For all she knew, the Duke’s envelope might contain poison. But she did not want to show weakness. She ripped one corner off and inside she found-
“What’s the meaning of this, Sparagmos?”
“The Emperor, in his wisdom, has decided to invite every friend of Austria at a grand bal right at the end of this summer, when the last pockets of resistance in Bohemia will be crushed.”
Alba pulled out two invitations. Hand-written on precious rice paper, they carried the Imperial seal and might have costed more than the dress she was wearing.
“At the Hofburg? Right in the heart of the big city, I see.”
“No,” he waved his hand. “That’s the one in Wien, but Karl prefers the Hofburg in Innsbruck. We’ll gather there, right at the end of summer. Twenty-first of September, Your Highness.”
“Care to enlighten Us why We should attend this bal?”
His grin grew mischievous.
“Now, let’s not pretend to be dense. It will be an amazing occasion to show your determination to remaining our friends and allies. Perhaps also a way to extend diplomacy into a more intimate connection.” His black eyes seemed to flash and Alba recoiled.
“Duke,” she sneered. “We are perfectly aware of Our role in continuing the Malcastria bloodline. That is the reason why We would only consider the most exalted of partners. As you said, let us not pretend to be dense: you are not one of them. Not even close.”
He chuckled, but with a hint of nervousness. For the first time since he had set foot in the garden, his confidence seemed to crack at her jab.
“Your manners do not give justice to your beauty, Your Highness. Or the other way around. But rest assured that it would be merely a political union. Eridania is a beautiful Principality. Utterly useless on the larger chessboard of the European’s concert. A note lost in the symphony. But it is a note that I would very much like to take and guide towards greatness as the century reaches its halfway point. I have seen enough of war, Your Majesty. I do not wish to bring it here, not if there are other ways.”
“You come here, push this… envelope onto me,” she growled, forgetting about using the plural with how upset she was, “and expect me to say yes? Duke, you are not dense, you are delusional.”
“Am I? Your kingdom is really pretty, but as defenseless as this rose garden. I am offering you a way out that’s honorable and that delivers you of your responsibilities. I am only asking you to become my wife for one night – the rest of your life you can enjoy however you wish.” He scratched his chin. “With all due respect, Your Highness, but I am quite partial to girls who are red of hair.”
“Then take your offer and show it to the Crown of England,” she crumbled the invitations up and threw them behind her, “We suppose Ireland might be more fit to your taste.”
“How very theatrical. It’s up to you. One drop of blood between the sheets, or watching it flow through your streets.” He stood up. “I have given you your choice. You have until the end of summer to decide, I suppose… I hope cool heads will prevail.” He stood up and gave her a mocking bow. “Now, if you don’t have anything else to show me, I would take my leave. The Court will be most interested about my report on your beautiful country… and the mood of its Regent.”
“Get out of here,” she growled, standing up as well, now that rage was getting the best of her. “Out of Our sight. And do not set your foot in Eridania ever again, or We will make sure to unleash the entirety of the Guard after you.”
“All twelve of them and the shepherd dog!” He chuckled, turning towards the gate, as she fumed behind him.
“Do not think Our kingdom is as defenseless as it may seem, Sparagmos. Remember when We told you about legends and folk lore? Perhaps you were onto something. Perhaps there might be yet some fight left in Eridania.”
Just like when she had commented on his virility, his face darkened.
“I see,” he replied with a nod. “I will treasure your words. No need to worry about me, Your Highness.”
He disappeared downstairs and Alba, when she was positive he had left the tower, let out a frustrated growl. So many foul tidings, all at once! Father would have known how to deal with him – she had tried to rebuke his offer, but what could she do? He was right, and her Ministers told her everything she needed to know, every day: the Kingdom did not have any sort of viable defense against an invasion.
Nothing, except the thinnest hope offered by the Witch.
She picked up the crumbled invitation and put in her pocket. She stood there for a while, looking at the horizon, which was growing grey and heavy with rain.
The evening found her scratching up notes in her room. She had set aside the royal garments and wore now the clothes she used for her explorations: a scandalous pair of pants, her jacket and boots. she had pulled up her hair in a croquet and finished her additional notes on what she had found out about the Witch for the time being.
She replayed the conversation with that abominable son of a sow – he had offered a choice, indeed. The choice between submission or destruction.
How about she flipped the board on him and offered him a choice?
Someone knocked on the door. Alba swallowed, nervous.
That meant she had to make a choice too.
“Please come in,” she said, biting her lip.
Andronikos entered and immediately his clear eyes marveled at her attire.
“Princess? If you called me for a ride outside, I believe it’s far from the best moment.”
“No, not exactly. Take a seat, please.”
Her Chancellor did as he was asked and frowned as she passed him the invitations. The precious paper had been ruined, but he could read German just as well and as his eyes reached the end he shook his head, disbelieving.
“What is… so that was his plan? To take you for marriage? That sly viper! I will have him castrated if I ever see him again. How dare him, attempt to insert himself in the house of Malcastria…”
She felt a bit of relief warm up her heart. At least Andronikos seemed to understand her plight.
“I mean, it could be a viable plan to get a powerful ally,” she said, setting her hands on her lap. “But I am not going to cede the most precious thing I have to the first big-headed war-mongering officer that knocks on my door.”
Her Chancellor huffed.
“I’d hope so! Still glad you keep a level head on your shoulders.”
“I am perfectly aware of my role into this. As I am aware of the state of our defenses. Do you think there might be any chance for us to resist an invasion?”
He seemed to grow even older, leaning forward like a leaf on the onset of winter.
“Princess, I am not one to pour sweet lies in the ears of those I love and serve. But the truth is dire. Before the might of the Austrian Empire, especially as it shakes and rumble under the weight of the revolts and its army is always out for blood, there can be not even the semblance of a victory. We can perhaps put up a token resistance in the Cittadella, but modern cannons will make short work even of our fabled walls.”
“So it seems.” Alba tapped with her fingers on the desk. That was the moment. She had to tell him the truth. He had proven to be reliable – she could trust him. “That word you used, though… fabled. Wouldn’t we be able to find unexpected help in the hands of fables, perhaps?”
He scrunched up his face.
“Princess, let’s not get lost in the mire of superstitions.” A sigh. “If it’s the Witches you are referring to, we haven’t seen a Witch in Eridania since 1509. They are all lost.”
“Yes,” Alba agreed. She picked up the Brazen Book and slid it across the desk, against Andronikos’ hands, resting on the wood. “All of them. Except for one.”