Rain fell in torrents, but the siege of Randstadt continued. As Lieutenant Mary Amadeus trudged back to the artillery park through mud and puddles, the air shook with both thunder and the concussion of heavy guns. She heeded it not. Feeling wet-through and miserable, her only desire now was to reach her tent and rest – and mope over the ruin of her hopes. A particularly vivid sheet of lightning surged through the heavy cloud above, triggering Mary’s latent sense of scientific inquiry. She tipped her head to regard the cloud and was rewarded by a stream of water trickling out the folds of her tricorn and down her back. She huddled into her cloak, thinking but not voicing one of Ursula’s choice curses. The memory of happier if wilder days with her friend buoyed Mary for a while, until the general sense of gloom descended once more.
It lasted until she reached Officers’ Row in the artillery park, at which point she stopped dead in her tracks with surprise. A full-sized officer’s pavilion stood where her small but adequate tent had been. The board announcing her name and rank had been hammered into the ground to one side of the entrance. A thin stream of smoke emerged from a tin chimney pipe extending above the roof. The rain cascaded off the sloping canvas roof into a broad drainage channel, keeping the area under the pavilion dry. It looked like an abode fit for a colonel.
Wide-eyed and curious, Mary splashed her way over to the pavilion and cautiously drew back the fly, to see Ursula and Philip comfortably ensconced on padded camp stools by a pot-bellied stove.
“Ah! There you are!” Philip exclaimed, rising to his feet. Ursula grinned and raised a tankard in greeting. An enameled pot sat on top of the stove, and Mary realized the air inside the pavilion resonated with the delightful aroma of coffee.
She stepped inside, into delightful warmth, and allowed the fly to fall. Philip came up and took her in his arms. “Welcome to your new premises, my dear,” he said tenderly. Over his shoulder Mary saw Ursula smile and look away from their intimacy. She busied herself with pouring a third tankard of coffee.
“Philip, where did this all come from?” Mary asked, amazed. She looked at the stove, and a new camp cot, set within its own screened-off area. The ground underfoot was dry and covered with a mat of closely-woven rushes.
He drew back and held her gently by the shoulders. “It’s my gift to you. A small compensation for the bitter disappointment we suffered.”
“You’re too kind,” she murmured.
Ursula stood and handed her a tankard. “Here you are, get the right side of this.”
Mary smiled her thanks and cupped cold hands around the heavenly warmth seeping through the pewter. “You worked quickly. I was only at the gun lines for half an hour.”
“We had help,” Ursula said with a wink, taking her seat once more.
“How goes it up there?” Philip asked, guiding her to a stool.
“We’re making progress.” Mary sipped the scalding brew. “The Neuburg battery’s taking a pounding from our guns. We should silence it in another day’s work, two at most.”
“My father hopes to have Randstadt in our possession within the month.”
“It may be sooner,” Mary said tersely. Since the confrontation over Professor Knappenberger’s letter, she found it hard to think kindly of her liege lord, Grand Duke Karl.
Ursula must’ve sensed her thoughts, for she set aside her tankard and leaned forward. “What happened is not my uncle’s fault, Mary,” she said earnestly. “He has to be guided by protocol.”
“He didn’t help matters,” Mary replied, giving Philip a sidelong glance. “I’m sorry, Philip. I know he’s your father, but he dealt me – us – a cruel blow.”
“So he did,” Philip sighed, rubbing his furrowed brow.
“And you’re a fine one to talk about protocol, Ursula,” Mary went on, giving her friend a hot look.
“Touché,” Ursula murmured.
“I’m sorry you sent that letter to Professor Knappenberger.”
“Call it another brick in the road to hell.” Ursula gazed at her for a long moment. “I did so with the best of intentions.”
Mary shrugged, sipped coffee as her emotions threatened to rise up and cause a scene it would be hard to retract. “You’re my best friend. I really do believe you,” she managed to say.
“I’m glad of that, Mary A,” Ursula said, reached over to clasp her hand. “And, it so happens I may be able to fix things.”
Ursula took a sheet of parchment from a fold of her dress and held it up. Philip peered at it and blinked. “Isn’t that the reply from Professor Knappenberger?”
“Yes. I filched it from your father’s bureau the last time I went to headquarters.” Philip’s jaw dropped and Ursula clicked her tongue. “Oh, don’t look such an idiot! It needed to be done.” She waved the letter. “This damned thing has already caused my best friend and you a lot of damage. Now I think it’ll help undo it.”
“You stole it from my father’s bureau?”
Ursula gave her cousin a scathing look and addressed Mary. “I asked the Professor to reply to me, so this letter should’ve come to me anyway. Somehow it got addressed to my uncle. Why?”
Mary frowned. “I don’t know.”
“Because somebody wanted to cause mischief.”
“They certainly succeeded!” Philip said.
“You think this mysterious somebody knew about your inquiry to the Professor?” Mary asked.
“I’m almost certain of it.”
Ursula’s eyes sparkled in a way Mary knew of old. Her spirits began to revive. “What are you planning to do?”
Ursula glanced around at the canvas walls of the tent. “I’m pretty sure no one’s outside snooping on our conversation in this weather,” she said, pitching her voice low. “Even so, I’m keeping my plan to myself for now. I’ll be heading back to Hetzenberg in the morning, then up to Bolschen.”
“Bolschen?” Mary cocked her head. “Why there?”
“I may take the waters,” Ursula replied with a wink.