In Which the Past Catches Up
Putting their feet to the road, the three travellers began walking alongside the river lazily winding its way towards the city. The sun was warm on their backs, and their wet clothes soon dried as they walked. Kit, who had grown used to the sweltering heat of Egypt in high summer, luxuriated in the balmy breezes wafting off the water.
“Really,” he said after a while, “how did you learn so much about ley travel? The last time I saw you-” He paused. “I mean, the time before the last time-when I lost you in the alley in London, remember?”
“Of course, I remember,” she told him. “The best thing that ever happened to me-how could I forget?”
“Just wait.” She gave him a bright smile. “You’ll see.”
“Okay,” agreed Kit, “then tell me how you knew where to find the leys we’ve been using.”
“I discovered this line with my ley lamp.”
“That little gismo you have hidden in your pocket?”
“That’s what I call it.” She dug it out and handed it to him. “It seems to be able to locate ley lines and indicate when they are most strongly active.”
He stared at the brass oval filling the palm of her hand. “May I?”
“Be my guest.” She passed it to him.
It was heavier than he expected and warm to the touch. The small holes formerly filled with blue light were dark now. “Ever seen anything like that before?” he asked, passing the mechanism to Giles for his perusal.
“Only in Miss Wilhelmina’s possession.” He handed it back.
“Where did it come from?” asked Kit.
“Long story,” Mina replied. “But I’m hoping to get an upgrade on this one.”
Giles sang out just then. “Wagon coming!”
They turned to see a farm vehicle pulled by two large horses trundling towards them. “We’re in luck,” observed Wilhelmina. “We can hitch a ride with them.” She glanced at Kit. “How’s your German?”
“Mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut,” he said. “And yours?”
“Better than that.” She laughed. “Just smile and be agreeable. I’ll do all the talking.”
The wagon drew nearer, and Wilhelmina hastened to meet it. “Guten Tag!” she called.
“Amazing,” breathed Kit, watching her converse with the farmer. “I can’t believe she’s the same person I’ve always known.”
“People can change,” Giles observed.
The ride into Prague was a slow-motion delight as the wagon jostled along the dirt road in the easy warmth of a lazy autumn afternoon. And then, as they came around a sweeping bend of the river, there it was: the old city with its grand iron gates and stout walls; proud flags fluttered on crenellated battlements, and the tops of steeples and towers could be glimpsed above the walls; the old cobbled streets leading into the warren of timber houses with red tile roofs and windows of tiny diamond-shaped glass panes. At once cosy and ordered, it was a sharp contrast to the arid wilderness of the Egyptian desert.
As the wagon was waved through the wide-open city gate by the guardsmen dozing in the shadow of the archway, Kit glanced at Giles, whose expression remained fixed and inscrutable. “What do you make of this, then?” he asked.
Giles looked around thoughtfully. “It all seems as it should,” was his only reply.
Once in the city square, they disembarked. Wilhelmina paid the farmer a few small coins and thanked him. Then, gathering her charges, she said, “This is known as the Old Square. It is the main market square of the city and, in my opinion, the best place in the city to live.”
“You live here?” wondered Kit. There was no market in progress, but the wide paved expanse was full of people plying their trades from small carts and otherwise going about their business.
“I do,” she said, leading them across the square. “In fact, I have a partner and a shop.” She pointed to the bank of handsome buildings lining the northern side of the square. “There”-she indicated one of them-“the green one with the sign in gold lettering. That one is mine.”
“Grand Imperial Kaffeehaus,” said Kit, reading the sign. “Mina, are you telling me you have a coffeehouse?”
“Coffeehouse and bakery,” she replied. “The best in the city-the best in Bohemia, actually. We’re unique.”
“Crikey,” murmured Kit, shaking his head in disbelief. “So this is how you have survived all this time-as a baker in a coffee shop?”
“Kit, I own the shop.”
“You said you had a partner?”
“A business partner, yes,” she added by way of clarification. She pushed open the door and beckoned them in. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to him.”
They stepped over the threshold and into a convivial room filled with cloth-covered tables where customers were being served by white-aproned waitresses in green dresses and little green bonnets. The travellers passed among the tables, and some of the shop’s patrons recognised their hostess and greeted her politely. A counter separated the dining area from the kitchen, from which emanated the mouthwatering smell of fresh-roasted coffee and warm pastry.
“This way.” She led them around the counter and back into the inner kitchen where the ovens were located. “Etzel, ich bin zurluck!” she called, and a large, soft bear of a man wearing a flour-dusted apron and floppy green hat turned red-faced from bending over the oven.
“Oh! Mein Schatz! ” he said, holding out thick arms for a hug. He all but buried Wilhelmina in his embrace. “I thought you would be gone all day, no?”
“I guess the journey did not take as long as I expected,” she said. “Come, I’ve brought some friends. I want you to meet them.”
He glanced up and saw the visitors for the first time. “Das wurde mich freuen, ” he gasped, and swept off his hat. He ran a chubby hand through his pale blond hair in an effort to make himself presentable-a gesture of such affable humility that Kit liked him instantly.
“Kit, Giles, this is my friend and partner, Engelbert Stiffelbeam,” she said, repeating it in German for the baker, then adding for his benefit, “the best man I know.”
“Oh, you flatterer,” said Etzel, blushing at the compliment. He patted her with obvious affection, and she bussed his doughy cheek. Then, turning back, the baker held out his hand to his guests, who shook it in turn. “Welcome, my friends,” he said, offering a little bow. “I am honoured.”
“Glad to meet you,” said Kit, and Mina echoed, “Es freut mich, Sie kennenzulernen. ”
“Jawohl!” replied Etzel. “I hope you have had a good journey?” Mina translated, but before either of them could reply, he said, “What am I thinking? You must be starving. Sit down, sit down. You must have some of my fresh apple strudel. It will revive you.”
While Etzel busied himself with the strudel, Mina donned a crisp, clean apron and began preparing coffee. Kit watched the efficient operation with interest verging on admiration; he could not get over the transformation he saw in Wilhelmina as she directed her staff and took charge of the kitchen, displaying an easy authority he had never before seen in her. Nor was that all: her hair was longer, more luxuriant somehow; her long, lithe form had filled out a little, giving her a trim figure. The dark circles, a perennial part of her appearance, were gone; she radiated a vitality and energy Kit had never witnessed. She was, he decided, a woman who had come into her own, and he liked what he saw.
Shortly, Etzel called for one of his helpers to bring plates and directed his guests to sit down. “Setzen Sie sich, bitte.”
“Just find a table,” Mina told them, “and I will bring the coffee.”
Kit and Giles returned to the dining room; evening was drawing in, but there were still a few people in the house. They chose a table in a far corner so they could talk without disturbing the others. In a moment Etzel appeared, humming to himself as he placed thick slices of warm strudel on plates before them and daintily laying a small spoon beside each plate. Satisfied that all was in order, the big baker urged them on, saying, “Mahlzeit! Guten Appetit!”
Kit and Giles took up their spoons and simultaneously took an exploratory bite. “Sehr gut!” Kit said, making a pantomime expression of pleasure.
“Very good,” said Giles, descending to his plate. He began spooning up strudel like the hungry man he was.
Kit’s polite restraint lasted another two bites, and then he, too, began scooping for all he was worth and murmuring heartfelt appreciation between mouthfuls. Etzel beamed at them and chuckled, his hands folded across his stomach.
Wilhelmina returned with a tray full of small pots of coffee and cups. “Well, that’s going down a treat,” she observed. To Etzel, she said, “Your strudel will be world famous.”
“It is that spice you have brought us,” he replied knowingly.
“The cinnamon,” she said, pleased that he was using this unfamiliar spice. “Do you think so?”
“ Ja, that makes the difference.” Seeing that the men had all but finished their portions, he said, “I will bring some more.”
“I didn’t know I was so hungry,” Kit remarked. Giles nodded in full-mouthed agreement.
“We’ll have a nice dinner after we’ve closed the shop-if you two can hold out that long.” Wilhelmina set down the tray and took up a pot. She was pouring the first cups when she glanced towards the shop’s front door at some customers just entering. “It looks like closing time will have to wait a little while. I’ll seat these last customers and put up the shutters.”
“Don’t mind us,” said Kit, taking up his coffee. “We’re happy as clams in clover,” he said expansively, sipping the rich dark bitter liquid. “Well, Giles, old buddy, it looks like we landed on our feet this time. Who’d have thought it, eh?”
As the newcomers passed behind Kit, he saw Giles’ eyes flick their way. The young man’s features froze in an odd expression-something halfway between disbelief and horror.
“What?” asked Kit.
“What is she doing here?” hissed Giles.
“She?” wondered Kit, swivelling in his chair.
“Don’t turn around!”
He sensed a presence behind him, and then the last voice he expected to hear spoke his name: “Kit? Giles? Upon my soul-it is you!”
And then she was at their table, standing over them.
Kit looked up into the face he thought never to see again-as lovely as ever, but now contorted in anguish and fear.
“Hello, Haven,” said Kit, voice husky, his skin tingling with instant revulsion. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“You must leave at once!” she urged. Eyes wide, she stole a swift glance towards the shop entrance where another party of customers was just entering. “Quick!” Her manner became frantic. She clutched at Kit’s arm as if to pull him bodily from his chair. “Flee! You must not let him see you. He thinks you dead.”
Across the table, Giles, watching the entrance, let out a low growl of contempt as he spat out the name. “Burleigh!”