The dignitaries advanced into the ballroom and the guests parted to bow or curtsey to them. Graf Philip followed, walking beside the Bishop and behind his uncle and the Chancellor. She admired his tall straight figure then noticed he was wearing – "A uniform?"
"We'd better go make our obeisance," Ursula said behind her. "Um, Mary A? You'd better put the plate down somewhere."
"Ah." A liveried servant was standing, a still as a graven image against the wall nearby. Mary tapped him on the arm. "Be a dear and hold this for a moment," she said and thrust the plate into his hands.
He blinked but bowed, holding the heaped plate with a faint blush of embarrassment coloring his pale cheeks.
The three friends headed into the ballroom and took their places in the lineup. As the dignitaries approached, they made their bow and curtseys. Mary straightened up in time to see the flicker of annoyance cross the Archbishop's face as he saw the close proximity of Ursula and Horatio.
"I'm glad to see you hear, child," he said. "I understand the ladies of the court had a hard time trying to find you."
"It's a huge palace, father. It's very easy to get lost."
"Hmm!" He looked skeptical. "Indeed. Good to see you, Lieutenant, Fraulein Amadeus."
"Your Grace," they murmured.
"I hope you're not monopolizing my daughter, Lieutenant?" Wolfram said in a jocular tone that sounded patently false to Mary.
"Her company is truly enchanting, Your Grace."
"I'm pleased to hear it, but you must circulate, my dear. Come with me."
Mary watched with a sinking feeling as her best friend began to color-up. Archbishop Wolfram moved on to greet other guests, obviously expecting his child to fall in behind him. An idea came to Mary and she touched Ursula's arm and bent to whisper. "Ursula, it's a good idea to circulate," she said in a low voice. "Whoever the other conspirator was in that room, I'm sure he'll be here. You may be able to detect him."
"Ah. Yes, you're right." Ursula calmed down visibly once her professional senses engaged. "You'd better circulate too, Mary A. We'll meet later when we get the chance and compare notes"
Ursula moved away to meet and greet other of the delegates to the war conference and Horatio turned to Mary. "What was that about a conspirator, Mary?"
"It's not a long story," she began, but Philip had finished conversing with an important guest and was turning to her with a broad smile. "But I'll tell you later…"