“Neither man looks especially happy to be here,” Ostenberg commented quietly.
“With good cause!” Karl sneered as they waited for the men to approach.
“Your Grace,” they murmured, making their bows. He responded with a cool nod. Bummeln-Störrisch in particular seemed to have a sheen of perspiration on his glabrous face in spite of the cool breeze that stirred.
“Gentlemen. I’m glad to see you.” He consulted his fob watch and snapped the cover closed. The Barons followed his movements with watchful eyes, knowing they were in disgrace and wondering when the axe would fall – perhaps literally. “The hour presses and I have an invasion to supervise.” He smiled and they seemed to relax slightly. I’ll allow them a brief moment. Now…
He glared at them. “You are guilty of treasonous correspondence with the enemy, namely the Margraf and Dowager Margrafin of Dunkeldorf-Pfuhl.” When they made to protest he held up his hand. “Be silent! I think you were of the opinion that you were serving our country best by doing so, perhaps out of a sense of misguided patriotism.”
“We exist only to serve, Your Grace!” Bummeln-Störrisch expostulated. His sweating was growing worse.
“Good. That’s very good.” Karl paced slowly up and down before them, his head bowed, hands behind his back. Count Ostenberg stood quietly, watching. It’s all theatrics, Karl thought. He’d made up his mind what to do the day before.
“It occurs to me that Hetzenberg has failed to stretch your activities and talents to their full capacities. You felt bored, and inclined to make mischief.”
“Your Grace -!”
Karl held up his hand. “Quiet! Idle hands make the Devil’s work, so they say. I shall ensure you are both kept very busy serving our nation in a useful capacity.”
“We exist only to serve, Your Grace!” Zögernsie cried, echoing his companion. Karl knew in the close questioning that had followed their arrest Zögernsie had proved the weaker of the two conspirators. Ostenberg hadn’t needed to apply much pressure there.
Karl gestured and his aide brought forward a Bible. “Barons Zögernsie and Bummeln-Störrisch,” Karl intoned, “you will lay your hand upon the Bible in turn and swear fealty to myself, my family and Hetzenberg, for as long as you do live. If either of you refuse or recant you can expect no clemency, I do assure you.”
Gray-faced and sweating, Bummeln-Störrisch laid his hand upon the Book and swore his oath. Baron Zögernsie followed suit with pathetic eagerness. The aide bowed to Karl and withdrew. “Good. Now that has been settled it remains for me to assign you duties suitable to your rank. Of course, sadly, your positions in my Grand Council are now forfeit; but I have something in mind which will be commensurate with those.”
Ostenberg stepped forward, bearing two rolls of vellum. Karl took them and studied the attached wafers and handed one roll to each man. “These are your Ambassadorial credentials.
They gaped. Karl hid a smile. “Baron Bummeln-Störrisch, I wish you to take up the position of Ambassador to the Principality of Morea so recently and tragically vacated by the late Baron Tapfer.”
Bummeln-Störrisch turned a distinct shade of green. “Cheer up!” Karl said, clapping him on the shoulder. “It’s a fine, civilized country. Of course, there has been a great deal of troublesome, indeed murderous banditry in the region, not to mention piracy on the high seas. I’m sure you’ll make a full and close investigation and report accordingly.”
“Your Grace is too kind!” Bummeln-Störrisch muttered.
“Baron Zögernsie, a nice position in the Holy Mormoan Kingdom of New South Wales awaits you. It’s true the country can only be reached by a long and arduous sea journey, but again, they are a fine, civilized nation.
“Both of you will serve your country well, and in five years perhaps, we shall see about reinstating you here at home.” Both men looked dumbstruck but Karl ignored their expressions and continued. “You will of course bear the awards and honors which I have bestowed upon my fellow sovereigns and behave yourselves as befits the representatives of our realm. You will be granted twenty-four hours in which to set your affairs in order and then you will leave. That is all. Good day to you, gentlemen.”
They bowed and departed, again under guard. “Was I too kind to them, do you think?” Karl murmured.
Ostenberg rubbed his jaw. “I think not, Your Grace. For all the reputed charms of its sovereign, Morea is no sinecure, and New South Wales is very far away. A good distance between those two fellows and our realm can only be to our advantage too.”
“I’m glad you agree. You’ll have someone within their staffs keeping an eye on their activities?”
“Of course.” Ostenberg’s smile would not have looked out of place on a shark’s face.
Karl rubbed his hands. “Then I shall take horse and lead my army on to more pleasurable activities.” As they walked out of the garden Karl looked up at the clearing skies. “I wonder how my brother is faring?”
* * *
Ursula bowed as her father rode up. “Father.”
“Daughter.” He reined in and sat on his horse for a moment, looking down at her. He’s always been fit for his age. No carriage for him if he can avoid it. She eyed him carefully, trying to gauge just how much trouble she was in.
The Archbishop dismounted and one of his troopers took the reins. “Is this where you’re staying?” he asked, looking at the cottage.
“I share it with Mary Amadeus, father.”
“Then we shall go inside.”
Mary was sitting at a desk, sucking the end of her quill and studying a sheet of paper. “…and three gallons of prussic acid, to be conveyed in one gallon carboys.” She looked up and sprang to her feet as the Archbishop followed Ursula into the room. “Oh!”
He held up a hand. “Pray do not get up, Sis – er…” He frowned at her appearance. “Lieutenant. As Ursula’s friend what I have to say to her will be of interest to you.”
“Your Grace,” Mary A muttered, looking sidelong at Ursula.
He shed his riding cloak and stood before the hearth, looking at them from beneath lowering brows. “You decided to vote with your feet and elope, child. Is that not so?”
“I did, father,” Ursula replied, her chin coming up in what Mary recognized as her fighting mode.
“Is your intended nearby?”
“He went to attend upon his captain. Father -”
“You wish to marry this Lieutenant?”
“I do!” Her cheeks colored. “We were thinking of asking Captain Creighton to perform a ceremony aboard the Acheron. As captain of a vessel he has that right.”
Her father stared at her for a long moment then rubbed his nose. “Actually, he doesn’t. The traditional right of captains to perform marriages extends only to ocean-going vessels.”
Ursula looked crestfallen but still defiant. “I won’t marry anyone else!” she said fiercely.
Suddenly the Archbishop smiled. “I wouldn’t ask it of you, child.”
Ursula blinked. “What?”
He shook his head in wonder. “Since you came of age your exploits have never ceased to amaze me. If I tried to tie you to some foreign prince you’d set the whole of Urope ablaze in an effort to have your own way. No, if you choose to marry Lieutenant Horngebläse I’ll not stand in your way. In fact, although the captain cannot marry the pair of you, I can – and, with your consent, shall.”