Saturday, 14 February 2009
Palace interlude - 2
The Bishop's palace was huge, something Ursula and Mary Amadeus turned to their advantage in eluding the ladies of the court. They moved from room to room, ducked down corridors and galleries, sped through servants' wings, and kitchens redolent with delicious smells and fierce heat. Occasionally they'd catch a glimpse of distant, questing figures in court dress, or servants with an anxious look, but avoided being spotted. Mary Amadeus had developed a surprising turn of speed for a nun soon after her interest in all things explosive had turned to practical experimentation. It had kept her alive. Now it came in useful when accelerating away from pursuers.
"This place is a bloody labyrinth!" Ursula exclaimed. "Where's Ariadne when you need her?"
Eventually they fetched up in a small cozy room between the great towers overlooking the river. "This is more like it," Ursula said looking round. "It's a better version of Abbess Hilda's private parlor under the tower back at the convent. I wonder whose it is."
"I don't care!" Mary sighed as she sank into a chair. "I'm glad we can stop hurrying for a while."
Ursula ruffled her hair then sat down. "You did much better than I expected, dear Mary A. All the dashing about we've done this last week has made us both fitter than we were."
"I think so. I feel the better for it."
"We can take a breather away from those twittering ninnies and take stock of what's happened and what we do next."
Mary produced her letter. "Philip did send me this," she said.
Ursula took and read the letter. "Oh my! He invited you to an assignation!"
"Yes!" Mary felt her face grow hot and the delicious warm glow filled her heart once more, but she felt troubled all the same. "I've no idea what to do – if I do anything at all. I'm still a nun; it wouldn't be right."
"Actually, that won't be much of a problem for you. My father told me he'd be quite happy to dissolve your vows, should you request it."
"Did he say anything about saving the abbey a heap of repair bills?"
"Ooh, you cynic!"
Mary smiled sadly and shrugged. "I know I cost the Church a pretty pfennig in my time."
Ursula reached over and squeezed her hand. "Yes, he did mention repair bills." She frowned. "He would have said much more, had I given him the chance. I'm afraid I was rather cheeky to him."
Ursula leaned back in the chair with her hands across her stomach and thrust her feet out. "I'm frustrated at returning to this world, I suppose. I've been here less than a day and already I feel stifled."
"I know what you mean. We were being chased back in the Margravate, but at least we were free."
"Yes. I can't say I'm proud of my behavior toward father. I'll have to apologize in some way, without being caught by the court ladies and being killed by sheer social vapidity." Ursula stared out the window, lost in thought for a moment then shook herself and smiled. "But enough of that. I think you should go see my father today and get that dissolution signed and sealed. Then you can go see Cousin Philip with a clear conscience."
"Well, it won't be that clear," Mary murmured. "Meeting him alone is rather risqué, don't you think?"
"I'll come with you as chaperone if you wish," Ursula shrugged, "although Philip doesn't strike me as the seductive type."
"No, he's nice, but I suppose proprieties have to be observed."
Ursula gave her a lazy smile. "I may ask you to do the same for me, when I meet Horatio again!"
"Certainly, my dear. I wonder where the Blue Parlor is located."
Before Ursula could reply they heard footsteps climbing the stairs toward their room. As one they got up and hastened into a small side chamber, where Ursula took the key and locked the door from the inside. They waited with baited breath for the footsteps to pass. "It could be someone looking after the great clocks higher up," Ursula said.
"I hope so."
But the door to the parlor opened and they heard people enter. "This is a likely spot," someone said in a patrician accent. "Try that door, my dear fellow."
Someone approached the door to where they hid and both women held their breath. The handle rattled. "Locked."
"Good. Sit down, and let us talk."
Chairs scraped. "D' you know, I'm sure I can smell perfume." Ursula grimaced.
"And this chair feels warm."
"So does this one. I dare say one of the ladies from the court had an assignation in here." The tone was jocular.
"I hope she doesn't come back!"
"Oh no. They're chasing the Archbishop's brat."
Mary Amadeus grabbed Ursula's arm as she stiffened with outrage.
"That'll keep them occupied for a while. We can talk in peace."
"Who is it?" Mary mouthed.
Ursula put her lips close to her ear to whisper. "The one with the deeper voice is Baron Zögernsie; I don't know the other."
The voices continued. "I received some reports en-route, including that of an engagement with Margravate forces upriver, but nothing since."
"Then I can supply some further details, my dear Baron," Zögernsie said. "The Archbishop's daughter successfully escaped the hands of the new Margraf, Heinrich, and reached the Eisenwasser. Somehow she smuggled a message to us asking for rescue. That meddling idiot Creighton used his initiative to send one of our gunboats to collect her from a riverside village on the Margravate shore. It appears a troop of the Margraf's gendarmes were on her trail and the gunboat engaged them in the course of the mission."
"Which was a success," the other speaker said in a flat tone.
"Which was a success. The girl was brought off, along with her friend and our spy, that fellow Beckenbaur. He was wounded in the action."
"A pity the stupid girl didn't stay where she was. The whole situation would have been better for all concerned."
Mary hugged Ursula hard. Her friend's face had taken on a highly dangerous expression. "Easy, my dear!" she hissed.
"Did you hear something?" the speaker asked.
"Yes," Zögernsie replied. "Don't worry. It could be mice, or the remnants of snow sliding off the roof."
"I should add that two of the Margraf's officers were captured in the course of the mission. One was a gunboat commander, quickly exchanged, but the other is none other than Baron Ehrgeiziger."
"Ehrgeiziger? The head of the Sicherheits-Büro in Randstadt?"
"The same. It seems his new master promoted him, and he's a parolee in the town as we speak."
A silence followed in which Mary struggled successfully to calm her friend.
"Interesting," the other speaker said at last. "You think we can make use of his presence here?"
"Oh yes. It appears our message to the old Margraf went sadly astray upon his unfortunate demise, but Ehrgeiziger offers us another channel of communication to his successor."
"Good. We must make use of it. I want the new Margraf to know he has friends within the Hetzenberg court."
"I shall set matters in hand at once."
"Please do so. And now I see the time has wended on, and I must attend this afternoon's soiree. Such a bore!"
"Indeed. Shall we go?"
Chairs scraped, and nothing more was said in the other room. The women heard the outer door close and silence fell, to be broken by Ursula's soft growl. "Those treasonous dogs!"
"They were stupid!" Mary said, unlocking the door and peering out. "I mean, they could smell your perfume, and could feel the chairs we sat on were warm, yet they didn't put two-and-two together and realize we could be in here?"
"We could put that to our advantage!" Ursula said, following her out into the room.
"I wonder who the other man was."
"I don't know, but I intend to find out! The 'Archbishop's brat,' am I?" Ursula's eyes glittered dangerously. "I'll make him eat his words!"