"Are you enjoying the ball, my dear?" Graf Philip asked Mary as he led her through the steps of the minuet.
"I'm having the time of my life!" she said, trying not to grin like an idiot. "I've never ever felt this way before!"
"I'm glad." The music played on, and they danced, and swayed, bowed and curtseyed, back and forth. "I'm looking forward to our assignation later," he murmured as they passed.
Mary's heart gave a hard thump. "Where is the Blue Parlor?" she asked quickly.
"It's otherwise known as the Purple Parlor."
"Purple Parlor?" She stared at him. "To quote Ursula, 'how many parlors does a bloody bishop need?'"
He chuckled. "I've only known my fair cousin for a few days but that sounds like her all over. It's to be found four doors along the corridor at the top of the Grand Staircase in the west wing." The dance ended and they exchanged courtesies as polite applause rippled through the ballroom. "I must circulate now; my duty requires it. But I shall see you at midnight?"
"I'll be there," she whispered.
"Have you ever been to sea?" Ursula asked Horatio as the dance ended and he led her off the floor.
"Yes. I've sailed on three voyages, twice to Britannia and once to Gallia. My uncle owns three brigs that sail out of Cottbus, and I accompanied him on trading missions when I was younger."
"I'd love to go to sea," she said wistfully. "To see nothing but open water, and to sail with wind and tide to strange far-off shores."
"I was seasick for the first three days every time," he said with a wry smile.
She gave him a withering look. "You certainly know how to put a girl in a romantic mood!"
"I'm sorry." His eyes twinkled. "You're right, it's a wonderful life, but it can be hard and perilous work, Ursula."
"I can believe that."
Out the corner of her eye she saw the group of young fellows was edging closer, intent on cutting Horatio away from her side. Not far from them a man of middling height in a colonel's uniform with yellow facings was watching her with a peculiar intensity. His blond hair was pulled back into a severe queue and his ice blue eyes glittered. Frowning at the man she took Horatio's arm and headed for the doors to the terrace overlooking the gardens. She glanced back. The young gentlemen knew that to trespass upon her now would be the height of bad manners and they stopped, frustrated, near the doors. The colonel was still watching her with a look that seemed to border on distaste.
The air was chill after the warm stuffy atmosphere of the ballroom but there was a hint of spring in the night air. The lights of Kimmelsbrücke shone below and she leaned on the balustrade and gazed out at the night. Horatio stood close alongside her, and she was surprised to find just how heightened her senses were. Even without looking directly at him she was vitally aware of his warmth, his presence. No other person had ever affected her so.
"Have you ever been through a storm?" she asked quietly, thinking of troubles ahead.
"Do you mean metaphorically or literally?"
She glanced at him, and saw him smiling in the light from the ballroom. That hint of melancholy hung about his face but she sensed a deep empathy there also. "Both, I suppose."
"I know." He nodded. "Once, in the Northern Sea, a real ripsnorter of a blow that came howling out of the north one night. It blew for three days and we had to strike topmasts and ride it out. We were lucky, for there was plenty of sea room before we reached a lee shore."
"Ugh!" She shuddered. "Were you frightened?"
"Sometimes, but we were too busy surviving to feel much fear."
"I can see how that can be." She arched an eyebrow. "And have you been through a metaphorical storm?"
He leaned on the balustrade, his arm brushing hers and an electric thrill ran through her. "You mean of the kind that'll blow up should we begin a relationship?"
"Should?" she asked lightly, staring at him. "My father won't allow it."
He met her gaze squarely. "But would you? No one ever called me a coward, afloat or ashore. You're a Grafin and I a mere lieutenant; but I wish to court you, Ursula. With all due respect to your father, the only thing that will stop me is your refusal of my intentions."
"Why ever should I refuse?" she asked mildly. Leaning close she kissed him.
* * *
Paul Ehrgeiziger sat reading a broadsheet by lamplight in the room he'd been given within the barracks. Naturally right-handed he was finding it awkward to turn the pages with his left but he persevered. The newspaper was full of news of impending war, the coming visit of Reich Duke Wilhelm von Beerstein, and the arrival of Signore Goffredo Tedesco, the Cavendarian ambassador after a long journey delayed by bad weather. It also had the latest facts about the death of his erstwhile master, Margaf Hermann. Even allowing for the sensationalist inclinations of the journalist there was much that surprised him in the latter report.
A knock on the door brought him out of his contemplation. "Come!"
A barrack room servant entered. "There's a message for you, Herr Baron."
The man proffered a small envelope formed in the usual way by folding the letter diagonally and sealing it. Paul frowned and took it. Rewarding the man with a pfennig he waited until he had left the room before examining the unexpected message. The red wax seal bore the imprint of either a duck or a swan. He squinted at it, but the signet that had made the impression had been too worn to reproduce much detail. He suspected the seal had been tampered with but the signs were too faint to be sure. Sighing he slit open the envelope and read the contents.
Doktor Hölzerner-Kopf presents his compliments to a fellow countryman. He understands Baron Ehrgeiziger was recently injured and desires to offer his services as a physician. The Doktor may be reached at the Swan inn on Koenig Street.
"Hölzerner-Kopf, by God!" Paul swore softly and set the letter aside. It's typical of that sly villain to write in the third person so. What does he want? Ah, useless to speculate! Do I dare reply? The Good Lord knows I have enough troubling my conscience now!
* * *
Ursula and Horatio returned to the ballroom and found Mary Amadeus standing near the French doors. "I think we've worn out our welcome here," she hissed.
"Let the scandalmongers wag their tongues!" Ursula snapped, glaring around. "From what I hear many a fine personage in this room has much more on their conscience than Horatio or I!"
She saw her father heading their way, cleaving through the assembled guests like a ship of the line through a high sea. Had the Archbishop been a warship his gun-ports would have been open, battle pennants flying and the drums beating to quarters.
"Oh dear!" Ursula sighed. "My friends, it's time to take your leave. I'll handle father, and we'll meet up later. Um, did anyone ever find out where the Blue Parlor is?"
Before either could reply the colonel was suddenly standing before them. They looked up in surprise. He slapped Horatio across the face with a white kid glove and flung it at his feet. "You besmirch the good name of my cousin, you dog!" the colonel snarled. "For that you shall give me satisfaction!"