In Which a Visit to Prague Is Wangled
Lady Haven Fayth sat on the edge of the bed and laced up her shoes-good sturdy high-top boots to protect her feet from the hazards of unfamiliar roads in lands and times unknown. Burleigh had promised to teach her the intricacies of what she called ley leaping, and so far the Black Earl-as she thought of him-had been as good as his word. He had taken her on several of his journeys to various worlds and shown her how to recognise some of the more subtle elements of ley lines. Under his somewhat haphazard tutelage she had begun to master a few of the basic skills necessary not only for making such leaps but for finding her way around strange new places.
If not exactly a fount of valuable wisdom, at least the earl was reliable in that the things he chose to show her worked. Even so, it was clear to her that there was much more to be learned, and that he was withholding far more than he was telling. For example, she knew from her long association with her uncle that there was a prize of inestimable value associated with the cause, and which Burleigh and his men were determined to find. The earl was careful never to make mention of this fact directly, and Haven thought best to pretend ignorance of it too. She let on that, so far as she knew, it was only ever about the exploration of the other worlds connected by the leys-about discovering and mapping.
She also knew Burleigh was desperate to get his hands on the Skin Map, but that he had not yet achieved even so much as a glimpse of the genuine article-a fact that surprised her, given his enormous expenditure of money, time, and energy. Then again, the only two people she knew who had ever possessed a piece of the fabled map were now lying in an Egyptian tomb-dead at the Black Earl’s hand.
And for that, Haven Fayth would loathe him to the end of time.
As for the rest-abandoning Kit and Giles… well, regrettable as that might be, it had been simple expediency and could not be helped. In that dreadful, tragic situation-made prisoners and entombed with poor dead Cosimo and her dying Uncle Henry…
To remain locked up with the others would have been death. To stay alive gave her a fighting chance. It was as simple as that. And if she were able to stay alive long enough to master the technique of ley leaping, and gain the necessary knowledge, there was every chance that she could return to the tomb in time to rescue her friends.
So far as Haven was concerned, there had been only one choice. She did not regret making it, but she hated Burleigh for forcing the issue. The man was a dastard and a brute.
Outwardly she pretended to be a compliant accomplice-a willing ward to his stern and watchful warden. She feigned a friendly regard for him and, in a mildly coquettish way, led him down the primrose path towards a belief that, given time and the right incentives, she could become something more-a paramour, perhaps. She appealed to her darkly handsome companion’s ego and vanity, allowing him the impression that he as the older and wiser master was winning her admiration. She used her beauty and her feminine wiles to appeal to his innate masculine pride. And Haven Fayth, as she had learned long ago, could be very, very appealing.
Just now was a case in point, for Burleigh, against his initial reluctance, was allowing her to accompany him to Bohemia. This was not the first time he had gone there, and he much preferred going alone. The precise destination, Haven had yet to learn. That was no matter. The bare fact that Burleigh wanted her to stay home made her all the more determined to go. And through charm alone she had won her way.
“This will not be a simple journey,” he told her as they climbed into the carriage later that morning. “Three leys are employed. The first is some miles from here, and the second and third require a strenuous march. In point of fact, we’ll have to walk a fair distance before we get there. Are you certain you want to put yourself to all that? It is not too late to change your mind.”
“And miss the wonder that is Prague?” she said, smiling sweetly as she handed him her rucksack.
“Who told you we were going to Prague?”
“No one,” she snipped. “I deduced it on my own. Am I correct?”
“Get up there,” Burleigh said, opening the carriage door.
“Are we to expect any of your hirelings to attend us, as well?” she asked as she settled in the seat facing him.
“Not now. They will meet us there later.” He knocked the top of the carriage, the driver cracked the whip, and the coach lurched into motion. Burleigh regarded her doubtfully. “I only allow the men to come when they can be of use. In fact, I should not have let you talk me into allowing you to come.”
“Oh”-she pulled a pretty pout-“where would be the fun in that? It is so stultifyingly tedious when you are away. And you are forgetting that you promised to teach me everything there is to know about ley leaping. I intend to hold you to that promise.”
“Well,” he huffed, “see that you make the most of the trip. We will not be there very long.”
“Then why go at all?” she challenged. “If it is putting you to so much bother as all that, what, pray, is the point?”
“Because,” he said, growing irritable, “it is an errand of some importance. If you must know, I have commissioned a special instrument to be made, and I am going to pick it up. Straight in and straight out again.”
She had pushed him far enough; it was time to retreat and leave him the field. “The merest possibility of seeing such a fabulous city is satisfying enough for me,” she said, favouring him with a smile. “I am certain that it will be worthwhile-however much time we have to spend.”
“We shall see,” he said, softening somewhat. Beguiled by her winsome and innocent smile, he added, “Perhaps we can do better than that. The palace is impressive, and the Rathaus. Then there is the emperor himself, of course-Rudolf is an enthusiast of the first order, very grand, extremely generous, and also a complete ninny. You will enjoy meeting him if the chance should come your way. And, would you know it? There is now a coffeehouse in the old square. The first one in Europe, I believe.”
“I believe we have coffeehouses in London. Yes, I am sure of it. Of course, I have never visited such an establishment myself, but I would dearly love to see such a place, and taste some of this coffee for myself.”
“We shall see,” he allowed. “We shall see. Did you bring a change of clothing as I told you? We cannot have you traipsing around Prague dressed as you are.” He meant in her travelling clothes, which consisted of a simple drab linen dress and high-topped boots. “You cannot be presented at court looking like a milkmaid.”
“To be sure,” she agreed blithely. “As instructed, I have packed silk and lace suitable for just such an occasion.”
A short while later they reached the first ley, and Burleigh sent the carriage away. The first leap took place in the usual way and, as usual, Haven experienced the acute disorientation and nausea resulting from such sudden and violent dislocation. They landed in a rural landscape that seemed to be a wooded river valley in some remote place devoid of any sign of human habitation.
“Where are we?” she asked when she could speak again.
“I have no idea whatever,” Burleigh replied impatiently. “Are you quite finished? We have a fair way to walk.”
“I am truly sorry if my discommodious behaviour has inconvenienced you, my lord,” she replied tartly. She dabbed her mouth with her sleeve. “I assure you it cannot be helped.”
Although she was growing more used to what she thought of as the seasickness accompanying the leaps, it still had the ability to momentarily immobilise her, and Burleigh had little patience for such weakness.
“Come along when you are ready,” he said, striding off.
“Are there people about?” she asked when she had caught up with him.
“None that I have ever seen.”
“Not at all. If you care to think about it rationally for a moment, there is nothing remotely unusual about it. See here,” he said, stumping along, “our world has not always been so populous as it is at present. Indeed, the reverse is more the rule, since for long epochs of human history vast areas of landscape-whole continents-were devoid of human presence. Thus, I suspect that we have arrived in this world at a particular time in its history where this place is still virgin territory. In short, there may be people on this world-I should be surprised if there were not-but there are none around here.”
“And you have never undertaken to explore this world at all?”
“A bloody waste of time,” he sneered, waving a hand at the empty plains. “There is nothing of interest here.”
“So it is only a connecting place, then-a station on the way.”
“A way station, yes. In my experience, there are many such places,” he told her. “While they may have other uses, to me they merely serve as a means of getting from one ley to another.” He walked on a little farther, then continued, “The next ley is a few miles distant, and between the one we have just used and the next one there are no towns or villages, farms, or what-have-you that I have ever seen.”
“How did you know to come here?”
“My dear,” he said, offering her a sardonic smile, “I am not without resource, you know. I have been about this business for some considerable time. The parts I know, I know very well.”
“Such as those in Egypt.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “Egypt in several of its epochs-at least, the ones that interest me.” He walked on a few steps, then added, “So far.”
Although Lord Burleigh did not use any external references for travelling to places he knew, Haven was making her own map. Using Sir Henry’s green book as an inspiration, she had begun writing down descriptions of the places she had visited, the locations of the leys, and any salient features she deemed important to remember. As yet it was a fairly wordy affair with directions and orientations for setting and location and such, but she was working on a way of coding the information in a more compact and precise form.
It was a good mental exercise, and she had the distinct feeling that it would prove useful in days to come. If nothing else, it filled the idle hours when she was alone-which happened more frequently than she liked. Burleigh did not take her everywhere; most of his journeys were made without her and for reasons he kept to himself. For despite whatever he might say to the contrary, the earl maintained a fierce secrecy around his plans and doings. Far from discouraging her, it only made her the more determined to discover what he knew that he did not care for her to know, or was not prepared to share.
What Burleigh hoped to gain from their liaison was also something of a mystery. As yet, he had not made any untoward demands or advances on her; he seemed content to allow their rapport to develop in its own good time-an expectation Haven was happy to encourage so long as it proved a useful ploy.
They walked along beneath a low grey sky into a freshening wind. The air was clean and cool and laden with the scent of rain. At the edge of the wood they came to a rise, which led up and out of the shallow river valley and onto a grassy plain. Far in the distance a range of low hills rose in a ragged line, but on the plain itself there was nothing to be seen save the grass undulating in waves like a wide green ocean.
Haven took one look at the formless expanse and asked, “However did you find a ley out there?”
“I have my ways, my dear.” He put his head down and started out into the prairie.
By that she thought he meant a map, though she had never seen him use one. She followed in his wake, listening to the swish of their feet through the tall grass. After a time, they came to a narrow crevice-a vee-shaped cleft in the ground like a miniature fault line running west and east, cutting through the plain in an unwavering line.
“Here it is,” Burleigh said, holding out his hand. “Hold on. This won’t take long.”
She took his hand, and they walked a half-dozen steps. While physical contact was not strictly necessary, she had learned that it made for more accurate leaps. Or at least lessened the chance that they might become separated. Why this should be, she had yet to discover.
In the space of those first steps, the sky seemed to dim and the prairie grew hazy around them. The wind gusted, flattening the grass, driving down along the fault line. Rain spattered, sharp and heavy. There came a shriek from a great height-as if the sky were being torn-and then all turned black.
She landed with a jolt that sent a tremor up through her bones. The gorge rose in the throat, but since she had nothing to throw up, she gagged it back, swallowing hard. She wiped the rain from her eyes and looked around. The landscape was dark, the evening stars bright in the east. They seemed to have arrived on a promontory above a crescent bay. There were boats lined up on the beach below, and at the point of the cove some distance ahead she could see the lights of a village kindled against the gathering evening gloom.
“Time is against us today,” Burleigh said. “We’ll have to stay there tonight and get an early start in the morning. The ley is a few miles the other side of that headland.”
“The village,” said Haven as they started towards the lights, “does it have a name?”
“Trondheim, I think.”
“We’re in Norway?”
“They speak Danish-or some dialect of it, so far as I can tell-but we’re not in Norway… too far south. I suspect it is a trading colony established by Danish settlers-something like that. Fishing boats call in here for supplies and water. There are two inns and several taverns. The people are friendly enough, for all you can understand them.”
“What will they make of us?”
“Who knows? I pay in good silver, that is all they care about.”
True to form, they were welcomed at the inn and enjoyed a hearty supper of fish pate on brown bread, followed by stewed mutton and greens. They were given rooms at the top of the house, which was quiet enough, though Haven, alone in her lumpy bed, was kept awake by raucous singing late into the night. The two travellers slipped out of the inn and were back on the trail again before sunrise. Burleigh located the ley and, as the first rays of the new morning broke over the hilltop to the east, they made the leap to Bohemia.
Burleigh had marked the ley using small white stones in a line beside the trail, which was delineated by a standing stone, a burial mound, a notch in a distant hilltop, and, of all things, a gallows beside a lonely crossroads. The earl had calibrated the leap precisely-Haven heard him counting off the steps under his breath as they walked briskly along the line. There was a blur of cold mist and a screech of wind, and they landed on a quiet, sunny hillside a few miles from the city of Prague. They walked through a countryside of young green fields and arrived at the city just as the gates were being opened for the day.
Once on the road, they fell in with the ordinary traffic of merchants and travellers arriving for the day’s business; they passed through the city walls, down some narrow streets, and across a wide and handsome bridge, where Burleigh stopped at last.
“It is very like London,” observed Haven, gazing around approvingly. “Smaller, and better paved. Cleaner, to be sure. But not without similarities.”
“The palace is up on the hilltop,” he said, indicating the bulking eminence commanding the high point of the town. “Who is the emperor?”
“Rudolf the second,” replied Haven crisply. “Everyone knows that. I am astonished you should ask.”
“I was just making sure you knew.” He started off again just as the bells in the cathedral tower began to ring. Within moments, every other church bell throughout the city began chiming as well, urging the faithful to attend Mass.
“Will we see His Majesty?” asked Haven after a moment. “I should very much like to.”
“It is possible,” Burleigh allowed. “If he happens to hear that I have come for a visit, he may demand an audience. He fancies himself leading a renaissance of science and likes to keep a finger in every pie.”
“Is that why you have chosen Prague to have this instrument made?”
Burleigh cast a quick sideways glance at his companion. She was a quick-witted lass; beneath those russet curls was a mind as quick and supple as any he had ever met. “Very good, my dear. Yes, the science here is in its infancy, but their craftsmanship is more than adequate to my purpose. They are amenable and do not ask many questions.” He paused, then added, “Unlike yourself.”
“You flatter me, sir,” she replied brightly.
The street rose steeply before them and began winding its way up the hill to the palace precinct, passing rows of tidy houses and shops. The people going about their business seemed reasonably well-dressed and prosperous and, above all, clean. The front steps of the dwellings were washed, the windows too-even the streets were swept, and the rubbish left in neat little piles for the refuse cart to collect.
As they walked along, Haven kept an eye out for the coffee shop, hoping to inveigle Burleigh into stopping for a cup of the fashionable elixir. But she did not see it, and they climbed higher into the city, very soon arriving at the palace gate, which was open to allow visitors to pass through unimpeded. They crossed the yard and were met by two guardsmen in gleaming silver breastplates and helmets. They crossed their long pikes in a ceremonial barring of the way until Burleigh, speaking in rough German, stated his name, title, and business.
Whatever he told them, the guards raised their weapons and allowed the two visitors to continue; they passed beneath the statue of Saint George slaying the dragon and into the great vestibule of the palace. There they were intercepted by one of the imperial ushers-youths whose duty it was to conduct the emperor’s guests to their desired destinations.
Again Burleigh spoke a few words, and they were escorted deeper into the warren of rooms and buildings that was the imperial residence. “How is your German?” asked Burleigh as they progressed along a seemingly endless gallery.
“Why, sir, I have no knowledge of the language at all,” confessed Haven readily.
“You know more than you think you do,” the earl informed her. “Since you speak English, you already know a thousand words or more. However, you will not be required to speak. Just pay attention and you can pick up most of what you need to know by way of gesture and situation. Just remember, the Bohemians are very formal people.”
They arrived at a large panelled door and stopped. The usher knocked on the door for them and a voice from inside answered, whereupon the usher bowed and stepped away, indicating that they should enter.
“After you, my dear,” said Burleigh.