*"What on Earth is that?" Philip exclaimed.
"Someone's in a rush," Ursula replied, helping Horatio to don his cloak.
"We'd better go and see," he said, wiping his face with a kerchief.
The friends walked across the dewy grass toward the gate, but Colonel Sleibnitz and his party were just ahead of them, some soldierly instinct awakened by the sound of hooves. The physician was trying to complete the dressing of the Colonel's wound but was waved off in peremptory fashion.
When they reached the gates whoever was riding the horses had passed, leaving the early-rising denizens of Kimmelsbrücke full of excited curiosity in their wake. Colonel Sleibnitz's driver was waiting impatiently by his horses. "What's amiss, fellow?" Sleibnitz called. "Who were those riders?"
The friends overheard the driver's reply. "They were couriers from the Rumtopft Dragoons, sir. They didn't stop but they were bound for the barracks."
"Then let us go thence." Sleibnitz turned and gave Philip and Ursula a cold correct bow. "It seems some kind of emergency has arisen, Excellencies. I thank you for your attendance this morning, but if you'll excuse me I shall have to be about my duties."
"Of course, Colonel," Philip replied and Sleibnitz and his party climbed aboard his coach.
As it rattled away Philip frowned after him and turned to the others. "If some crisis has arisen then we should return to the palace forthwith. A courier riding with such haste bodes ill." He managed a smile for Mary Amadeus. "I think we'd better see if the tailor can attend to you early this morning. It's seems likely to be a busy day."
"I'd like that," she replied, looking up into his face with calm content.
Ursula winked at Horatio and he grinned back.
* * *Paul Ehrgeiziger was strolling out of the barrack gates when two cavalry couriers in light blue uniforms pounded up the road, their mounts flecked with foam. He stepped back to let them pass, as did the sentries when the couriers shouted for immediate access. They slowed up as they disappeared through the gate and Paul stared after them, wondering what was afoot. The sentries resumed their phlegmatic stance, their eyes watching him. He briefly considered returning to his quarters in order to discover what the emergency was, but decided it could wait.
It's funny, but a lot of things seem less important now, he mused as he resumed his walk into the town. I feel so tired, not just because of the pain from this wound. Even this business with Hölzerner-Kopf is merely tiresome, a formality to be endured. I shall see what the fellow wants, in any case. His presence here at such a time does not bode well; but I really don't think I care any more.
He made his way through the awakening town to Koenig Street and the chambers rented by the doctor at the Swan inn. A maid showed him up to the sitting room and Paul kicked his heels for ten minutes until Hölzerner-Kopf deigned to appear from the room next door.
The Doctor was in a good mood from all appearances, removing a food-spotted napkin from around his neck as an afterthought calculated to show Paul exactly where he stood in his fellow agent's estimation. They shook hands without any real warmth, discussed the weather briefly, and Paul was wondering when the infuriating man would get to business when the tocsin began to ring from the town's belfries.
"You hear that, of course; the warning bells." Hölzerner-Kopf smiled as he poured two glasses of wine from a carafe. "It signifies all must be going well in our plans."
"Of course since your unfortunate capture you've been out of the loop." Hölzerner-Kopf handed Paul a glass and leaned back in his chair with a contented smile. "Then you should know that in the early hours of this morning our army was ferried across the Eisenwasser by means of pontoons constructed in secret up in the hills. I should say your earlier activities in clearing those woods of that pestilential bandit were of the highest use to the realm." He raised his glass in toast but his eyes glittered with contempt. "I thank you in the Margraf's name!"
Paul sat feeling stunned. Maybe I'm not so blasé about matters after all! "Our army is across the Eisenwasser?"
"Yes." Hölzerner-Kopf consulted his fob watch then stuffed it back in his weskit pocket. "At least the first regiments should be across and holding a bridgehead some fifteen miles below the town. When the rest is across they will have a wide area in which to maneuver before these clodhopping Hetzenbergers have woken up. With luck they will sweep the 'Bergers from the field and take this town within the week."
"What a remarkable turn of events!" Paul managed to say, feeling a sense of unreality.
"Indeed." Hölzerner-Kopf sipped more wine then set his glass aside. "I shall turn now to your part in this plan, Herr Baron."
Paul frowned. "My part? I am on parole, remember."
Hölzerner-Kopf brushed his objection aside. "That is of no consequence. You're an intelligence agent, not a soldier."
"What am I required to do, then?" Paul asked, narrowing his eyes.
"We have engaged an assassin to kill Reich Duke Wilhelm during his visit to Hetzenberg. The scandal of his demise whilst enjoying Hetzenberg hospitality will be a shattering blow to the reputation of Grand Duke Karl; one that will leave his entire realm off-balance, thus rendering it easier for us to achieve our aim."
This fool is serious! Paul thought, his skin crawling. But Hölzerner-Kopf was looking to the connecting door to the rest of his suite. "You may come in now, Kapitän!"
The door opened and there stood Kapitän Schwingen. Paul stared at him as he lumbered into the room. The former bandit's face, once good looking was now ravaged by the marks of torture. He moved with care, as if he was suffering some pain, a phenomena Paul knew all too well. "This is our assassin," Hölzerner-Kopf said in a cheerful voice. "I believe you know each other?"
"Of course," Paul said. Schwingen glared back, silent, his eyes full of hate.
"Of course you do. It was you who arrested him, was it not?" Hölzerner-Kopf reached up and patted Schwingen's arm. Paul noticed how the man flinched at the touch. "I took him into my care and made him see the sense of co-operating with us," Hölzerner-Kopf said and pointed to a corner. "Stand there and wait, Kapitän."
Schwingen moved awkwardly as he did as he was told and Paul felt revulsion at how the man's spirit had been broken.
Hölzerner-Kopf was all business, now. "Herr Baron, you and this gentleman are to travel with utmost dispatch to the Hetzenberg capital, there to carry out the assassination at a time best suited to the circumstances you encounter. Kapitän Schwingen has been promised a free and all-encompassing pardon should he succeed in his task. You, of course, will be sure to receive a just reward for your efforts in overseeing his work." His eyelid fluttered briefly. "This task is to begin immediately. Communicate with us in the usual way once completed. I shall be with the army in the field from now on." He rose to his feet and held out his hand. "Good luck – to you both!"
Paul stood and clasped Hölzerner-Kopf's hand, feeling sick to his stomach as he did so. Kapitän Schwingen stood silent in the corner, his head lowered, but Paul could feel his gaze boring into him.