Grand Duke Karl leaned on the table in the inn's principal upstairs parlor, studying the map and listening with half an ear to the sound of his army on the march. Every footfall passing beneath the window was a measure of success. Randstadt lay just three miles away from the commandeered inn. Occasional gusts of the mountain breeze carried the sound of musket volleys and artillery fire as the army's advance guard skirmished with the town's defenders. All in accordance with his plans. Now he could turn his attention to a pressing matter of diplomacy.
As if sensing his cue Count Ostenberg entered the room and the assembled aides and messengers made room for him. Karl looked up at his Chancellor and nodded. "What news?"
Ostenberg bowed. "Excellency, the King of Syldavia's messenger awaits outside to pay his respects and to convey a gift."
"The Kingdom of Syldavia..." Karl muttered. "Close by Morea, yes?"
"Just so, Your Excellency. The country is ruled by the Almazoutian dynasty. Their regime is conservative but friendly to the Imperial court."
Karl straightened up, wincing from a twinge in his back. "That's good news. Apart from the Principality of Morea we have scant representation in that region of Europe. Send the gentleman in."
Ostenberg went to the door and spoke to someone waiting outside. A short, swarthy man entered. He wore a uniform of exotic cut comprising baggy white pantaloons and gold- embroidered scarlet waistcoat over a tunic of peacock blue. A white silk turban fitted neatly on his close cropped black hair, and a saber in a bejewelled scabbard hung by his side. Black brogues of shiny leather clad his feet. He was followed by a slender youth in only slightly less fine apparel, bearing a red Morocco leather case.
As the man executed a bow a sparkling chelengk fixed to the turban threw shards of light around the room. Count Ostenberg, the model of polite diplomacy was nonplussed at the Syldavian emissary's Oriental splendour; but only one who knew him well could see it. Karl hid a smile as introductions were made.
"Your Excellency, may I present Colonel Gavrilio Aliolikos, the plenipotentiary of His Majesty the King of Syldavia."
Aliolikos executed another bow with his hand on his heart. "Most Excellent, I am honored by your reception of me at such a busy time for you."
He had a strong accent but his German was comprehensible. "Not at all, my dear sir," Karl said, inclining his head. "You are most welcome, and I'm sorry you had to seek me out here instead of finding me at my palace."
"I am not sorry to have such a chance to see your magnificent army on the march!" Aliolikos' face flushed and his eyes sparkled as he gestured to the window. "It is a glorious sight, and no soldier would wish to be anywhere else than with an army!"
"You are too kind," Karl murmured. Aliolikos is a most enthusiastic gentleman, it seems.
"Excuse my enthusiasm, Most Excellent," Aliolikos continued, again with that odd flush. "It is a pleasure to see real soldiering for a change." He did not expand on the comment, gesturing instead to his aide. The youth stepped forward with a bow and presented the case. Aliolikos opened the lid and drew out a splendid medallion hung upon a thick red ribbon. "My King has commanded me to award you with our Order of the Black Pelican as a gesture of friendship and peace."
Karl looked at the golden device emblazoned upon the black enamelled Maltese cross. "Thank you for this most exotic and regal Order, my dear sir. Allow me to reciprocate." On cue one of Karl's aides stepped forward with a case clad in black velvet. Karl took it and opened the lid. "Please present this award of our Freundshaft Order on my behalf to your gracious King as a gesture of amity and goodwill between our nations."
With the formalities over Karl decided it was time to cut to the chase. "My dear sir, you may inform your King that Hetzenberg will receive with the utmost pleasure any ambassador he chooses to appoint. We will appoint an ambassador to his court within the next few days, and perhaps you can make the journey to Syldavia together." He gestured to the window as an ammunition caisson rumbled by, shaking the floor. "With Europe in such turmoil at present there is safety to be had in numbers, even for diplomats."
"Your wisdom is unassailable, Most Excellent," Aliolikos murmured. "I shall heed your advice." Thinking the audience to be at an end Karl began to turn his mind to other matters but the emissary spread his hands. "There is one other matter I have been commanded to raise, Most Excellent."
Karl waved his hand. "Please, sir, speak your mind. If it's within our power to address your concern, rest assured we shall do so."
"You are most kind. It is this: Syldavia has limited access to the sea, and our maritime trade is valuable to us. My King has grave concerns over the activities of pirates and privateers that harass our merchantmen. He asks Your Excellency that if a suitable officer of experience within your service can be seconded to our humble navy, it would be deeply appreciated."
"A naval officer?" Karl exclaimed. "Forgive my surprise, sir, but I would think His Syldavian Majesty would find more fertile grounds for recruitment amongst the navies of Britain and Gallica." He frowned. "We have a small, efficient navy, but it is a riverine force only."
Aliolikos bowed. "It is that splendid force to which my King looks, Most Excellent. He has heard of the prowess shown by a young officer of promise, one Commander Horngebläse."
"Good Lord!" Ostenberg exclaimed. "Young Horatio!"
"Just so, Count Ostenberg. News of his exploits was received with deep interest in Syldavia. May I have your permission to approach him, Most Excellent?"
Karl thought briefly. "You may, sir, but please be advised; Commander Horngebläse is recently married. He may not wish to take employment outside of his current duties."
"I thank you, Most Excellent, and shall be sensible of your advice."
An aide entered the room bearing a dispatch and a strong whiff of burnt gunpowder. Aliolikos took the hint and bowed. "I shall not trespass upon your valuable time any longer, Most Excellent. With your permission, I shall withdraw."
Karl and the emissary exchanged bows and Aliolikos departed. As the door closed Karl turned to his Chancellor. "Well, Ostenberg, that's a turn-up for the books, as the late Captain Creighton used to say."
"Horatio's a sound fellow, Your Excellency. If he has any sense he'll consult with Grafin Ursula first."
Karl grimaced. "If he does go, I hope he can persuade that young spitfire to stay here! The Good Lord knows what Ursula could do if she gets loose in the Balkans!"
"Amen!" Ostenberg said then frowned. "The situation regarding Morea is very uncertain these days, Excellency."
"Indeed. It will stand us in good stead to appoint an ambassador with plenipotentiary powers to Syldavia. I still remember the unease caused by that wretched Vizier Evidya's saber rattling. Although the threat to us is slight the Sublime Porte needs to be watched." Karl paused. "No doubt you've already selected a list of suitable candidates. Please make time this evening for us to review it."
Ostenberg bowed. "Of course, Most Ex... Your Excellency."
Karl grinned. The slip was deliberate, the humor it generated welcome. A louder than normal salvo of gunfire sounded and Karl sighed. "Now, gentlemen, let us return to the war."
* * *
More of Volume Three will follow in the fullness of time once a few other projects are cleared. The cover art for Volume One is complete and the final copy-editing underway. I expect to go to press toward the end of October. Watch this space!