At the palace Horngebläse was ushered into the presence of the Archbishop, and much to his surprise and discomfort found the Grand Ducal Chancellor Count Ostenberg waiting alongside the prelate, with a host of officers and government officials thronging the room.
The walk across the floor of the reception room to where the principal men stood waiting for him seemed like a mile. All eyes were upon him. Nothing had been said officially about the recent action, and Horngebläse could not be sure if the Powers That Be approved of his exploits in rescuing the Grafin during a time of heightened tensions.
"Is this the young fellow?" the Count asked in a hearty voice that dispelled much of Horngebläse's discomfort as he approached.
"Yes," Archbishop Wolfram said in a neutral tone.
"Lieutenant Horngebläse reporting, Excellencies," he said, coming to attention. He was wearing his workaday uniform. The good blue broadcloth was now rather shabby and worn in places and he felt like a fish out of water in such glittering company. He wished he had his dress uniform but it had not yet been returned to him after Ursula had finished with it.
The Archbishop must have read his mind, for he gestured to a servant, who stepped forward bearing a neat bundle of clothing. "I rather believe these belong to you, Lieutenant."
Horngebläse cast a rueful eye over the bundle. "They do, Your Grace."
"They have been cleaned and pressed, and this fellow will carry them for you when he guides you to your chambers presently."
"My… my chambers, Your Grace?"
"Yes, Lieutenant. You are very much the hero of the hour in saving my errant daughter. It is my pleasure to extend a formal invitation to you to attend the celebratory ball to be held here this evening. A suite has been set aside for your use."
Horngebläse bowed. "Thank you, Your Grace."
"Grafin Ursula will no doubt wish to thank you formally in front of the guests for your gallant rescue of herself and her companions."
"It was a privilege to be of service to the Grafin."
"Yes." The Archbishop's countenance was bland, but Horngebläse had the impression he was hiding some strong emotion.
Count Ostenberg smiled. "As the direct representative of His Grace Grand Duke Karl, it is my pleasure to reward your brave and exemplary conduct on his behalf." An officer stepped forward with a fine dress sword laid in his palms and the Count took it and presented it to Horngebläse. "In recognition of your recent action upon the Eisenwasser, it is my pleasure to award you the Sword of Honor, First Class."
Horngebläse stiffened. High approval indeed! "Thank you, Your Excellency!" He felt a deep and growing pleasure run through him as he accepted the sword. Aside from the recognition of his services and the prestige of ownership of such a sword, it carried with it a pension of twelve silver Marks a year. It's not pleasant to be mercenary but what I can do with that money!
"Some other reward may come your way presently," Count Ostenberg said with a knowing look. "In the meantime, you have my heartiest congratulations Lieutenant! Well done!"
A round of applause broke out around the room, and Horngebläse felt his face grow warm. He bowed again and received a subtle gesture of dismissal from the Chancellor. As he followed the servant from the room he felt as if he were walking on air. It only remains for me to see Ursula again for this to be one of the best days I've ever had!
* * *
Archbishop Wolfram watched the Lieutenant leave the room with mixed feelings. He seems like a personable young man, and there's no doubt he's brave; but a suitable match for Ursula? I think not. And then there's that other friend of hers…
"A splendid young chap there, Your Grace," Count Ostenberg said. "We'll need more like him in the days ahead."
"Indeed," Wolfram said, dismissing Lieutenant Horngebläse from his mind. "What is the next step for you, Your Excellency?"
Ostenberg scratched his nose. "We meet with the Margraf's delegation tomorrow. His Grace has given me full powers to act in his name."
"And what will you say?"
"We'll ensure they know exactly how we feel about your daughter's kidnapping. It was an act of war, pure and simple. If they wish to avoid war they'll pay reparations, cede the County of Waldorf-Salle-Ads to us and remove those troops from the border."
"And if they don't?"
"Then our army will march." Ostenberg's smile was one of quiet confidence. "We'll take what is rightfully ours and seize assets to the value of the reparations."
"I'm pleased that you have everything in hand."
"I'm sure we have."
"My next task is a simpler one." Count Ostenberg gave him an inquiring look and Wolfram smiled. "I have to interview a nun about her decision not to be a nun any more."
"Would this young lady be Sister Mary Amadeus?"
Wolfram was surprised. "You know her?"
"Graf Philip was extolling her virtues yesterday evening. It seems she possess quite remarkable talents when it comes to explosives."
"That's one way of putting it," Wolfram said, remembering the repair bills.
"If she were not female I'd have no hesitation in offering her a commission!"
They laughed. "The idea of a woman officer is absurd, my dear Count," Wolfram said, patting his shoulder. "Ah well! I must depart now and attend to her. If you'll excuse me?"
They bowed and Wolfram took his leave, bound for the offices set aside for his use. Father Galliard met him at the door. "Sister Mary Amadeus is waiting for you, Your Grace."
"Thank you, Richard. Is all prepared?"
"Yes, Your Grace."
Wolfram nodded and entered the office. There Sister Mary Amadeus was waiting for him in a state of some agitation. She wore civilian clothes of fine cut. But she still resembles a Burgomaster's daughter in her Sunday best.
"Thank you for seeing me, Your Grace," she said, rising and kissing his ring.
"You're welcome, my child." He sat behind the desk and regarded her somberly. "Ursula gives me to understand you seek to dissolve your vows. Is that correct?"
Mary Amadeus blushed and nodded. "My recent experiences have shown me the impossibility of continuing my vocation, Your Grace. My belief in God is sound; His presence in my life shows itself in so many ways. Yet I feel I can serve Him better elsewhere."
"I see." Wolfram rubbed his chin. "Then it is with reluctance that I grant you your wish." He reached into a drawer and extracted a document. Father Galliard came forward with melted sealing wax and Wolfram signed and impressed his signet upon the document. He passed it across to her, along with a small purse of coins. "This is your release, Fraulein Amadeus, along with a grant in lieu of such possessions as you gave up upon joining the Order of St. Ungulant."
She blinked. "Thank you, Your Grace."
"Thank you for your service to date. And thank you also for being a friend to Ursula in her time of need."
"It was my pleasure, Your Grace."
"I do appreciate it. At the moment, I think you should return to your family home and consider your future. Your father is a mining engineer in Wöhl, I understand?"
"Yes, Your Grace."
"Then please consider a visit to him. You may go, Fraulein."
Mary Amadeus seemed on the verge of saying more but instead she rose, clutching her precious document, gave both clerics a quick curtsey and departed the room. Wolfram watched her go and mentally sighed. I suppose I could have been a little more sensitive, but that piece of writing will save the church a goodly sum! And Ursula needs to grow up and soon if she's to be useful to the realm. A pity Mary Amadeus is not of a higher social order. Oh well, onwards and upwards… "What's next on the agenda, Richard?" he asked.
* * *
General Rauppen-Schlepper alighted from his coach in the forecourt of the great palace and was surprised to see Graf Philip waiting for him at the top of the steps to the great doors. "Your Excellency," he said, saluting with a smile. "It's a pleasure and a surprise to see you here."
"I heard you were on the way from the cantonment so I thought I'd be here to greet you. Everyone else is so busy these days."
"You do me great honor, Your Excellency."
"I'm pleased to do so, General." Graf Philip gestured. "May I show you to where the delegation is assembling?"
"You're too kind," Rauppen-Schlepper said, wondering. A butler could do this! As they headed deeper into the great palace he cocked an eye at the tall youth striding alongside him. "Philip, I know you. What do you want from me?"
Graf Philip grinned. "I can't pull the wool over your eyes, can I, Rupert?"
"Not since that incident with the pony and the firecrackers, no."
"Well, I was only ten at the time! I had this theory…"
"A theory!" Rauppen-Schlepper shook his head and gave his young friend a glare mitigated with real affection. "It took us hours to get the poor thing off that roof! And I still don't know where you got such a huge quantity of firecrackers from!"
"There is something you can do for me," Philip said hurriedly.
"Changing the subject, eh? I see I'll never know the answer to that mystery," Rauppen-Schlepper chuckled ruefully. "Very well, Philip: What can I do for you?"
"You have the power to grant commissions without fear or favor."
"Indeed I do."
"Can you make me a colonel-inhaber of artillery, with immediate effect?"
Rauppen-Schlepper stopped and turned to look at him. "Of course I can. You're good for the surety. Knowing your love of all things that go bang, Philip, I can't say I'm surprised at your choice. Yet I have the feeling there's something behind your request."
"Indeed there is. I've met a promising young candidate for a commission, and would like to grant it myself. A colonelcy is the lowest rank at which I can do so."
"Has this arisen from that affair up the river you took part in?"
"Yes. The candidate performed admirably in the course of the action and is most worthy to hold officer rank, I assure you."
"If you recommend the commission I'd be pleased to make one out for this fellow if you so wish. It would save you the expense of raising a regiment."
"Thank you, but no. I'm taking a personal interest in the case."
"That's very commendable of you. The good Lord knows we are short of artillery." Rauppen-Schlepper thought briefly. "Very well, I'll have the necessary papers prepared and sent to you, of course, but as of this moment, you have your own commission." He held out his hand. "Congratulations, Colonel!"