“I don’t intend to do this more than once in my life, sir,” Horatio muttered, adjusting his stock.
“Nor did I,” came the gnomic reply.
Before Horatio could respond there was a knock and the Dean of the Cathedral popped his head around the door. “Would you come this way, Commander, Captain. The bride approaches.”
Horatio stood up and tugged his fine new dress uniform coat into place. Creighton stowed away the hip flask and eyed him critically. He reached out and tugged the Sword of Honor to a better hang, and nodded. “Very presentable. You’ll not disgrace the flotilla, Horatio.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Thank you for selecting me as your best man,” Creighton said, his voice gruff.
Horatio smiled. “My pleasure, sir.”
They followed the Dean into the body of the great cathedral. The magnificent Gothic architecture soared above, a paean in golden limestone. Great church candles burned and the air was heavy with their scent. The Dean led Horatio and Creighton to the front of the leftmost row of pews. He saw the Ducal party and their guests in the private box, over near the lady chapel. Archbishop Wolfram was missing. He would be down by the door, ready to greet his daughter and escort her up the nave. Horatio resisted the urge to fidget with his neck stock. Warfare is ninety percent boredom and ten percent action, he thought. With Ursula, it tends to be the other way around…
“Why?” Ursula asked, waving to the crowd.
“Bugger that! I haven’t got time to waste.” Ursula leaned forward and tapped the driver’s shoulder. “Straight to the steps, please!”
Mary rolled her eyes but held her peace. It’s nothing short of a miracle to get Ursula this far. To expect her to behave completely would be beyond even the Lord’s abilities to control.
The bridal phaeton drew up and footmen sprang down to assist the not-really-blushing bride and her Maid of Honor. Ursula had fought off all attempts by Grand Duchess Irma’s ladies in waiting to impose panniers, bustles, hoops, or any other kind of impedimenta upon her. “I might want to cut and run, and all that stuff will only slow me down,” she’d told Mary.
I think she was joking… Mary thought, wondering if there was a fast horse hidden somewhere close by as Ursula stepped down in a deep blue dress with very modest skirts, no train and a lacy shawl.
Archbishop Wolfram appeared at the top of the cathedral steps, looking magnificent in his vestments. His guard crashed to attention, contriving to look even more stiff and formal. Wolfram watched and waited, a slight smile on his face as Ursula ascended the steps, Mary by her side. “It’s good of you to come, daughter,” he murmured, leaning close to peck her on the cheek.
“Did you doubt me?” she asked, shooting him a glance.
“A little. I was only going on past experience.” He looked her all over and his habitually hard expression softened. “You look beautiful! Are you nervous?” he asked, taking her right hand and placing it in the crook of his elbow.
“No more than you are, father.”
“Then let’s go in.”
The great organ struck up Zinnical’s Wedding March in A sharp as Ursula began the stately walk up the nave, her father by her side. The congregation rose and turned to smile upon her as she passed by, but her eyes were fixed on the tall, slim figure of her groom, standing there at the head of the nave, his handsome face aglow with delight and pride. I may just be able to do this! She thought.
Her father formally gave her hand to Horatio with a slight bow before taking his place before them. He cleared his throat as they took their places in front of him. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…”
Horatio forbore to comment, leading her instead down to where the phaeton waited. Only…
“What’s this?” he laughed.
Where the horses should be was the entire company of Acheron, dressed in their finest blues with white hats, all holding man ropes attached to the vehicle and grinning up at his surprise with open delight. Midshipman Steiner stepped forward and saluted. “The men thought it’d be more appropriate for them to tow you both through the town to the feast, sir.”
Horatio laughed and clapped him on the arm. “A wonderful idea! Thank you, men!” he called.
Ursula pecked Steiner on the cheek, raising a blush there. “It was a very thoughtful and lovely gesture.”
“You’re very welcome, ma’am – Excellency.”
“Ursula. Thank you all!” she called to the men and they cheered.
The bride and groom mounted the phaeton and at the bosun’s call the men took up the slack on the man ropes. “Let go all! Full ahead!”
With the thunder of feet and the rattle of wheels, the phaeton surged away from the cathedral steps and through the lane kept open by the local militia. As the cheers resounded and flower petals flew, Ursula and Horatio set off for their first meal as a married couple.
When all was ready the orchestra struck up Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. As the music soared into the warm night air the grand firework display began with a fountain of silvery-white light from an array of Roman candles, interspersed with the noble crimson of Bengal fires. Everyone Ooh’d and Aah’d at the sight, then Ooh’d again as a battery of rockets soared into the dark heavens to burst in great sprays of red, white and blue. Grand Duke Karl and his guests watched entranced from the VIP dais. Reich Duke Wilhelm murmured “Magnificent!” King Basil of the Romans stared entranced as the long labors of the fireworkers bore fruit. Graf Philip stood quietly by, his hands behind his back, enjoying the favorable reactions from the guests as much as he did the display he’d helped shape.
Fires and sprays in every hue and shade burst and flickered, rendering the warm, still evening a riot of light and sound. Ursula cuddled up close to Horatio and enjoyed the show. But after a while she became aware someone was missing. She looked around. “Where’s Mary A?”
Horatio swept the park with his gaze, perhaps more accustomed than Ursula at spotting things in the dark. He pointed. “She’s over there with her father, on top of that pavilion!”
“What on earth are they doing up there?” Ursula shaded her eyes from a burst of yellow fire. “And what on earth is that she has in front of her?”
Horatio frowned. “It looks like an astrolabe mounted on a tripod.”
“Why would she want that?”
“You’re asking the wrong person, my love. But knowing Mary, she’ll have some scientific purpose in mind.”
With Mary Amadeus’ whereabouts settled, even if her purpose was still hidden, they returned their attention to the great display. It was nearing its climax.
Philip wandered away from the Ducal party and made for an avenue shaded by hedges. It led him around to the rear of the display where his select team of fireworkers was busy. Their foreman saw him and saluted. “All ready, Excellency!” he beamed.
“Wonderful!” Philip listened to the music. After a few minutes he nodded. “There’s the cue! Drop the screens and clear the area.”
The foreman hastened to his task and Philip hurried back to the dais. I do not want to miss this!
Up on the flat balustraded roof of the pavilion Mary Amadeus listened to the music. Her father consulted his fob watch and nodded. “Now’s the moment, daughter dear.”
Mary looked over to the display. Behind the racks of Roman candles and other fireworks stood a row of wooden screens faced with polished tin sheeting. She knew most folks who saw the screens assumed them to be a clever means of protecting delicate parkland shrubs from the fires whilst also reflecting the light to better effect. Now, as she watched, the music rose to a climax and the screens dropped.
The reaction of surprise among noble and commoner alike was the same. She grinned as her pride and joy was revealed to the world. Three huge rockets stood there on ironclad gantries, each missile taller than a man and separated from the other by fifty yards. Much like a beer bottle, their lower two-thirds were broader than the upper third. Their tips were pointed and seemed to menace the very heavens.
A flickering light showed briefly around the gantries. “That’ll be the quick-match,” her father said, peering closely. “Timing now.” Mary nodded, and stooped to adjust the astrolabe.
Fire flared around the base of each mighty rocket. An immense roar drowned out the orchestra and they squeaked and groaned to an amazed stop. The ground began to tremble and as one the Ducal party stepped back, prepared to run. A good three hundred yards separated them from the display but everyone had the feeling it wouldn’t be far enough should something go wrong with the rockets. Philip stood his ground, hands behind his back, watching with a peaceful smile.
The three rockets rose slowly, borne aloft on great yellow-white pillars of flame. They rose slowly, it’s true, but each gave off an aura of immense power. “T-minus three seconds,” Mary’s father shouted over the roar.
“They’re clearing the treetops,” she replied, adjusting the screw on the instrument.
“T-minus five seconds!”
“They’ve cleared the height of the cathedral spire.”
Everyone watched open-mouthed as the great missiles rose higher and higher, flooding the city and the surrounding countryside for miles around with light and sound.
Mary followed the line of flight. “Tracking eastward, still accelerating.”
As the rockets rose the sound decreased. “The wind must be a little stronger up there,” her father said in a conversational voice. “T-minus twenty seconds.”
“First stage separation in five, four, three, two, one – “
Three puffs of yellow fire appeared around the necks of the rapidly disappearing rockets. The big first stages tumbled, glowing, to earth, traveling faster and faster as gravity claimed them. Mary was unworried. “They’ll fall to earth in the marshes beyond the river. I have some men out there watching for them.”
The second stages shot higher and higher, challenging the rind of the new moon. Mary tracked them. “Detonation in five, four, three, two, one…”
Three immense clouds of colored fire filled the sky with purple, blue and green, the national colors of Hetzenberg. The heavens resounded with the triple explosions and faint echoes reverberated off the mountains. Citizens for miles around who were out that evening looked, listened and cheered.
“In hoc signo, vincit,” Philip murmured, staring upward with a beatific smile.