It took longer than Paul expected to find the evidence he sought. It consisted of a sheet of aged paper pinned to a battered square of cork, located on the wall next the study door. From other notes pinned there Paul surmised it to be a means by which the late Professor Knappenburger communicated with his servant. He unpinned the note and examined it. The obverse had a note concerning laundry. The reverse... Paul smiled with satisfaction. Amid many a crossing out and blot he made out the following.
My Dear Grafin,
With reference to your inquiry as to the validity of a marriage between your cousin Graf Philip von Hetzenberg and a woman of common birth, to whit, one Mary Amadeus.
I’m pleased to inform you it is entirely permissible under our law for a member of the Grand Ducal family to unite with a commoner in a Morganatic marriage. Laws on the statute books governing Ducal marriages dating back over two hundred years clearly permit such a formal union. Our forebears in their wisdom saw matters of interbreeding and too concentrated a nature of the Ducal relationships to be clearly unfavorable to the bloodline as a whole. Provision was therefore made to allow fresh blood to be introduced to the family line, although the law has not been indulged in for some decades.
I trust this clarifies the matter and eases any concerns you might feel regarding your friend’s situation.
I remain, Grafin, your humble, obedient servant, I. Knappenburger.
There was no mistaking the Professor’s writing. Paul rolled up the note and tapped it against his palm as he considered the situation. The estimable Bartolomeo Gundaker is fallible, it seems. In his haste to perpetrate his commission he overlooked a draft copy of the very letter he sought to corrupt. He smiled. What makes it all the sweeter, the note was on the back of a missive intended for him!
He tucked the note in his innermost pocket and headed out the door. A brief conference with the Chancellor left that worthy satisfied the professor’s affairs would be taken care of.
That evening saw Paul aboard the coach bound for the Grand Duchy of Hetzenberg. He looked out the window as the vehicle rattled along the highway, and thought of the approbation Ursula would heap upon him for his success in helping her friend. It gave him a warm glow about the heart to think of the radiant smile that would cross her beautiful face.
* * * *
The hull of Styx II vibrated gently with the steady flow of water against her hull as the flotilla rode at anchor in the gathering night. Beyond the little stateroom’s windows the Eissenwasser flowed dark, strong and steady to the sea, with no concern for the affairs of mankind embattled about its banks.
Ursula laid upon Horatio, her arms folded loosely on his bare chest, her feet pressing against the cool wood of the aft bulkhead, so small was the cot in which they laid. She felt sated and happy but, as intense and fulfilling as their lovemaking had been, one question still floated near the top of her mind. “You’re sure we’ll reach the vicinity of Randstadt by tomorrow evening?”
“Yes, beautiful.” Horatio stroked Ursula’s cheek and tucked a stray length of damp hair behind her ear. “We're but a league above Kimmelsbrück. The river’s quieter now the snow melt has passed. The wind stands fair, and looks to be coming farther north yet tomorrow.”
“I hope so. I'm worried about Mary A. Paul will try his best, no doubt, but at the moment only I can intercede on her behalf so she can marry Philip.”
“We’ll get there, and we will help her. Don’t worry so!”
“You’re right, my love,” she whispered, kissing him deeply. He returned her kiss then yawned and stretched, awkwardly favoring his wounded arm. Ursula rolled off him and he moved aside enough for her to squeeze in beside him. “Get some sleep, hero,” she admonished. “You had a long day.”
“Just so, my dear.” He put his arm around her and she nestled close, her head upon his shoulder. His voice sounded drowsy. “We’ll get there.”
Ursula listened to the steady beat of his heart beneath her ear, felt the rise and fall of his chest slow as his breathing settled into sleep. She looked up through the stern-lights and watched the night deepen to starry indigo, and wondered what Mary Amadeus was doing, and how they would all fare on the morrow. Eventually, she fell asleep.
* * * *
Several leagues away Mary Amadeus laid in her camp cot, staring up at the canvas above her head. A camp fire nearby cast shadows there that seemed to morph into strange and terrible things. She could hear the sentry on guard outside the fly of her tent, placed there by the general. “I have no recourse but to inquire into this matter, my dear,” he’d said with evident reluctance. “I cannot believe you and Philip would be so foolish as to correspond in this way, but I am bound by duty to treat the matter with the utmost seriousness.”
And so she had been confined her to quarters pending the outcome. She thought of the siege and the plan she’d made which would end it all before many more lives were spent. And now due to someone’s malice here I am, in peril of my life and utterly useless. I wish Philip were here, and Ursula and Horatio! She turned over, punched the pillow into some form of comfort and tried to sleep, but her thoughts whirled on deep into the night.