"Yes, who the devil are you?" Ursula demanded, her eyes blazing.
The colonel bowed to her with a click of heels. "Permit me to introduce myself, Grafin. I am your cousin, Lucius Sleibnitz, Colonel of the First Regiment of Foot." He sneered at Horatio. "This mere officer of cockleshells is far beneath you and me in social order and it ill-becomes him to associate with you."
"I decide who I associate with!" Ursula growled and Horatio noticed how much she sounded like her namesake at that moment.
"You are incorrect, Grafin. That is for others to decide for you now," the colonel said glaring at Horatio. "My challenge is issued, sir! Do you accept, or will you crawl away to your kennel?"
"I will accept your challenge, Colonel," he replied. "It shall be swords to first blood." He looked the man up and down. "I do not wish to deprive the realm of whatever scant resources you can provide."
The spots of color on Sleibnitz's face darkened to a deep puce but Archbishop Wolfram had pushed through the crowd. "Enough!" he said, his voice like a whip-crack. "The challenge has been issued and accepted. It remains for those concerned to name their seconds and withdraw from this gathering." He turned a furious gaze upon Ursula. "As for you, young lady, I shall require your attendance in my chambers in he morning!"
For a second Ursula hesitated but Horatio caught her eye and shook his head. A tantrum now would only make things worse.
"As you wish, father," she said, biting off each word and curtseying to him.
"I shall stand as Lieutenant Horngebläse's second," Graf Philip declaimed. "And I shall be honored to do so!"
Sleibnitz started and gave Philip a questioning look. When he saw the youth's intention was sincere he gave a little shrug of disgust and bowed before turning on his heel and walking away.
Philip watched him go then bowed to the Archbishop. "With your consent, Your Grace, I shall take my principal to his chambers and arrange matters."
"Very well, Philip; please do so."
"My duties are done here father," Ursula said, curtseying to the prelate. "I shall withdraw too. I am somewhat fatigued!"
Wolfram opened his mouth but then sighed and waved for her to go. The four friends departed the ballroom to a rising murmur of outrage and delighted gossip.
* * *They made their way silently through the great palace until they came to Horatio's chambers. "That went well," Ursula sighed as they entered.
"You are pleased to joke, cousin," Philip said with a wry smile. "I'm only sorry that pompous fool Sleibnitz had to involve himself."
"He's really our cousin?" she asked, sitting on a footstool and kicking the pumps off her feet.
"Unfortunately, yes. He is a member of a cadet branch but still close enough to be family. And ambitious? Much like Shakespeare's Cassius, he has always had a lean and hungry look."
Ursula looked at Horatio, who was unbuckling his sword belt. His motions were slow, as if he was tired and he laid the sword upon a chair as if it were a great burden. "You couldn't take a blow like that, Horatio," she said, getting up and laying a hand upon his shoulder.
"Indeed not, my dear." He gave her a wan smile. "At least it's only to first blood."
"Had it been me in your shoes it'd be pistols for two and breakfast for one" she said.
"And we know who'd be pushing up the daisies come sundown!" Mary Amadeus said with a grin.
"It might just happen yet!" she snarled. "The odious little prick! To say others will decide my affairs!"
Philip blinked at her profanity and turned hurriedly to Mary. "My dear, I regret the coming duel has necessitated a postponement of our assignation tonight, but I can still give you my surprise." He fumbled in one of his coat pockets and withdrew a folded sheet of parchment. "Mary Amadeus, please permit me to present this to you, as a token of my highest esteem."
She took the document and gave him a questioning look before slitting open the seal and reading the contents. Ursula and Horatio watched with interest and not a little concern as her cheeks turned first pale then flushed pink. Mary felt behind her until she found a chair and sank down onto it as if her legs had turned weak. "Oh Philip! I don't know what to say!"
"Yes would be nice," he said, with an anxious smile.
"Yes! Of course, yes! It's… it's such an honor! But will it stand?"
"Will what stand, Mary A?" Ursula asked with fond exasperation.
"Philip has given me a commission as a lieutenant in his regiment of artillery!" Mary said, holding up the parchment.
"It's all perfectly legal, and there are precedents," Philip explained hurriedly, seeing their incredulous faces. "The Holy Mormoan Kingdom of New Wales has an entire guard regiment of women."
"Extraordinary!" Horatio said, gazing from him to a delighted Mary.
Ursula hugged Mary hard. "Congratulations, my dear!"
"How very advanced and enlightened of you, Philip!" Ursula said, turning to him.
"Thank you. At least something good has come out of this awful evening."
"Yes, you're right. I feel better already."
A knock came at the door. Philip opened it, much to the obvious surprise of the person in the passageway. "Your Excellency, I am come to arrange matters of the duel," the man said.
"Zögernsie?" Philip exclaimed. "You act for Colonel Sleibnitz?"
"Yes, Excellency," the Baron replied, eyeing the situation in the room. "I returned only recently to the palace after attending to affairs in the town and the colonel told me what occurred. I collect that your principal will not stand down?"
"Not a chance!" Horatio growled.
"My principal will not withdraw either. I understand the duel is to be fought with swords, to first blood?"
The Baron bowed again. "Then I propose the meeting shall take place in the Riverside Park near the pavilion at dawn. Would this be agreeable?"
Horatio waved a hand in response to Philip's inquiring glance. "Yes, perfectly agreeable."
"I shall see you upon the field then, Excellency. Goodnight to you."
"Goodnight, Herr Baron," Philip replied, closing the door.
He turned to see Mary staring hard at the door. "Is something wrong, Lieutenant?" he asked with a whimsical smile.
Mary flushed with pleasure at her new rank but nodded. "Yes. Ursula? That was Zögernsie, one of the men we overheard in the church tower!"
Philip gave them a puzzled look and Ursula explained. "And we still don't know who the other man is!" she finished, letting her frustration show.
"This is most serious!" he said, sitting down and gazing at them all. "Treasonous correspondence with an enemy is a hanging offense! You didn't hear the other man tonight at the ball?"
"No. If he was there we didn't recognize his speech." Ursula scowled. "I'd like to know who he is! I haven't forgiven him for his cracks about the Archbishop's brat and the stupid girl!"
"Quite understandable." Philip rested his chin on his fist in thought. "I shall have to tell Count Ostenberg," he said at last. "Even without proof your word is golden, Ursula. Although we cannot make any overt moves without proof, we can at least keep watch on Zögernsie."
"If you think we should tell the Count then I agree," Ursula said. "Do you think Sleibnitz may be in league with Zögernsie and his partner?"
"I doubt it," Philip said. "Sleibnitz is a prickly fellow but not treacherous. No, we shall have to wait and see."
"So what do we do now?"
"We go to our beds," Ursula said decisively, eyeing Mary Amadeus. "Horatio, you and Philip have a pompous ass to cut down to size early tomorrow, and I have to get the army's latest recruit to bed before she explodes with sheer happiness." She grimaced. "And I have to face dear papa in the morning too!"
"You're quite right, dear Ursula," Philip said. "It's getting late and my fellow here needs his sleep."
"Take this," Ursula said, extracting a silk handkerchief and offering it to Horatio. "No champion should go into battle without a lady's favor!"
He flushed and smiled then kissed her hand. "I shall fight all the better for it!"
"Do that; and if you cut off any part of Colonel Sleibnitz in the process you can bring it back for me as a trophy!"
Only the brief flutter of her eyelid showed him Ursula wasn't entirely serious.