“Oh yes!” she said, hopping down and walking up to him. “I had worse trouble climbing over the convent wall.”
“Why did you – ” He stopped. “Do I really want to know?”
“Not really.” She took him in her arms and kissed him. “I may tell you someday, but for now, we have a boat to catch.”
They walked hand-in-hand down to the quayside and drew an odd look from the sentry guarding the brow as he came to attention. The crew was ready and waiting and their commander’s companion excited a number of nudges and knowing winks among them. “I’ll lay schillings to a slice of stollen that someone’s running a book on you coming aboard,” Horatio whispered.
Ursula winked. Her eyes glowed and she seemed in suppressed high spirits. “No doubt.”
“Good morning, sir,” Midshipman Steiner said, coming forward, his eyes fixed on Ursula. “Is all well?”
“Very well indeed, Steiner.” Horatio slipped his arm around Ursula’s waist. “The Grafin will accompany us on our voyage back to Viehdorf. Are the men rested?”
Steiner’s face was wooden. “Rested and fed, sir.”
“Very good. We will get under way.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
“Let go forward!” Horatio called. Up forward the harbor watch slipped the hawsers. “Let go aft!” A splash announced the stern hawser was free. Men boomed off from the quayside and the oars emerged from their ports as Acheron moved out into the flow. “Helm, steer for the arch and take us downriver. Mr. Steiner, you have the deck. The Grafin and I are going below.”
*Ursula led the way below, her heart beginning to beat with anticipation, each pulse strong and hard in her breast. She knew the way to Horatio’s cabin and they went there now, hand in hand, silent. She opened the door, entered. Moonlight came through the stern windows and flooded the small, plain cabin with silver and deep shadows. She looked at his cot, set athwart ships under the stern-lights, and her head swam with expectancy. My first time!
He closed the door behind him and stood there, leaning on it as he gazed at her. “You could sleep alone in here, you know,” he said quietly. “I can take Steiner’s cabin. It would preserve your reputation.”
“So formal!” She gave him a sad smile. “My dear, I don’t think I have much of a reputation left…” Slipping into his embrace she kissed him then held him close, feeling his warmth, his heart beating as hard as her own. “I burnt my bridges the moment I defied my father’s authority.” She shook her head. “I love him, but what he plans is not for me.”
He stroked her hair, which was growing wild now she had escaped the attention of the maids for more than a few hours. She looked up at him, and they kissed, slowly at first then with passion. “I love you!” she murmured, drawing back for a moment.
His gaze was intense. “And I love you!”
“Oh, my dear --!”
He cast off his uniform coat and sword belt, the expensive sword of honor clattering to the deck. Ursula began to unbutton his shirt, giggling at the novelty, the way her fingers slipped and fumbled in her excitement. Pulling it open she ran her hands over his broad chest, feeling the dark hair brushing her palms, the sheer warmth of his skin. And then he was undoing her buttons, his long sensitive fingers popping them open from top to bottom. She stood trembling, head tilted back, eyes closed, her hands resting lightly on his hips until she felt the last button give way. Her senses were hyper-attuned, every little motion and movement her lover made flared brightly in her mind. A sudden coolness flowed over her skin as her shirt fell away then Horatio was caressing and kissing her where no man had ever kissed or caressed. She cradled his head, stroking his curly brown hair, sighing and murmuring sweet nonsense words as his lips and tongue stoked her fires higher and higher.
Of one accord they moved to the cot, laid down, undressed. With the moonlight streaming down and water chuckling beneath Acheron’s hull, Ursula and Horatio made love long into the night.
* * *It seemed all Kimmelsbrücke had turned out to greet His Grace Duke Karl of Hetzenberg. They raised the echoes with their cheers as he rode his fine thoroughbred stallion Achilles through the Wohl Gate at the head of a body of courtiers and ambassadors from foreign realms. The guards from Infantry Regiment Krancke and the militia struggled to hold the crowd back as Karl rode through the streets with head held high, acknowledging their open delight, feeling a deep glow of pure happiness. A tidy victory, the enemy on the run, awards and honors to be bestowed – and the prospect of meeting this mysterious niece of mine for the first time! This is a day to cherish!
A sizable delegation was gathered to greet him in the courtyard of the Bishop’s Palace, Chancellor Count Ostenberg and his brother Wolfram to the fore. “Well met, Your Grace!” Ostenberg cried as Karl dismounted and a groom hurried forward to take charge of Achilles. He and Ostenberg exchanged bows. “Give you joy of the victory, sire!”
“I thank you most warmly, Chancellor,” Karl said and turned to his brother.
"Give you joy also, Your Grace,” Wolfram murmured as they embraced.
“Thank you.” Karl held him at arms’ length and gazed at him. “Something is amiss with you, brother? Don’t deny it; I know you too well.”
“Ursula has eloped.”
Karl blinked. “With whom?”
“He is a young naval officer who earned distinction in rescuing her.” Wolfram looked gloomy. “It appears he quite turned her head!”
"How shocking!" Karl hid a smile behind an expression of deep gravity. “That is unfortunate indeed! I collect the young man’s name is Lieutenant Horatio Horngebläse?”
“The same.” Wolfram boiled with suppressed fury and Karl had to look away or burst out laughing. Now, isn’t that all of a pattern with what I know of the young hellcat?
“It may mollify you to know the Reich Duke of Beerstein has awarded the young hothead the Order of the Goblet, a most prestigious award for someone so young.”
“The Reich Duke’s ambassador is here to present it, along with the Order of the Crown to our most excellent General Rauppen-Schlepper for his recent victory.” He gestured to his breast, where hung an ornate and heavy honor. “Not only that but I have received the Grand Star of the Order of Neues Sudland.” He clapped his brother on the shoulder and steered him toward the doors of the palace. “Be of good cheer if you can, Wolfram. This is a day for celebration!”
“What do you intend to do?” Wolfram asked with a gallows smile as they walked inside.
“I shall ride north and join the army. The Reich Duke’s ambassador will award Rupert with his Order then we’ll chase the Gravies off our land.”
Wolfram looked at Karl askance. “Gravies, brother? Surely you too have not fallen into using the vernacular?”
Karl smiled. “It’s an easy term to remember.” They came to the chamber set aside for their deliberations. Karl waited until the Chancellor and his closest advisors had entered and shut the door before getting to the meat of the matter.
“Gentlemen, we shall squeeze the juice out of what’s left of the Margraf’s army then carry the war onto his soil. The rest of the army is a day’s march behind me. It includes the Guard and the siege train. They should arrive here by nightfall tomorrow. I intend to invade the Margravate and lay siege to Randstadt. With most of his army battered and chased away far to the north, the Margraf will be hard-pressed to defend it for long.”
“With Randstadt in our possession we can push the border east to a more secure and defensible line,” Wolfram murmured, thinking it through.
“Precisely.” Karl smiled. “The Eisenwasser Valley shall be ours!”
A knock on the door heralded a messenger. Uttering a quick explanation he thrust a piece of paper in Count Ostenberg’s hand. The Count dismissed the man and glanced at the paper. He frowned. “What news, Chancellor?” Karl asked.
Ostenberg handed him the paper. “It seems our ambassador to the Principality of Morea has been murdered...