One maid dared her wrath by reappearing with a message from the Archbishop, left there earlier in the day while she was absent. Ursula snatched it from the woman and slit open the seal. The note was terse.
“My dear daughter, you will oblige me by attending upon my offices as soon as you read this note, no matter what the hour. There is news of great import to your future welfare that I wish to convey to you. As an aside I do not like to be kept waiting. With love, Your Father.”
She tapped it on the palm of her hand for a while then went in search of her maids. “Would the Archbishop still be awake at this hour?” she asked, glancing at the clock.
“Yes, Mistress,” one replied. “The news of the victory set everyone astir, and the Archbishop is working on the ramifications even now. It’s said we can expect a visit from the Grand Duke himself at any time!”
“Really?” Ursula had never met her uncle, although she was charitable enough to hope Philip’s good nature sprung from his father. “I suppose I’d better go find my father.” She thought of the labyrinthine complexity of the palace. “And one of you had better show me the way!”
*Ten minutes of steady walking later and Ursula arrived at the office used by her father. All the time his phrase there is news of great import to your future welfare that I wish to convey to you ran through her mind. I don’t like the sound of that!
As the center of an important diocese the palace kept late hours as a matter of course, but this night saw a greater bustle with a strong undercurrent of satisfaction. Her father greeted her with a warm smile when he saw her and she curtseyed to him, her spirits lifting slightly.
“It’s good to see you, child!” he said, embracing her.
“I came as soon as I could, father. My friend was wounded and near to death, so I attended upon him. I’m glad to say he’s recovering now.”
“That was a generous and Christian act, my girl.”
She shrugged. “It was the least I could do. Without him, I’d still be a prisoner of the Margaf.”
“Indeed.” The Archbishop was dressed in the informal garb of a cleric of his stature, although it had an air of genteel shabbiness as if it had been well-worn for years. He picked up a paper, glanced at it with a distracted air, and set it down. “It has occurred to me that your unwed status remains a source of potential trouble within the realm and a point of contention with our neighbor. My brother, the Grand Duke shall be here tomorrow. He will be accompanied by a number of ambassadors from friendly states. I intend to consult with him on taking the opportunity of their presence to seek out a suitable match for you.”
Ursula’s heart gave a lurch. “What?”
A crease appeared between her father’s brows, a phenomenon that she herself shared when vexed. “Ursula, you must realize your days of gallivanting around playing secret agent are over! You are of an age where most of your contemporaries of rank have long since been married.”
“Do my feelings not come into this? I just happen to love Horatio Horngebläse!”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous!” he snapped. “You, wed to a mere lieutenant?” He waved a hand in dismissal. “Yes, he’s covered himself in distinction; but he really cannot be contemplated as a suitable match for you!” He shook his head. “No, you shall be married to a prince of another realm, and that marriage shall cement relations between our two states. Thus it has always been, and so it shall always be!”
“I really must object, father!” She stormed, her headache pounding harder by the minute. “This is the Age of Reason! Marrying me off to some fat foreign potentate with horrible manners is positively mediaeval!”
He raised his eyes to heaven, as if seeking divine guidance. “Ursula, the needs of the state far outweighs even our needs. Most nations require a steady line of succession. You must’ve gained knowledge of international affairs through your recent work. You’ve surely witnessed the way nations come into conflict because an inheritance has come into dispute.” He took a deep breath. “Please, child, do your duty to our nation. Marry whomever your uncle and I select for you and go in peace. If Lieutenant Horngebläse is so important to you, it may be that we can have him assigned as naval attaché to the realm you marry into. As long as you do your duty to your husband and produce an heir, you can conduct an affair with your young man. Most husbands of our rank will tolerate such providing you are both discreet.”
Ursula gaped at him. “I don’t believe I’m hearing this! You, a leader of the Church, would condone an affair?”
“Oh, grow up, Ursula!” he shouted. “It has always been the way! I keep trying to get the concept of duty to the state into your addled brain and yet you still refuse to grasp what I’m saying. It behooves us all to do things for the greater good. Some of those things we find distasteful, but that’s the way it is. Now, I’ve quite had enough of your willfulness tonight. I resent being forced to raise my voice. Please return to your chambers and we shall hear no more about this until your Uncle arrives.”
Ursula curtseyed in a slow and deliberate manner, turned on her heel and left the room with a sweep of her skirts. We’ll see about that!
* * *It was close to midnight by the time Acheron reached Kimmelsbrücke. With the threat of enemy action removed Horatio was able to catch some sleep in his cabin during the voyage. He was therefore quite awake as they swung into their berth. Midshipman Steiner from the late Styx had taken Kurt’s place. Horatio ordered him to let the men rest while he himself went to find suitable barges to recover the wounded from Viehdorf.
The barge captains were surly to begin with, resentful at being kept waiting for valuable cargoes while the river was cleared; but they soon understood the import of Horatio’s request and got to work with a will. The mention of compensation guaranteed by the state worked as a sweetener. As he negotiated, ever and anon Horatio’s thoughts strayed to the great palace on the hill and the special person within. As he watched the barges swing out into the stream on the start of their journey downriver he mulled over the order not to tarry in town given him by Captain Creighton. “I’ve never disobeyed an order yet, but by God, this night I shall!” he said to the now-silent quayside. Tapping his tricorn firmly on his head, he set off up the street to the palace.
He was not too surprised to see the great building still abuzz with the excitement of victory. He was greeted by the officer of the watch, who shook his hand. “You and the flotilla played a great part in the victory, my friend!” the man said expansively. “Had it not been for you old General Rauppen-Schlepper would’ve faced a much greater task. Now the enemy’s beaten all he has to do is follow them up and see them off the premises.”
“I’m sure you exaggerate our deserts,” Horatio replied with a distracted smile.
“Nonsense, old chap! Come, have a glass of wine with me.”
Horatio held up his hand. “Alas, I must decline, for I am on the wing. I’m here to deliver a message then I must return to the flotilla.”
“Of course; of course. Do you know where to go in this infernal maze?”
“I’ve been here before. I think I can find my way.”
“Good luck to you then, my friend, and God send the navy more victories!”
*Conscious of the time Horatio walked swiftly through the maze of passageways, rooms and corridors, and reached Ursula’s suite at the same time she herself appeared. He looked at her with surprise and delight, mixed with concern at her heightened color and furious expression. “Hello!”
“Hello yourself!” The angry she-bear managed a smile instead of a snarl. “I’m surprised to see you, but delighted all the same.”
“What’s amiss?” he asked, glancing at the maid who accompanied her.
She took his arm and kissed him on the cheek. “I’ll tell you inside. Come!”
The maids were waiting up for her return. “Shoo!” she snapped. “I need a word with the Lieutenant in private!”
“But Mistress, you need a chaperone!” one protested.
“And you’ll get my boot up your backside if you don’t get out!” she retorted.
The women fled and Ursula collapsed onto a chaise-longue with an explosive sigh of relief. “Dear God! Horatio, dearest, I’m sorry to appear such a brute but I feel as if I’ve thrust my head into a hornets’ nest, what with all these ninnies buzzing around. My father really hasn’t helped matters.” She rubbed her forehead. “I’ve such a headache, too!”
Horatio looked at her with concern then poured a glass of wine from a carafe on a side table and silently handed it to her. He half expected her to swill it down in one gulp but she sipped it. He looked around and spotted a large bottle of eau de cologne and a cloth left on a bureau. Soaking the cloth in the ice-cold perfume he took it over to Ursula, knelt by her side and applied it to her forehead.
“Ooh! Bliss!” she sighed and cocked an eye at him. “Where did you ever learn to be so attentive on a woman?”
“Do you really want to know?” he grinned.
She shook her head. “You don’t fool me. You’re no ladies’ man!”
“But not for want of trying?” She waved a hand. “Never mind; I’m glad.” She took the cloth away long enough to pull his head down and kiss him. “I’m really glad to see you safe and well, my dear.”
“I’m all too glad to be here with you again.”
“You’re not needed downriver?”
“Not until morning. I came up to fetch some barges to convey the wounded safely to town.” He glanced at the clock. “I’m taking a liberty by being here with you at all. Captain Creighton was most specific about my not tarrying.”
“Ah.” She kissed him again, a much longer, lingering kiss. “It’s so good to see you, and just when I need comforting.”
“What’s happened to make you so furious?” She explained, the color rising in her cheeks once more. “Good God!” he said.
“Yes. I need to get away from here!”
He hesitated, thinking fast. “Acheron is moored at the quay…”
Ursula grinned. “Really!”
“Yes. How soon can you pack?”
She snorted. “I’m quite ready now!”
“You can’t leave by the main entrance or your father will hear and you’ll be fetched back.”
“There’s no other way out – or is there?”
She moved him aside gently, got up and walked to the tall windows that let onto a balcony. He followed her outside and they looked down. “I can climb down that,” she said, pointing at the stonework. “There are plenty of foot and handholds. You can head out the main doors; I’ll go out that side gate we used before and meet you at the statue to St. Ungulant on the road down to the quay.”
“You’ll have trouble doing anything so bold in those skirts,” he said, looking at her attire.
“Then the skirts will have to go.”
Ursula went back inside and disappeared into the adjoining room, which Horatio saw was a bedroom. He heard the sound of doors and drawers being pulled open. “I’ve got something here somewhere, if those wretched maids haven’t thrown it away – ah!”
She emerged bearing a pile of clothing which looked familiar to Horatio. “Isn’t that the man’s garb you were wearing when we rescued you?” he asked.
“Yes. At least the maids had these cleaned and pressed. They seem to like having things cleaned and pressed.”
To Horatio’s astonishment she began to undress, pulling at the rich cloth with uncaring haste. He hurriedly turned his back but realized he could see her reflected quite well in the window glass, with the dark night beyond. Oh well. I did try to be a gentleman, he thought, watching proceedings with interest. Ursula undressed, casting the dress and undergarments aside and seeming not to care whether he watched or not. “Men’s clothing is so much more practical!” she complained as she pulled the britches up her long legs and tucked the shirt into the waistband. “Why the hell do we women put up with skirts and corsets?”
“It’s an unjust world,” he said faintly.
“Isn’t it? I should be able to just walk away from all this without let or hindrance, but no…”
He watched her reflection as she pulled on her outdoor boots and stood up. “There, finished!”
He turned and grinned. Ursula grinned back as she sauntered up to him. “Can you imagine how dull life would be if we did what we were told all the time?” she asked, hugging him.
“Life with you will never be dull!” He said, gazing at her fondly.
She pulled his head down and gave him a long kiss. “I aim to make sure of that! Now,” she said, releasing her clasp and heading for the window, “I’ll make tracks. Throw those clothes into my room and shut the door. When you leave, tell those pests outside I’ve gone to bed and am not to be disturbed. See you by the Saint!”
With that, she clambered over the stone balustrade and disappeared from sight. Horatio gathered up her discarded clothes, grinning broadly. There may be trouble ahead, but with Ursula by my side I just don’t care!