Leopold was looking at the huge crystal chandelier. It was glistening, while the candle flames were dancing in a reddish light. The bell of a clock made him turn towards the corner of the room. The automaton long case clock had a beautiful mahogany color. He went closer, to see it in detail. The arched white dial displayed a Roman chapter ring. It had blued steel hands and the maker’s name and place of work were written above number VI. “Fascinating!” he thought, while he touched the mahogany wood with the tips of his fingers. He felt his nails scratch the polished surface. The arch was depicting, in automata form, the moment when Eve offered Adam the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. The arms of Adam and Eve were moving as the clock was ticking. The arch was also painted with wild animals. He looked closer and distinguished a lion, a tiger, a giraffe, and an elephant. In the four corners were depicted some churches. “I must have such a treasure, too! It’s a marvel of technology!” he thought, fascinated with the intricate design of the moving figures.
“Ah, Margrave, I was looking for you! Welcome to Vienna! How do you like the court?”
Leopold turned around. “More beautiful than I expected.” the Margrave said smiling. “How is my loyal friend, the Duke, doing?”
“I’m fine, my friend. I have other worries now.”
The Margrave frowned inquisitively.
“The Prussian King has marched into Silesia”
“But Duke, this is unacceptable, Silesia is ours!”
“You understand, Margrave that this is not about Silesia. He wants supremacy! He wants to force us to capitulate.”
“This means a new war…”
“It could lead us to ruin!”
“Margrave, my friend, you read my thoughts.”
At that moment, the large door opened. The two men turned around. A valet appeared in the doorframe.
“Dinner is ready, your grace,” he said, with a deep bow.
The Duke made a wide gesture with his arm, inviting the Margrave into the dining room.
“The Empress will hold a speech tonight. You should come, Leopold.”
“I was planning to do so. This whole situation is making me feel worried.”
“Prices Paul and Nikolaus will be there too”
“Who else? The Empress will need the Hungarians’ help.”
“Sure. She cannot fight the Prussians alone. She wouldn’t stand a chance!”
“Therefore we have just one hour for dinner.”
“We should hurry up then, we don’t want to be late on such an occasion.”
“With you, there shouldn’t be a problem, Leopold, you hardly eat anything. I don’t know how you survive.”
“You know what the Romans used to say, frugality is a virtue.”
“You talk about virtues, my friend? How about the beautiful ladies that we love to invite to our lavish parties?” the Duke said smiling.
“You know what his Eminence, the Cardinal said, no human can possess all virtues. Perfection is reserved to our dear God alone.” Leopold said, raising a hand towards heaven.
“Why don’t you come to the hunt tomorrow? Many Hungarian nobles will be there, too. You should talk to them.”
“Unfortunately I cannot. I will not be in Vienna tomorrow.”
“Again, you refuse my invitation, Margrave. I almost never see you in daylight. Sometimes I believe that you have signed a pact with the spirits of the night.”
“Business, my friend. I am always very busy during the day and I can only dedicate the late hours to relaxation. You know I would never miss a ball, in order to see my old friends again. Tell me, is Francis still cheating on her?”
“Whom, the Empress?” the duke raised an eyebrow. “What do you think?”
“And what does she say?”
“What any wife would, my dear friend.” answered the Duke, putting a hand on his shoulder. “There are some rules in this world,” he continued, “that not even an Empress can break.”
“By the way, Duke, I love the new clock you have bought. Where did you get it from?”
“I bought it in London, but it was made by a clockmaker in the Hague.”
“Fascinating this new technology.”
“Yes, every day I see new things being invented. The world evolves, my friend.”
They sat at the table, while the valet started bringing plates and a porcelain bowl that was giving out a pleasant odor of warm food.
The room was covered in darkness. He opened his eyes and looked through the room. “I wonder what time it is.” he thought and stretched his arms. He had a slight sensation of hunger. He yawned. “A young, beautiful woman.” he thought, with a smile. “This is what I will order tonight.”
Leopold pulled the heavy curtains away and opened the window. The air was perfumed with the fresh smell of flower blossoms. “I love hunting in spring. It has something poetic.”
Leopold turned towards the valet, who had just entered the room. “Call the carriage, please. This is a beautiful night for a walk on the streets of Vienna.”
“Of course, my Lord.” the valet said and left, with a deep bow.
The carriage stopped and Leopold opened the door.
“Wait for me here.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
Leopold left the carriage and quickly disappeared in the dark, narrow streets. He never dressed as an aristocrat, when he was leaving the palace at night. It would have been very unwise. The smell of dirt and animal dung was disgusting. He looked carefully at where he was stepping. He saw a rat running along the street and disappear in a crack of the wall. Some small street lights were scattered here and there. Their light was dim and the smell of burnt oil was irritating his nostrils. Under one of those lights, he saw the silhouette of a woman. She was wearing a large wig and a red dress.
She saw him approach. “How are you, my dear? Do you want to have some fun tonight?” she asked in a loud, vulgar tone.
Leopold smiled “Why don’t we go to a more quiet place?” he put his arm around her waist and pushed her forward. He was smelling the scent of blood pulsing in her arteries. He felt hungry. The smell was mixed with that of cheap perfume. This scent was making his stomach turn. He tried to pierce through the darkness of the narrow, filthy street.
“You see like a cat.” the woman said, in a drunken tone.
“Really…?” he answered, paying little attention to her words. He felt the smell of alcohol coming from her mouth. “Why don’t we stop here…” he whispered, looking along the street, to check if anyone had followed them.
Leopold dropped the corpse to the ground. He looked along the narrow street, to make sure that nobody was watching. There was no moon outside and the darkness was so deep, that he could hardly see anything, in spite of his very sensitive eyesight. He went towards the corner of the street. Suddenly he started to distinguish some light. He arranged his clothes and continued his walk. A small street light was hardly burning, casting large shadows, as he was moving. He looked around and tried to find his way back to the carriage.
He went through the large vestibule with stone columns and entered the hall. A few people turned their heads towards him. A man with a wig and a red coat touched his arm.
“Nice to see you here Leopold.”
“Simon, how are you?”
“Fine, let’s sit here, in the back. Tell me about you, I haven’t seen you in a while. Where have you been?” he said in a low voice.
“I spent winter in Saxony and then traveled for a short while to Versailles.”
“What were you doing in France?”
“I can’t give you details. Diplomatic matters…”
“I heard that Frederick intends to establish an alliance with France. Is that correct?”
“I’m afraid it is. But you didn’t hear it from me!”
“Of course, you’re my friend! I couldn’t betray a friend! I’ll be like a tomb. But tell me more, I’m curious.”
“Quiet gentlemen!” came a whispering voice from the front.
Leopold lowered his head. He didn’t want others to overhear their discussion. He then looked at the center of the hall. A man was kneeling in front of a table covered in cloth. He was half-naked. On the table, there was a Bible, a Square, and Compass.
“I, Maximilian Steiner, of my own free will and accord, in the presence of Almighty God and this right worshipful lodge, erected to Him and dedicated to the Holy Saint John…”
“Hey, Leopold!” he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned his head. The man behind him made a sign with his arm, calling him outside. He got up and moved towards the door, trying not to make any noise. Once in the vestibule, he could hardly close the door, that he felt someone embrace him.
“How nice to see you again, Leopold! I hoped you would be here tonight! How was your trip? Have you already talked to the Duke?”
“Yes, I spoke with him yesterday.”
“What did he say? Was he optimistic?”
Leopold shook his head “He thinks they will lose. They need help. They will attempt to get some Hungarian troops.”
“He didn’t say. They are desperate…By the way, she has spies. She knows a lot about the conflicts her opponents have with each other. She is sly, she will use that knowledge to her own advantage.”
“Leopold, are you still going to Linz?”
“Yes, I have some business there.”
“Then take this letter with you.” He opened his coat and took a letter out of the inner pocket.
Leopold took the folded paper from his friend’s hand and looked at the red seal, in the shivering light of the candles on the wall.
“Do I know this seal?”
He exchanged a short look with his interlocutor, who replied:
“No, but I want you to meet a good friend of mine, the alchemist.”
Leopold raised an eyebrow, with curiosity.
“Be careful, my friend.” the man continued. “You know how important your help is to us all. But we don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“I know, Niklas, don’t worry. I have seven lives, like a cat.”, Leopold said, smiling. “Let’s go back, our friends are waiting for us.”
The two men went back to the large hall and quietly sat down in a corner.
Together with his friend, Leopold entered the large stone house. “Where are we going?” he whispered.
“The lab is underneath the tower. Follow me!” Niklas said.
He went down the winding stairs of the stone tower. He could hear the sound of Niklas’ steps in front of him. The sound stopped. He heard a door squeak. A sulfur smell hit his sensitive nostrils.
He entered the dark room with caution. Some barrels, a chest, and a cupboard, with many round bottom flasks, were all aligned along the round wall. A small stove was burning in the middle of the room. On it, there was a cast-iron cauldron, in which something was boiling. A man, dressed in a long grey robe, was mixing something in the large pot, using a long metal spoon.
“Meet my friend Basilius Ulmer.”
Leopold approached and greeted him with a bow of his head, “Mr. Ulmer it is an honor meeting you! I have heard a lot about your achievements in the field of alchemy.”
“It is my honor meeting you, Margrave. We are all very grateful for helping us fight for our cause.”
“No need to thank me, Sir, I only follow the dictates of my conscience.”
“Why don’t you sit down, gentlemen?” the alchemist said, bringing two chairs next to a wooden table. “Perhaps you would like some wine.” He brought a bottle and a few glasses and put them on the table. ”Please forgive the mess…and the terrible smell. I’ve been experimenting with mercury and sulfur.”
“We’ve been following the events at court with great worry,” said Niklas. “My friend, the Margrave, was there and knows everything that happened.”
Ulmer looked at Leopold attentively. “What does the Empress plan to do?”
Leopold took the glass of wine and looked through the red liquid, preparing to utter his words. He felt unwell from the fumes emanated by the small stove.