In Which Ruffled Feathers Are Smoothed
Engelbert folded the edge of his apron over the hot baking tray and lifted a fresh batch of muffins from the oven. He turned and closed the oven door with the heel of his shoe-a move both deft and quaint, and which never failed to amuse Wilhelmina. He removed his soft hat and wiped his face with the back of his hand and, glancing up, noticed her watching him.
Etzel smiled, his plump cherubic face flushed from the heat. “These are the best yet, Liebste,” he said, placing the tray on the table. “Our people are going to love them.” He rarely called them customers anymore; he spoke of the Grand Imperial clientele as our people -as if they were tribesmen or family members.
“The muffins smell wonderful,” she assured him. “You have mastered the recipe in no time at all.”
“Jawhohl! ” he agreed, his broad, good-natured face alight. “You have good ideas, Mina.”
Introducing muffins to seventeenth-century Prague was Wilhelmina’s idea, that was true; but the design of the baking trays and the execution of the recipe were all due to Engelbert’s singular expertise. Since opening the coffeehouse, the German baker had gone from strength to strength as his confidence rose, and his skill was rewarded by the success. The shop enjoyed a steady and lucrative trade-enough to keep eight helpers busy: three servers dressed in green livery; two additional bakers to help with roasting the beans, mixing dough, and preparing pastry fillings; a general helper to prepare fuel, feed the ovens, and run errands; a dishwasher; and a cleaner. From the moment the shutters opened at dawn until they closed again at dusk, the Grand Imperial Kaffeehaus was heaving with activity.
Wilhelmina had taken the position of chief overseer of the enterprise, maintaining a gentle but firm control over the business. But she also indulged her latest, and necessarily secret, passion: ley exploring. Since making that first successful journey, she had attempted three more using her copy of Burleigh’s device, discovering two new leys in the process: one leading to an arid desert of red earth and towering rocks and cacti, and one to a bleak steppe, treeless and windswept beneath low grey skies. She had also made a second trip using the ley she had discovered previously, which led to that massive limestone gorge. Though she still could not yet fit a name to that destination, nor a time, she had nevertheless begun to nurture a growing insight into ley travel in general, as well as finer points such as how individual lines might be manipulated. For, while she was content with merely mapping the leys and trying to determine how to calibrate her crossings, Wilhelmina had begun to wonder about the incredible possibilities of her new avocation-as well as the inherent implications and problems. For example, what would happen if she attempted a “double cross”-using two ley lines in two separate dimensions to travel to a third? She had no idea, but was intrigued by the possibility nonetheless. Once she felt secure in using the leys she knew, she would push the boat out a little, so to speak, with her experiments.
Very occasionally she thought about returning to her home in London-if only to reassure anyone who might be concerned about her disappearance, and to wrap up her affairs. However, that would obviously mean returning to the ley that had brought her to this dimension, and that was several long days’ journey away from Prague. When it came down to it, the prospect always seemed like a huge bother for such a piddling payoff. Then, too, she was not at all certain she could return to the same London she had left. What if she got the time horribly wrong? There was no guarantee she could even get back to the twenty-first century anyway.
The plain truth was she missed nothing about London or her mundane, drudging life there-not when set against the possibility of roaming a multidimensional universe with its offer of infinite worlds awaiting her discovery. That being the case, she could effortlessly think up a thousand more exciting things than returning to her flat to examine the mound of junk mail piling up on the doormat.
Chocolate, for one.
Wilhelmina was ever mindful of the fact that she had, quite unwittingly, introduced coffee to Prague, and was now reaping enormous benefit from that happy accident. Not only was she half owner of the first coffee shop in Bohemia, she was also a partner in an increasingly successful shipping company that supplied her coffee beans. Lately she had begun to think of importing beans of another sort: cocoa. It was only a matter of persuading Herr Arnostovi, her principal partner, to expand their import business to other commodities-specifically sugar and cocoa beans-and if that likewise proved successful, her future would be secured. For if she could secure sufficient quantities of those two items, she could make chocolate, a luxury as yet unknown in this Europe. The main problem with the scheme was getting her hands on a ready supply of the raw materials, which meant forging a partnership with a Spanish shipping company. Tricky, but not impossible, and well worth attempting. When she considered the rewards that would flow from that revelatory introduction, even her most modestly placed estimate was well nigh astronomical.
There was simply no telling how rich she could become from a venture like that. And once loosed from the constraints of having to work to earn a living, she would be free to travel and explore. Plus, of course, she would have chocolate.
These thoughts were in her mind as she placed the fresh-baked muffins on a cooling rack. As she finished, she turned just at the moment that her accomplice entered the shop. The emperor’s assistant chief alchemist was wearing his customary green robe with purple stole and fox trim, and his hat shaped like a collapsed bag with a brim. He took a seat in his usual place-the farthest corner of the room near the Kachelofen -and folded his hands on the table. In a moment one of the serving girls hurried to take his order, and Wilhelmina, placing a fresh muffin on a plate, went to greet her friend.
“Greetings, mein Herr,” she said, perching on the edge of the chair next to him. “Here, I want you to try something.” She pushed the plate in front of him. “It is a new kind of pastry we are thinking of introducing-one that has never been seen before in Prague.”
“ Gruss Gott, Fraulein Wilhelmina.” He smiled wanly at her, swiped off his hat, and dipped his head in a polite bow. “Very interesting,” he said, peering at the speckled little cake. He prodded one of the tiny black specks with a fingertip.
“Those are poppy seeds,” she informed him. “They’re good. You’ll like them.”
“I have no doubt whatsoever that it is very nice,” he said, looking at the plate doubtfully.
“What is wrong, mein Fruend? Is something the matter at the palace?”
“Oh, nothing of consequence,” he answered quickly. “I am very busy just now, and-” He hesitated.
“And?” she prodded. “Go on, we are friends. You can tell me. What’s wrong?”
“It is that man-that Englander!” he blurted, as if releasing a pressure valve.
It took a moment for Wilhelmina to think whom he was talking about. “Lord Burleigh, you mean?” she guessed.
“The English earl, ja. He is insufferable!”
“No doubt,” conceded Wilhelmina mildly. “But why do you trouble about him?”
“He has returned!”
“Has he, indeed?”
“ Ja, he has returned with even greater demands-impossible demands! That is bad enough, but he treats us with utmost disdain-as if we were mere slaves bound to do his bidding. The man is a tyrant and a bully. If he were to fall down a well I would not lift one finger to fling him a rope.”
Wilhelmina gazed at her companion. Clearly, he was frustrated and angry. It was probably good to allow him to vent a little steam, and she was more than happy to assist the process. Anything she could learn about Burleigh and his dealings with the imperial court, she counted to her advantage.
“Well, have some of this muffin,” she urged in a soothing voice, nudging the plate nearer. “Taste it, and tell me what you think. If enough people like them, we will begin selling them in the shop very soon.”
Gustavus broke off an edge and lifted a bit of the freckled yellow cake to his mouth. He chewed it thoughtfully and announced, “It is very good. Moist and sweet. What are you going to call this kleiner Kuchen?”
“We have not decided yet-but we are open to suggestions.”
He nodded and ate some more. The maid appeared with his coffee, put down the little pot and cup and, at a nod from Mina, retreated again. “Here,” said Mina, pouring his coffee, “taste it with this and tell me what Burleigh has done to upset you so.”
Gustavus sipped his coffee and recovered some of his usually placid demeanour. “It is not seemly to take on as I have,” he said, gazing into his cup. “Forgive me, Fraulein. I did not mean to inflict my personal concerns on you. I am sorry.”
“Nonsense,” she said, reaching across to pat his hand. “What are friends for? Come, now. Eat some more of this cake and tell Wilhelmina what is bothering you.”
The young alchemist did as he was told, and in a moment began to relate how early that morning the mysterious earl had appeared at the palace. The visitor had spent a long time in close consultation with the Lord High Alchemist while Gustavus continued with his work in the laboratory.
“Then,” he said, “all of a sudden, I am summoned and told to abandon my present work in order to undertake a new commission from Herr Burleigh. But I am deeply engaged in a most delicate experiment, I tell them. I will be finished in a day or two-and I must not lose all the work I have already completed. But no! It is not to be. Nothing will do but that I must sweep everything aside and begin at once on this new project-and they will not even tell me why it is so important that it cannot wait another day!” He puffed out his cheeks in exasperation. “Months of the most exacting labour gone up in smoke-poof! Just like that!”
“Most upsetting,” sympathised Wilhelmina. “What do they want you to do?”
“It is to be another device,” answered Gustavus. “Like the one I made before-to aid in His Lordship’s astral investigations, ja? But this one is a little bigger, and more powerful and more complex in every way.”
“I see.” Wilhelmina feigned a mild interest. Inside, her pulse quickened at the news. She let him enjoy some more of the muffin and drink some more coffee, then said, “Did they tell you the purpose of this new device?”
“No.” He shrugged, then gave her a sly smile. “But I overheard them talking about it when they thought I had gone.” He sucked in his breath with an audible clutch. “They treat me like a child.”
“Tch!” Mina gave her head a derisive shake. “That is a very shame. But I hope you know that I have the utmost respect for your intelligence and skill. I am grateful for your expertise.” She paused, then offered, “I suppose they hope to keep such important work a secret.”
“It is to be similar to the first device in many respects,” offered Gustavus. “But this one, I believe, is to be used to locate people as well.”
“People?” wondered Wilhelmina. “Which people?”
“Fellow travellers-if I overheard them correctly-those who likewise journey on the astral paths. The earl says he wishes to meet those who share his explorations.” The chief under-alchemist leaned forward. “But I do not trust him. I think this Lord Burleigh is not what he appears.”
“You could be right.” Wilhelmina frowned. There was no question but that she had to get her hands on a copy of Burleigh’s latest mechanism, whatever it was, and add it to her collection. At the same time, she thought it best not to let on how badly she wanted the new gismo.
She was thinking how best to phrase the request when the young alchemist asked, “Would you like me to make one of these new instruments for you?”
“Well, I don’t know-” Wilhelmina began, not wanting to sound overeager. “I appreciate you are in a very precarious position. I would not like you to put yourself at risk in any way.”
“I will do it.” Gustavus slapped the table with determination. “I will make a copy for you.” He saw her hesitation and offered, “You will not have to pay me anything. It will be my gift to you.”
“I am not worried about the cost, mein Freund,” she told him. “It is you I am worried about, Gustavus. It is such a big risk. If the earl discovered what you were doing, he could cause a great deal of trouble for you. I would not like to see you come to any harm.”
“Do not worry, Fraulein. No one will ever know. Of this I am quite certain.” He took another drink of coffee. “I am a scientist. I have devoted myself to years of study. I have mastered the arts of my profession, and I refuse to be treated like an ignorant stable hand to be commanded at every idle whim.” He smiled ruefully. “Excuse me, I seem to be forgetting myself.”
“It is nothing,” Wilhelmina assured him. “Drink your Kaffee and I will bring another pot. We have a few more things to discuss.”