Mary curtseyed to Graf Philip, noting the sparkle in his eye that belied the formal greeting.
"Thank you, Your Excellency. I'm pleased to say I am." She straightened and eyed his rich uniform of purple coat with scarlet facings, blue weskit and gray britches, all trimmed with gold lace. "Do I have the honor of congratulating you on a promotion?"
"I think so," he said, and his eyelid fluttered in the barest hint of a wink. "Now I'm of age General Rauppen-Schlepper accepted my bid to raise a regiment of artillery within the Guard. I must admit I was confident." He stroked a lapel. "I had my tailor make up this uniform a month ago."
"It looks well on you!"
"Thank you." He bowed and a smile creased his lips as he looked at her with a peculiar intensity. It was the first time a young man had ever looked at her so and she blushed with a mixture of confusion and delight. Oh my! I feel most peculiar! But her native intelligence was still working behind the emotions. Yet there's something else behind his look. What's he up to?
She didn't have time to dwell upon the situation further as now the principal guests had arrived, the orchestra struck up.
"Ah!" Philip exclaimed. "This is the latest tune from Vienna! It was written by a clever chap by the name of Wolfgang Appaloosa Walmartz."
"Really? It sounds nice."
"Do you dance, Fraulein?" he asked, holding out his hand as the ballroom floor cleared.
Mary took his hand shyly, amid a stir of confusion and some disapprobation from the gathering who witnessed the extraordinary favor granted to such a lowly person. But I don't care! She thought as he led her out. This is our night!
*Ursula was in the middle of a number of gallant young gentlemen, all jockeying for position to offer the Grafin the first dance. Horatio had been pushed aside with exquisite politeness and was now standing, baffled and angry on the outskirts of the crowd. But Ursula turned at the noise from behind her and saw what was happening. Plunging through the press she grabbed Horatio's arm and pointed. "Philip's a daring soul!"
He smiled with relief. "So I see! But I expected no less from him."
"Anything they can do, we can do!" She offered her hand. "May I have the honor?"
Incredible! She flouts convention at the drop of a hat! He laughed. "Of course!"
*Archbishop Wolfram had reached the far end of the room. "What's that?" he asked as a hubbub rose and overcame the Wedding Dance from the Marriage of Figureight.
"It seems our young nobles are cutting loose!" Count Ostenberg exclaimed, staring.
Wolfram looked. Graf Philip, heir to the Grand Duchy is dancing with a commoner and a former nun to boot; my own daughter, another possible heir to the Grand Duchy is dancing with a lowly lieutenant! Somehow Wolfram resisted clapping a hand to his forehead but he indulged in a low, heartfelt groan.
* * *In the town below Doktor Hölzerner-Kopf made his way into the church of St. Barbara and looked for the confessional boxes. They stood in a shadowy aisle to the right and he made for the one closest to the door. Entering the musty interior he sat down and coughed. Someone stirred in the compartment next door.
"The river rises, but the banks hold firm," Hölzerner-Kopf said.
"The heron rises also, and sees much," was the impatient reply from beyond the grill. "What news from the Margraf?"
"The situation is not the best we could hope for," Hölzerner-Kopf said, sighing inwardly at the contact's impatience. "Margraf Hermann died before a full reply to your missive could be framed. It seems our new Margraf, Heinrich, has other plans in mind."
He thought he heard a suppressed curse and shook his head. Clumsy, clumsy man, to show your impatience so! "However," he went on, "there is some cause for hope. The Dowager Margrafin is aware of your goodwill, and is interested in further contact."
"What use can she be?"
Hölzerner-Kopf breathed deep to suppress his annoyance at such rudeness. "Do not be dissuaded by her widowhood. The Dowager has considerable powers; more so in some respects than her son. Our army loves her."
He let the contact dwell upon that snippet for a while. "I suggest you return to your cabal and form a more concrete proposal. Once you have done so, contact me in the usual way and I shall convey it to the Margrafin."
"Can you promise any action?"
"I promise nothing!" Hölzerner-Kopf snapped, his contempt for the amateur conspirator breaking through for an instant. "I do guarantee the Dowager shall give any proposal you send due consideration."
"That…will be acceptable."
"Good. One further matter before I leave. One of my colleagues was taken prisoner in the recent action upon the river. His name is Baron Ehrgeiziger. Do you have news of him, especially his whereabouts?"
"I believe he was wounded and is being treated in the barracks here in town."
"Thank you." Hölzerner-Kopf rose. "I shall leave now. Give me five minutes before departing yourself."
Hölzerner-Kopf left the church, savoring the cool evening air after the cold mustiness within. He set his tricorn upon his head and looked up at the lights of the great palace, shining on the hill. Party while you may, fools! He thought with a sour smile. If all goes well, your days are numbered!