Monday, May 21, 2007

Somewhere in the wilds of eastern Hesse-Fedora

Norris peered through the driving rain, trying to make sure he didn’t miss the crossroads. He was as familiar with these roads as if he had been born here, or as if his life had once depended on it. But in the darkest of nights, with a heavy downpour, even the strongest memory can fade over the years.

He missed the crossroad, even as he drove the carriage through it. Only the neigh of the horses of another carriage, parked under a spreading linden tree, showed him that he had passed the appointed meeting place.

Wheeling around at a wide spot in the road, Norris brought his seemingly plain carriage back to the tree. A highwayman would have recognized the quality of the wheels and the bloodline of the horses, but most people would have noted the lack of any coat of arms, indeed of any identifying markings, and ignored the rest.

The other carriage, the one under the tree, gleamed with the crest of a noble family. Norris, trusted as he was, had not been informed of the identity of the person they were meeting, but only the time and place. He glanced at the ornate coat of arms, and while one eyebrow raised in admiration, his free hand checked the pistol under his coat again.

Pulling the coach close to the other, Norris studiously avoided looking at the other coachman, who did the same. Once the brake was set, Norris thumped his elbow against the cab twice, paused, then twice again.

Light lanced into the darkness as both carriages’ doors opened. From behind Norris, a figure swathed in a heavy overcoat stepped into the mud, then up onto the rung of the waiting carriage. Norris, now clasping his pistol firmly, shot a look into the other carriage.

A woman, dressed in an elaborate court gown, powdered and bewigged with an enormous jewel hanging from a heavy chain between impressive décolletage, but wearing a painted mask across her eyes, offered her hand to the man in the overcoat. Another figure, wearing what to Norris’ eye appeared to be the uniform of an officer of the Garde Suisse, closed the door on the scene.

Five minutes later, the door swung open again. The overcoated figure stepped out, then turned suddenly. His hand was thrust under his coat, and he pulled out a parchment envelope. He glanced at the packet even as the rain poured from his hat, making the ink run, then handed it to the masked woman.

“You’ll miss your ball. Here you go, all official. Good luck, Ilsa.”

The Garde Suisse officer reached out for the door, and for just the slightest moment locked eyes with Norris. Even across ten feet, in a pouring rain with almost no light, the officer recognized what he saw in the coachman’s eyes. He shuddered, and shut the door.

“Home, Norris. The guard will be worried,” said Landgraf Bogey von Hesse-Fedora, as he climbed back into the coach.

Norris shook the reins, and the plain coach pulled back out onto the muddy lane.

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