The now-quiet town of Lehmangraz.
“You’re the second invalid I’ve had to tend this month.” Ursula poured two glasses of white wine and handed one to Horatio.
He grinned and shifted his arm in the fresh sling she’d tied. “Who was the other lucky fellow?”
She sipped and eyed him. “Who says it was a man?”
“Oh, just a guess.”
“Well, it’s a lucky one. It was Konrad. He’s on the mend.”
“I’m glad. Nice fellow.”
Ursula snuggled up alongside him on the bed. From here she had a good view out the bay window. As commander of the gunboat flotilla Horatio had a choice room overlooking the naval yard and the river beyond. Parties of sailors, marines and yard workers moved here and there, clearing up the worst damage suffered in the raid. A miasma of wet burnt wood hung over all. She noticed the marines seemed to move with almost manic energy, as if eager to make up in some way for their deficiency in the recent fighting.
Horatio must have guessed her thoughts. “To be fair they couldn’t help it, my love. They were pressed into action half-trained and the enemy took them by surprise to boot. I think they’ll shape up given time and patience.”
“They should have enough of both. The army of Dunkeldorf-Pfühl took a beating, and Randstadt is under siege. I can’t see an occasion arising where the marines will be needed before the end of the war.”
“I wouldn’t speak too soon, dearest. The light infantry raid caught us all on the hop.”
Ursula set her glass aside and twisted around to press closer against his side. She gazed into his eyes and stroked his cheek. “But their mission ultimately failed – thanks to you.”
He gave a soft chuckle. “Oh, I’m quite the hero.” Draining his glass he put it on the bedside table and took her in his arms. “I missed you!”
“And I you.” They kissed, and she stroked his wounded arm. “Will you need to wear this for much longer?”
“Only a week, according to our surgeon. The rascal also wanted to bleed me, but I told him I’d already shed enough blood for the cause.”
She lowered her voice to a sultry tone. “It won’t... hinder you at all?”
His smile widened to a grin. “Not in the least...”
Matters had just become interesting when the sound of pounding feet on the staircase interrupted their idyll. Moments later somebody knocked on the door with a rapid tattoo. “Urgent dispatch from General Rauppen-Schlepper, sir!”
“Can’t it wait?” Horatio called peevishly.
“The courier needs a reply, sir.” The man sounded contrite. Ursula sensed he knew he intruded upon his commander at a delicate moment.
Horatio groaned. “Sorry, my love. I’ll have to take this.”
Ursula dived under the bedclothes. “Schieße! What timing!”
Horatio rolled off the bed, donned his dressing gown and answered the summons. He glanced at the message the man handed him. “I’ll be down directly.”
“Sir!” Footsteps clumped away. Horatio closed the door and returned to the bed. “It’s from the general, all right. It seems one Lieutenant Mary Amadeus has come up with a scheme to shorten the siege of Randstadt and we’re required to render assistance.”
“Mary A!” Ursula sat up and took the message from him. She scanned it. “Old Rauppen-Schlepper doesn’t say what scheme she has in mind of course, but knowing her it’ll be a corker! Ah..!” She read the remainder of the script. “He wants you to lose not a moment in setting out.”
“Such is the life of a naval officer.” He eyed her, his expression one of mixed lust and frustration. Eventually he groaned. “The General summons, and so I must obey. When we set sail, will you come with me?”
“Of course!” She pulled his head down and kissed him soundly. “From what I saw of her the Styx II has a nicely-appointed cabin. Once we’re under weigh, we can resume where we left off...”
* * * *
Paul Ehrgeiziger entered the inn, located on a busy road not far from the border with Hetzenberg. It was an establishment he’d frequented before on clandestine missions, and the innkeeper knew him. The woman nodded as Paul ordered an ale. She served him and leaned close to whisper as she slid his change across the damp surface of the bar counter. “The gentleman awaits you in the usual room, sir.”
Paul thanked her and made his way at a casual pace through to the rear of the near-empty saloon and up the stairs. They opened onto a passage off which were several guest rooms. Paul knocked on the third door and entered without waiting for an invitation. The man sitting by the window stood and bowed as Paul closed and bolted the door. “It’s good to see you, Paul. After what happened earlier this year, I feared all was up with you. Your message came as a great relief.”
Paul returned the bow. “It’s good to see you too, Artur. You look well.”
“As well as can be expected.” Artur sat. A portly fellow, the warmth of the day brought perspiration to his lofty brow, and he mopped it with a large lace handkerchief.
“Thank you for responding to my note. Others might not have welcomed my approach, given the circumstances of my... ah, departure from the Margrave’s service.”
“Oh, my dear fellow, to your ear alone can I sympathize! Our new lord and master – and possible patricide – is a sad burden for our poor state to bear. He has us running ragged in an attempt to find ways of winning this war. The army is licking its wounds and is unable to raise the siege of Randstadt. The Margrave won’t be told to cut his losses.” Artur grimaced. “The near-success of the raid on Lehmangraz filled him with new hope, more’s the pity.”
“I see.” Paul doffed his hat and sat down. “He’s not beyond resorting to skulduggery...”
Artur pursed his lips and frowned. “He’s not – but I have the feeling you refer to a particular incidence of skulduggery.”
Paul put on a bland smile. “You know me too well, old fellow.” He leaned closer. “It has been brought to my attention that someone is trying to stir dissent in the upper reaches of the Hetzenberg court.”
Artur nodded. A knowing glint appeared in his eye. “Ah, that. To be fair, that particular piece of business originated with the Dowager. She hired Bartolomeo Gundaker.”
Paul leaned back in his chair. “You surprise me!”
Artur chuckled. “Why so? You know the old woman. She’s as devious as a boatload of monkeys!”
“She has her own agenda, to be sure,” Paul murmured, thinking over his past experience with the Dowager. He produced the letter given him by Ursula. “Pray examine this.”
Artur donned a pair of pince-nez, took the letter and scanned it. After a few moments he looked up. “It’s plain Professor Knappenburger’s letter dashes any hope of this young woman marrying into the nobility.”
“So it would appear.”
“You suspect this to be a forgery?”
“It has been proven to be so.”
“Then yes, this is Gundaker’s work, I’m sure. It’s all of a piece with his methods.” Artur handed back the letter. “You have a sentimental attachment to this Mary Amadeus?”
Paul hesitated. “Rather, I have a sentimental attachment to her friend, and wish to return a favor.”
Artur nodded and tapped the side of his nose. “Say no more.” He mopped his brow again. “Curse this heat! Well, I would advise you discover the late Professor’s real reasoning on the subject. Any halfway competent authority on law would be of help.” He pointed to the letter. “That is merely a delaying tactic on the Dowager’s part.”
“So I surmised.” Paul folded the letter and put it back in his pocket. “But to what end?”