Mikayla Barnes squinted against the late morning sun bringing the town of Plötzkau into focus. Set well back from the lazy loops of the Saale, it looked exactly like an illustration out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales—just like all the other German towns Mikayla had seen since she and the rest of Grantville accidently landed in the seventeenth century. Then she spotted something not at all fairytale but distinctly twentieth-century; a crowd of protesters on the docks waving signs.
“Johanna,” Mikayla said, “come look at this.”
Her pen-pal, Princess Johanna of Anhalt, turned from giving some instructions to one of the barge crew. She looked first at Mikayla, then towards the docks, frowned, and came to the railing for a better look.
“Do you know what’s going on?” Mikayla asked looking up at the tall princess. She was still getting used to the real Johanna, as opposed to the imaginary one she’d been writing to for over a year. Even though she’d known better she’d still somehow imagined her pen-pal as thirteen like herself, and shorter and, well, more American because they seemed to have so much in common.
Johanna shook her head. “No idea. Can you make out those signs?”
Mikayla squinted harder trying to force the distant lettering into focus. “UMWA. What’s the Mine Workers’ Union doing in Plötzkau?”
“There’s a potash mine on the other side of the river,” Johanna answered absently, gesturing vaguely behind herself.
“A what mine?” Mikayla asked blankly.
“It’s a kind of mineral salt,” Johanna explained. “It’s good for fertilizer and the chemical company in Stassfurt buys it, too. Papa says we’re doing very well from the profits.”
Mikayla was a coal miner’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter. She instinctively sided with the protesters and frowned darkly at her friend. “Why is the UMWA upset with you?”
“I didn’t know they were,” Johanna answered, eyes still on the shore.
As the barge got closer it became clear there were two different and entirely separate groups waiting to greet it. A cluster of portly men in formal seventeenth-century dress constituted one and a number of much younger men and women dressed in homemade knockoffs of up-time clothes the other. Guess which one was waving the signs. A fairly large crowd stood well back in the fields between the docks and the town proper watching avidly but at a safe distance from ground zero.
By now the rest of the girls making up the Anke Treuer Mysteries writers’ circle had gathered round, all of them eyeing the reception committee with some unease. Mikayla joined her Grantville friends, Sherri Hinson and Jessica Samuels, at the back of the group. They weren’t exactly cowering behind their older down-timer friends but they definitely intended to let the princesses deal with the problem—whatever it was.
“Maybe they’ve got nothing to do with us,” Sherri said, clearly dreaming.
“I bet it’s got to do with Johanna and Lies,” Jessica answered.
“I fear Jessie is right,” Lies, aka Princess Elisabeth of Anhalt-Zerbst, agreed a little grimly. She was the eldest of the four down-timer girls, a full eighteen years old like their heroine Anke Treuer. She was also Johanna’s cousin.
The other two down-timers were just seventeen, like Johanna. Julia Felicitas was yet another of Johanna’s many cousins and Anna Sophia wasn’t. Like the Americans they seemed more than willing to hold back and let the Anhaltiners face the music. Both halves of the welcome committee surged forward as the barge docked, leaving the girls with barely enough room to disembark.
“Your Grace,” the senior of the official detachment, marked as such by his heavy gold chain, began, “Welcome back to your loyal town of—”
There was probably more to the speech but the girls didn’t get to hear it as it was drowned out by the sign wavers howling union mottos. The local dignitaries turned on them and both sides forgot all about the girls yelling insults at each other. Mikayla saw a punch land on chain guy’s nose followed by a gush of blood and a howl of fury as he dove into the protesters, fists swinging.
She tugged nervously at the back of Johanna’s jacket. “Maybe we should get back on the boat.”
“That’s a good idea,” Anna Sophia agreed with considerable feeling.
The whole clump of girls edged back towards the gangway which luckily was still down but then the free-for-all in front of them heaved and split right down the middle the combatants shoved apart by men wielding long poles topped with wickedly pointy axeheads.
Lies heaved a sigh of relief. The other princesses relaxed too. “What?” Mikayla asked, still nervous, “Who are those guys?”
“Guards from the castle,” Johanna replied.
“So, on our side. Good.”
The guards got the girls through the crowd and into a capacious carriage painted with the Anhalt arms.
“What was that all about?” Mikayla asked her pen-pal breathlessly as they rattled off.
“I don’t know and I can’t say I care,” Johanna snapped, looking thoroughly put out.
“We’re here to write, not to settle local quarrels,” Julia added staring pointedly at Lies.
The eldest princess nodded agreement. “Johanna and I weren’t sent as envoys from Uncle Augustus. We should definitely not get involved.”
“Yeah, politics. Not our problem,” Sherri chimed in on behalf of the up-timers.
Mikayla didn’t disagree. She just wondered if they could ignore riots practically on their doorstep. Of course having a wall and a mile or so of park around them should help.
Schloss Plötzkau looked more like a mansion on steroids than Cinderella’s Castle but at least it had a wall, if not a very high one, lined with two-story buildings and enclosing a courtyard that was mostly dirt with scattered patches of grass and weeds. Directly ahead was the castle proper, three or four stories high, with rows of rounded gables and a tall, thin tower topped with yet more gables rising over all.
The carriage rattled through a sort of tunnel into a cobbled inner yard and came to a jerking halt in front of an open door flanked by rows of men in the yellow and black Anhalt livery standing at attention. Mikayla nudged Jessie who nudged Sherri. The princesses were clearly unimpressed, taking it totally for granted.
The coach door opened. Johanna went first, then Lies, then Julia indicated it was Mikayla’s turn. One footman held the heavy door open, and a second offered his hand to steady her as she gingerly descended a pair of rickety wooden steps to the cobbled ground.
The two princesses were accepting the bows of an important-looking fellow in furred gown and gold chain. Johanna answered him in a friendly tone meaning he was somebody important. The princesses were kind of abrupt when talking to servants, not mean exactly but not nice, either. Mikayla reminded herself that it wasn’t their fault they’d grown up in the seventeenth century.
The man with the furs and chain was introduced to Mikayla and the other guests as Burgmann Schenk, the castellan in charge of the castle now that the prince had moved away. He bowed a good deal as he escorted the girls into a hall made darker by lots of carved paneling. But they left him behind as Johanna and Lies led the way up a massive staircase to an upper hall where they were greeted by a row of capped and aproned maids dropping deep curtsies.
Jessie nudged Sherri who nudged Mikayla who nudged sharply back. “Don’t gape!”
A lady in formal dress wearing an order’s decoration turned out to be Frau Schenk who would act as their chaperon or in twentieth-century terms their babysitter. “We have prepared the Princess’s apartments for your Grace and your guests,” she said to Johanna, curtsying but not as deeply as the maids.
“Not the guest quarters?” Johanna asked, surprised, then shrugged like it didn’t really matter. “Very well.”
The first room of the apartment had deep-set windows overlooking the park and gilt on the elaborately carved paneling. Mikayla saw it was furnished as a dining room, dominated by a big table surrounded by brocade-covered chairs and wasn’t at all surprised when Johanna said, “We’ll take our meals here.”
“Nice,” said Sherri, fingering the heavy silk covering the chair nearest to her.
Frau Schenk opened another door. This room was brightened by a thickly gilt wallpaper. Mikayla joined Sherri and Jessie in oohing and aahing over the heavily carved sofas and chairs upholstered in blue and red silk. A mechanical typewriter stood on a long table under the windows, clashing with the rest of the decor. Seven gilt inkwells and fountain pens stood in a row ending in a carved box. Mikayla opened it and found it full of neatly cut eight by eleven sheets of paper.
“I see this is where we are expected to work,” Johanna remarked behind them.
“That seems pretty obvious,” Julia agreed dryly.
“Looks like Burgmann Schenk has seen to it we have everything we need.” Lies smiled at Frau Schenk who smiled back and opened the next door.
The girls, led by Johanna, filed through into another large room. This one was dominated by a tall four-poster bed all hung with multicolored tapestry.
“Who’s going to sleep in here?” Sherri asked brightly. The princesses all looked at her like she was crazy.
“Nobody,” Johanna answered. “This is just for show. The real bedrooms are on the third floor.”
A twisty staircase tucked behind the bed took them up to a much more reasonably-sized room hung with red curtains on bed and windows. Green tapestries covered the walls and open doors on either side showed a row of similar rooms all connected. “You see?” asked Johanna. “Which room would you like? Take your pick.”
Rooms were picked, and Johanna led her guests back downstairs to the first room of the suite for the midday meal, leaving the unpacking to the maids.
The long table was now spread with white linen and set with majolica ware and silver plate. Johanna seated herself at the head of the table and gave Mikayla the place of honor at her right hand. She had spent the last year or more pouring out her every thought and opinion to her Americaness pen-pal so why was she finding it so very hard to talk to Mikayla to her face? She’d always known how old her correspondent was, but somehow she’d never imagined her so young.
“Mikayla, what is a ‘slumber party’?” Johanna asked abruptly, breaking the awkward silence between them.
Mikayla seemed considerably taken aback by the question. “What?”
“Frau Nelson wished me pleasure of my ‘slumber party’ when we left Quedlinburg,” Johanna explained, “I have been wondering what she meant ever since.”
“Well, it’s a girl thing, a twentieth-century girl thing I mean,” Mikayla began a little uncertainly. “You invite some friends over to your house to spend the night—”
“If it’s just one or two it’s a ‘sleep-over’,” Sherri interrupted. “It’s only a slumber party if there a lot of you.”
Mikayla nodded, “Yeah, that’s true. A real slumber party won’t fit into your bedroom. You have to spread sleeping bags in the living room or somewhere.”
“But what pleasure is there in sleeping on the floor?” Anna Sophia asked puzzled. All three up-time girls laughed.
“Oh you don’t sleep at a slumber party,” Mikayla said. “You sit up and eat snacks and watch movies—”
“And talk about school and boys and stuff,” Jessie added, “I guess you don’t do any of that.”
It was the down-time girls’ turn to laugh. “Oh yes we do,” said Johanna. “We are always sneaking into each other’s rooms to share good things to eat and talk about our teachers, classes, and boys.”
“But there are no boys at your school,” Jessie pointed out.
“All the more reason to talk about them!” said Lies with a grin.
They all laughed, and the atmosphere became more relaxed and friendly.
“What else do you do at ‘slumber parties’?” Anna Sophia asked Sherri across the table.
“Well, since the main idea is to keep awake we tell each other scary ghost stories,” she answered.
“I thought up-timers didn’t believe in ghosts?” Julia said in surprise.
“Depends on the up-timer,” Mikayla said and looked at Jessie.
“I don’t believe in ghosts. I am interested in parapsychology,” she answered primly. Mikayla and Sherri both rolled their eyes, and Jessie went on defensively, “Hey, we’re sitting in a castle in the seventeenth century having lunch with girls who died three hundred years before we were born!”
Johanna joined the rest of the older girls in a disapproving frown. “The Ring of Fire was a miracle of God,” Lies pointed out stiffly.
“I know it’s on a whole different level,” Jessie backtracked hastily. “What I mean is we’re not in a position to make absolute statements on what’s possible and what’s not anymore.”
The older girls looked at each other. “That’s true,” Lies conceded.
“I know what psychology means,” Julia said, “but what is ‘para’ psychology?”
“It’s the scientific study of things like ghosts, premonitions, and other stuff that doesn’t fit in with the standard scientific view of the world,” Jessie answered. “According to parapsychology all those things are really perfectly natural—just rare and governed by rules we don’t understand yet.”
Julia looked dubious.
“Does your castle have ghosts?” Mikayla asked Johanna.
“Not that I’ve ever seen or heard,” she replied, “but the park is supposed to be haunted by a ghostly nun.”
“Who hasn’t been seen in living memory because nobody dares to go into the park at night.” Lies added dryly.
“Must be some ghost,” said Mikayla.
After the meal Johanna took her friends on a tour of Schloss Plötzkau. The three little up-timers were rather flatteringly impressed by everything, starting with the stiff two-dimensional paintings of Johanna’s medieval ancestors hanging above the wainscoting of the corridor.
“Oh, gosh, look at these,” Sherri gushed.
Johanna did and they still looked flat and old-fashioned to her. The American girls were even more impressed with the dark-paneled council chamber and all but overwhelmed by the chamber of estate.
“Oh, Go – gosh! an honest to goodness throne room!” Mikayla was practically jumping up and down, and the other two looked just as excited.
Johanna exchanged a bemused look with Lies. The room in fact wasn’t particularly impressive as such chambers went; it had a rather nice parquet floor and a geometrically coffered ceiling painted with armorial motifs. The walls were covered with red and yellow damask, and the chair of state on the dais had no canopy as these days it was the seat of a deputy, not the prince himself.
Mikayla saw and correctly interpreted their looks. “Royalty and thrones are things from books back in our time,” she explained. “That’s why it’s so exciting to see it real.”
Johanna smiled at her pen-pal. “Come and see the Furstensaal.”
“Oh, wow, just—wow,” Sherri breathed as they came through the door. The other two Americanesses seemed incapable of saying anything at all. Even Julia and Anna Sophia were impressed, and the looks Johanna and Lies traded were smug.
Prince Bernhard had imported craftsmen from Italy to paint the white plaster walls with the grotesque designs and classical medallions fashionable in those days, and unlike the medieval painted panels these decorations had aged well. The coffered ceiling was also decorated with classical scenes and the whole room dominated by a massive heavily carved stone fireplace.
“Is it the ballroom?” Sherri asked in awe.
“Well, if we’d ever had a ball, this is where we’d have held it,” Johanna answered. Looking at the little Americanesses’ respectful faces she gave way to a sudden impish impulse. “Let me show you what we did do in here!” She pulled off her shoes and in her stockings skated smoothly forward on the well-waxed parquet floor.
“Seriously?” Mikayla gaped as Johanna made a creditable figure eight in front of her.
“Seriously!” she called over her shoulder skimming towards the far end of the hall and the fireplace.
Lies laughed, kicked off her own shoes and joined her cousin.
“We did the exact same thing in our Knight’s Hall,” Anna Sophia said as she shed her shoes.
“We used the marble floor of the old Romish chapel,” Julia added catching Anna Sophia by the hand and spiraling round and round with her.
“You guys are nuts!” Mikayla kicked off her sneakers and made a spectacular running slide. “Wheee!”
“You’re all going to break your heads,” Jessie told them. “Wait for me!”
“And me!” cried Sherri.
Some considerable time later the seven girls were exploring a low-ceilinged and dark-paneled corridor running between the state apartments and the kitchen quarters inch by inch.
“I can see why they weren’t all that careful about matching the paneling in this light,” Mikayla remarked, nose inches from the walls as she searched for the hidden door.
“The light is bad,” Johanna conceded. “Give up?”
“Yes,” said Mikayla.
“Yeah,” said Sherri
“Yes” and “Yes,” said Julia and Anna Sophia.
“No!” said Jessie.
“Shut up, Jessie,” said Mikayla and Sherri in rough unison.
Johanna laughed. “I’m sorry, Jessie, you are outvoted.” She opened the shutter of the dark lantern she’d been holding flashing the light onto a section of the paneling near the door to kitchen lobby. “See?” The outline of the door was very obvious—even the paneling was a different color and grain.
“Wow, talk about obvious!” said Jessie
“When you can see it,” finished Julia.
Lies pressed an invisible spring and the door clicked open. “See—it’s double thickness just like the one in The Hidden Staircase.”
The downward slanting tunnel was very low and disappeared into darkness. “So what’s this oubliette thing you got down there?” Sherri asked.
“An oubliette is a sort of dungeon—” Jessie began.
Sherri glared at her, “I was asking the princesses, thank you.”
“It’s the sort of dungeon where you throw people and leave them to die,” Lies said.
“My nurse told me they took hundreds of bones out of it when Prince Bernhard remodeled the castle,” Johanna added.
“Ewwww!” Mikayla made a face. “And you say this place isn’t haunted?”
“Nope,” said Johanna.
The next stop was the sub-cellar of the keep and the rather better-concealed entrance to the castle’s escape tunnel.
“Where does it go?” Jessie asked as the girls peered into the stone-vaulted darkness of the narrow tunnel.
“We’re not quite sure,” Johanna admitted. “There’s a roof-fall about fifty feet down blocking the way but it seems to be heading towards the river.”
“That would make sense,” Anna Sophia said. “There were probably boats hidden at the other end for a quick escape down-river.”
Jessie looked at her with interest. “Does your castle have a tunnel too?”
“All properly-constructed castles have escape tunnels,” Julia answered for Anna Sophia. The three up-timers looked very impressed.
Johanna led her friends back towards their quarters detouring into the council chamber to show them the secret room. She didn’t make them hunt for the door this time because the intricately carved paneling made it literally impossible to see. But it also made it very easy to remember exactly where the spring to open the door was located. She pressed the knob concealed in a spiral of gilt scrollwork and the door popped. Lies hauled it all the way open, and all peered inside.
“Wow, this is big.” Sherri sounded impressed.
It was in fact a fair-sized room, wedge-shaped with stained plaster walls and lit by a long slit window. It was large enough to hold all seven of them and a pair of iron-bound chests that stood on the floor under a set of shelves against the short outer wall.
“The oubliette was to get rid of people you didn’t like. The tunnel in the keep was for escape. So what was this for?” Mikayla asked.
“Papa used it as an archive for important papers and a treasury,” Johanna answered, “but it had another use too.” She ran her fingers along the rough plaster wall on the council chamber side until she found a raised edge. She pried open a hinged oval of wall revealing a pair of peep holes at eye level for a man of average height.
“Ooh, do they look out the eyes of a portrait?” Sherri asked eagerly.
Johanna laughed. “No, they’re in the shadow of the chimneypiece. You’d never see them if you didn’t know just where to look.”
“So the prince could spy on his council?” Jessie asked. “Isn’t that kind of paranoid?”
“A paranoid prince stays a prince,” Julia answered dryly.
“How very Machiavellian,” Jessie said.
A second door led from the secret chamber to a withdrawing room adjoining the prince’s private apartments. From there they got back to the hall lined with medieval paintings leading to the Princess’s apartments
“Mikayla,” Johanna asked, “do you think Mama’s state bedroom is big enough for a slumber party?”
Seven girls, three dressed in colorful twentieth-century pajamas and four in voluminous white linen nightgowns and close-fitting nightcaps sprawled on mattresses and pillows spread over nearly every inch of floor of the Princess of Plötzkau’s state bedroom.
Mikayla lay on her stomach eating sugared almonds from a bowl. Her attention, like that of the other girls, was focused on Johanna leaning against the heavily carved footboard of the bed as she told the legend of the Plötzkau ghost: “Eventually the Count received an offer of marriage that was too good to refuse so he sent his mistress to a convent to get her out of the way—”
“Bastard,” Sherri muttered through a mouthful of kuchen, then blushed, “Sorry.”
Johanna shrugged, “I don’t disagree, but the girl should have expected nothing else. Counts don’t marry peasant girls outside of fairy tales. To continue: the mistress was locked in a cell by the nuns but escaped—how the legend does not say—and was shot by a jäger in the park as she made her way to the castle to disrupt her lover’s wedding. She was buried there in unconsecrated ground, and ever since her ghost has haunted the park at night in the form of a veiled woman in white still trying to reach the castle and her lost love.”
“The poor sap,” muttered Jessie.
“That doesn’t sound so scary,” said Mikayla, scooping up another handful of almonds.
“Supposedly she jumps on the back of any living man who crosses her path and tries to ride him to the castle though she always vanishes when he reaches the gates.” Johanna explained.
“If he reaches the gates,” added Lies “In other stories she rides her victim to death round and round the walls.”
“Okay, that’s scary. No wonder nobody will risk meeting her,” said Mikayla.
“Has anybody—” Jessie began. “What was that?”
That was a resounding hollow booming rolling down the halls like someone was dribbling an iron basketball. Mikayla could see the walls quiver. A long rattling noise like a chain-link snake slithering on a wooden floor followed.
Without a word Lies rolled over and grabbed a shawl from the pile of dressing gowns and bathrobes in the corner, snatched a candle from the stand, and hurtled out the door. Johanna was right behind her, followed by the rest of the girls.
Mikayla stumbled along in Lies’ wake. The princess’s rapidly-moving candle sent shadows soaring and swooping over the medieval paintings rattling on the wall as knocks and raps boomed behind them.
Light flooded out of an abruptly opened door ahead, and Mikayla almost collided with Anna Sophia as the girl gang slid to a sudden stop. Burgmann Schenk stood outlined in the light which also showed his dismayed, going on horrified, expression as he caught sight of them.
“Burgmann Schenk,” Johanna asked regally, “what is going on here?”
His face crumpled and for an awful moment Mikayla thought she was about to see a grown man cry. “Your Grace,” he all but wailed, “I don’t know!”
The whole story poured out of poor Burgmann Schenk with great force and speed, making it a little difficult for Mikayla, Jessie, and Sherri to follow his German as they all sat around the table in the council chamber. His account was punctuated by the continual racket inside the walls and overhead which didn’t contribute to its clarity. Eventually Johanna succeeded in stemming the flow and tersely summed up the few facts:
“In short this chaos has descended every night for the past two months and repeated searches of the entire castle have failed to reveal the cause?”
Schenk heaved a huge, relieved sigh. “Yes, your Grace. The disturbances seem to center around the state apartments, I had hoped that the princess’s quarters would be distant enough to allow you and your guests to be undisturbed—” he was interrupted by explosive noises overhead. All winced.
“Poltergeist,” said Jessie
“It certainly is,” Johanna agreed.
“When did the trouble begin in town?” Lies asked.
“About two months ago—” Burgmann Schenk answered automatically then blinked in surprise. “Surely your Grace doesn’t think there is any connection?”
“How could this—” Julia waved vaguely at the noisy walls, “benefit either the burghers or UMWA?”
“If this was a Nancy Drew mystery one of them would turn out to be behind it,” said Sherri.
“Hello,” said Mikayla, “Real World to Sherri: this isn’t a book!”
“The correlation in timing strikes me as suspicious,” said Lies. Everybody looked at her. She looked at Johanna. “It seems we are going to have to get involved in Plötzkau’s troubles after all.”
When the girls entered the chamber of estate the next morning, Mikayla saw right off that a canopy had been erected over the throne. Johanna seated herself in the big chair looking exactly like a princess should. Burgmann Schenk took up position just below the dais on her left hand and Lies went to stand next to the throne on her right. The rest of the girls settled themselves on a velvet-covered bench farther to the right and below the dais.
Jessie nudged Mikayla. “I feel like one of Queen Amidala’s handmaidens.”
It was kind of like that. There were even five of them. “All we need are the hoods,” Mikayla whispered back.
Burgmann Schenk stamped the long white staff in his hand on the parquet floor, making a satisfying booming sound. One of the guards flanking the anteroom doors reached over and opened the left-hand side door. Schenk’s staff boomed again:
“Mayor Friedland and Union Master Weintraub, your Grace!”
Mayor Friedland turned out to be chain guy from the riot on the wharf. Mikayla didn’t recognize the younger man in down-time jeans and a UMWA t-shirt but assumed he’d been there, too. Both men were looking defensive—like they were expecting a dressing-down. Johanna had a surprise for them.
“I have no mandate to deal with your dispute,” she began. “That is a matter for the Prince and the Estates. I would however remind you, Friedland, that unions have the Prince’s favor, and you, Weintraub, that there are laws against slander and libel.”
The two men exchanged an unfriendly look but said nothing.
“I have called you here today for quite another purpose,” Johanna continued. “Burgmann Schenk, please describe the disturbances in the castle.”
Schenk did so at some length and with considerable emotion. Friedland and Weintraub listened with widening eyes and sagging jaws. If this wasn’t news to them they were both in the running for the seventeenth-century equivalent of the Oscars.
Once again Johanna found it necessary to cut Schenk short. “Thank you, Burgmann Schenk. Friedland, Weintraub, has either of you any light to cast upon these happenings?”
“No, Your Grace!” Friedland said emphatically. “Why should we do such a thing? What purpose would it serve?”
“That was not an accusation, Friedland, just a request for information,” Johanna assured him. “Weintraub?”
“I know nothing, Your Grace,” the Union man said, but very, very unconvincingly.
Johanna had to have noticed but she didn’t press the issue. “Thank you. You may go.”
“Wow,” Sherri breathed from the end of the bench. “Now that’s what I call Girl Power!”
All seven girls—and Burgmann Schenk, too, for that matter—agreed Weintraub had been lying.
“He knows something, or thinks he may know something,” Lies said expressing their unanimous thought. “Something he is not willing to admit in a public hall.”
“But might be willing to tell privately,” Johanna finished and stood up. “I’ll talk to him. Schenk, Miss Barnes and I will need an escort.”
Mikayla brightened. “Me, too?”
“Yes,” said Johanna. “You’re an up-timer and you know all about unions. If he won’t trust me, his princess, he might trust you.” She stood up, shaking out her wide satin skirt. “But first I must change. You probably want to, too, Mikayla.”
Mikayla looked down at her ‘best’ dress and agreed.
A short time later, the two girls were on the road into Plötzkau with two castle guards, minus their big halberds, at their heels. Johanna asked the first person they met where they could find Union Master Weintraub and was given complicated directions that she seemed to understand perfectly, though Mikayla couldn’t follow them at all.
She noticed that nobody seemed surprised—and certainly not awed—by the sight of their princess calmly walking the streets. A good number of them greeted her with a polite “Good morning, Your Grace.” and got an equally polite “Good morning” in return. Johanna seemed to know an astonishing number of the citizenry by name. Or maybe it wasn’t all that astonishing. Plötzkau was a small town, smaller even than Grantville, and Johanna and her family had lived up at the castle for years and years.
Weintraub’s usual home was the workers’ village across the river but when in Plötzkau he stayed with cousins at a small, well-kept house on a winding back lane. Only he wasn’t there now.
“He didn’t come back here, Your Grace.” Josepha Meltzer said. She acted like she had princesses sitting in her parlor every day of the week. In fact, she seemed a lot more interested and impressed by Mikayla—a genuine up-timer.
So it was Mikayla who asked, “Do you have any idea where he went? This isn’t about the union troubles. It’s about something up at the castle that he might be able to help us with.”
Frau Meltzer seemed to believe her. “He has probably gone down to the Old Stork Inn—that’s where the union holds its meetings.”
Of course Johanna knew where the Old Stork Inn was. So did the guards, and they were less than happy about going there. “It’s a disreputable place,” Sergeant Schieffer reminded Johanna.
“That’s what you are here for, Sergeant,” she answered calmly.
The main room at the Old Stork didn’t just look seventeenth century; it looked medieval. The rafters of the roof were so low Mikayla found herself ducking though they cleared her head by half a foot at least. There was a strong smell of beer, smoke, and less salubrious things. The customers, barely visible in the gloom, did look like a rough crowd, but they also looked kind of shocked and pretty dismayed at the sight of Johanna—or maybe it was the bristling, protective guards.
Johanna marched right up to the long, sagging bar and asked for Union Master Weintraub in her crisp, unfriendly ‘talking to servants’ voice. Mikayla couldn’t understand the host’s mumble but his pointing finger stabbing the air in the direction of a low door needed no translation.
Sergeant Schieffer opened the door warily, one hand on his sidearm, while Johanna and Mikayla stood well back protected by Corporal Heine. Schieffer’s eyes went wide, and he gasped.
The girls pushed forward to see what the problem was. Mikayla found herself looking into a long room whose only furniture was an equally long table and assorted benches. Union Master Weintraub was lying bent uncomfortably back over one of those benches, eyes and mouth wide open with a small black hole between those eyes and blood dripping from the large exit wound in the back of his head into the red puddle spreading slowly over the floor.
Mikayla backed away from the sight and kept backing up until her legs intersected with a bench. She collapsed onto it. But she didn’t scream; she was proud of herself for that.
Johanna looked about the way Mikayla felt—paper-white and green around the gills—but that didn’t keep her from spitting out orders like a machine gun. “Don’t touch the body, Schieffer, but see if there are any other doors or a weapon. If you find one don’t touch that either. Heine, go for the watch.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” said Heine, “but first I think you should sit down, Your Grace.” He steered the princess respectfully to Mikayla’s bench, and she collapsed next to her friend. “Shall I get you something to drink, Your Grace?”
Johanna swallowed hard. “Yes, please, and bring the owner over here. I have some questions for him.”
The Inn’s owner claimed to know nothing, nothing at all, and said so repeatedly and emphatically. Johanna shot a look at Mikayla over her mug of small beer and got a nod of agreement. Either the man was telling the truth or he was another Anhaltiner in line for a down-time Oscar.
Mikayla took a sip from her own mug. The beer tasted awful but it settled her stomach. Too bad the alcohol content was too low to do anything else.
Sergeant Schieffer emerged from the murder room, closing the door carefully behind him. “There’s a door leading to the cellars, your Grace,” he reported, “I bolted it. No sign of a weapon.”
Mikayla had been subliminally aware of the bar emptying like it was on fire and was more than a little surprised when a patron approached them rather than making for the exit. He was young and dressed in the t-shirt and jeans that seemed regulation for the UMWA demonstrators, and he looked pale and distraught. “Your Grace, I’m Heinrich Farber of UMWA.” He swallowed hard. “I—I know some things that might help.”
“Excellent,” said Johanna. “Please continue, Farber.”
He swallowed again. “We had a meeting scheduled. Stefan sent word for us to start without him, and we did. Then he came storming in, very upset, and threw the rest of us out so he could talk to Berners alone.”
“And this Berners is?” Johanna prompted.
Farber clearly didn’t want to answer that but; “An undercover man from the CoC.”
“What?” Mikayla and Johanna said in unison.
“He came down from Bernburg to help us organize the workers here in Plötzkau,” Farber explained, ‘undercover so the capitalists wouldn’t stop him—”
“No,” Mikayla interrupted firmly. “Just no. That is not how the COC operates, not in the USE, anyway. They march into town with banners flying and a brass band if they’ve got one, set up a Freedom Arches, and start pumping out pamphlets. They don’t hide, and let me tell you they would have cleaned up this place first off!”
Johanna was nodding agreement. “That is certainly how they operate in Dessau and our other cities.”
“I don’t know who this Berners guy is,” Mikayla told Farber earnestly, “but I’ll bet money he isn’t CoC.”
“But . . . but then who is he?” Farber faltered in dismay.
“A suspect,” said Johanna with visible satisfaction.
Returning to the castle, Johanna and Mikayla were welcomed by a girl avalanche from the hall door. Sherri and Anna Sophia both excitedly shouted; “We found clues! We found clues!”
Anna Sophia grabbed Mikayla’s hand and Sherri Johanna’s, and they practically hauled them inside, through the hall and into an adjoining room where Lies, Julia, Jessie, and Burgmann Schenk were sitting around a table spread with assorted exhibits.
“We didn’t feel like writing,” said Anna Sophia.
“Why should you have all the fun?” Sherri added. “So we decided to split up and look for clues!”
Mikayla gave a snort of laughter. Johanna looked questioningly at her cousin. Lies shrugged and mouthed, “I’ll explain later.”
“Anna Sophia, Sherri, and Lies decided to be Fred and Daphne and check out the ground floor—” Jessie said taking over the story.
“Taking a couple of guards with us just in case,” put in Lies with a smile.
“First we found marks on the floor like somebody had been dragging something heavy—” Sherri chimed in.
“Then we found a barred door that wasn’t—” added Anna Sophia.
“The bar had been cut through,” Lies explained, “so it looked like it was still sealed but it opened easily enough—”
“Too easily—the hinges were oiled!” said Sherri.
“Somebody was using it regularly,” added Anna Sophia.
“So we started prying around under the furniture covers and found crates that didn’t belong and look what was in them!” Sherri finished with a dramatic gesture.
Johanna looked, and suddenly felt much more serious. A new-style military rifle lay on the table still in its packing. “You found that in my castle?”
“Crates and crates of them,” said Lies.
Johanna exchanged glances with Mikayla. “Something worth killing over.” Her friend nodded.
Jessie took up the story. “Meanwhile Julia and I were making like Velma in the archives and we found the plans for Prince Bernhard’s remodeling.”
A large paper was unrolled on the table next to the gun, its corners held down by pieces of silver plate from the sideboard. The ink had faded but the plan could still be made out. “Look at those spaces between the old walls and the new ones,” Jessie said, using a pencil as a pointer. “Just enough room for a man or men to move around and make noise.”
Burgmann Schenk spoke for the first time. “We still haven’t found how they’re getting into the between spaces, Your Grace, but I had the wall of the corridor flanking the Prince’s Hall broken open and found this.” A length of heavy rusty chain lay coiled beside the parchment completing the exhibits. “What did Weintraub have to say, Your Grace?”
“Not much,” Johanna said, “We found him dead, murdered.” She saw the excitement drain out of the other girls. Their mystery had just stopped being fun.
“He knew about this,” Mikayla said slowly, thinking it out. “He knew who was doing it and why, and they killed him before he could tell.”
“Let me tell you what Weintraub’s UMWA friend had to say.” Johanna repeated Farber’s story about the fake CoC man.
“Sounds like this Berner is the murderer,” Lies said when her cousin had finished.
“If this were a book it would be more complicated than that,” Sherri observed, “but being reality you’re probably right.”
“And Berner is smuggling up-time style guns to somebody, and we are right on the border with Brandenburg and Saxony,” Lies continued thoughtfully.
“Five gets you ten the UMWA guys think they’re for the Saxon rebels,” said Mikayla.
“What do you want to bet that they are dead wrong?” Johanna asked her grimly.
“Nothing,” Mikayla answered.
“The real question is what does this Berners do now?” said Julia. “If he’s smart he’ll cut and run—”
“But that would mean leaving all these guns behind,” said Jessie, “so maybe he won’t do the smart thing.”
“So we set a Scooby trap,” said Sherri. “Just in case.”
“A what?” asked a bewildered Burgmann Schenk.
All three up-time girls started talking at once, stepping on each other’s sentences and creating more confusion than clarity, but finally Schenk nodded.
“Yes, I see, an ambush,” his fingers drummed the table as he thought. “Yes,” he said again, “they might come again and we should be ready.” He turned to Johanna. “Your Grace, this castle is no longer secure. You and your guests should remove to Bernburg at once. How soon can you be ready?”
For an instant all seven girls just gaped at him, then Johanna recovered enough to answer, “Don’t you think you’re overreacting a little, Herr Schenk?”
He set his jaw. “Armed men are running through this castle at will, Your Grace. Security breach doesn’t even begin to describe our current status. I cannot guarantee the safety of Your Grace and your guests.”
“Be reasonable, Herr Schenk,” Johanna argued. “Either they won’t come back at all or you’ll catch them tonight. Either way the situation is resolved, and we’ll have made the trip for nothing.”
His expression showed he was wavering.
“You are right to be concerned,” Lies said persuasively, “but surely we’ll be safe enough in our quarters.” She pointed to the plan. “See, there are no false walls in the private wing.”
Schenk turned the paper around and studied it carefully. The girls held their breath. “Very well,” he said at long last. “I take Your Grace’s point. If you ladies will be so good as to retire to your quarters, I will make the necessary dispositions to secure your safety.”
“There are guards on the downstairs door, too,” Sherri reported.
“Schenk is nothing if not thorough,” Johanna said ruefully.
Sherri dropped into an empty chair. The girls had gathered in their writing room but nobody was in the mood to work. Anke’s mystery held no appeal compared to the real one they’d found. The girls lay draped over assorted pieces of furniture; Johanna and Mikayla sharing one couch, Jessie and Julia another, Lies and Anna Sophia curled up in two of the armchairs.
“We should try to get some work done,” Lies said after a long moment. Nobody moved.
Jessie got up and went to the window. “I don’t see any guards outside,” she reported.
“Of course not,” Julia said reasonably, “Schenk doesn’t want to risk scaring Berners off if he does come.”
Mikayla sat up in sudden excitement. “That means we can get outside through the garden door!”
Lies sat up, too. “No! Absolutely not. It would be much too dangerous!”
Mikayla opened her mouth to argue but a knock at the door made her close it, words unsaid.
“You may come in,” Johanna called, and Schenk entered rubbing his hands and looking quite pleased for a change.
“Your Grace and Miss Barnes were quite right about where the guns are going,” he said. “I’ve just heard from the ABI office in Zerbst. They’ve stopped one or two shipments of SRGs on the Brandenburg border and have been trying to find out where they came from ever since.”
“The what office?” Mikayla said blankly.
“The Anhalt Bureau of Investigation,” Johanna answered. “It’s a county level police agency using up-time methods. Papa got the idea from—”
“We know what he got the idea from,” Mikayla assured her.
“The Bernburg office is sending a team of agents to investigate this Berners’ operation,” Schenk continued quite happily. “If we are fortunate tonight we will have prisoners for them to question.”
“I certainly hope so,” Johanna said politely.
Schenk left the room in an excellent mood, which would have ended abruptly if he’d heard the first words out Anna Sophia’s mouth:
“That settles it—we can’t miss this.”
“This is wrong. It is dangerous. What if something happens? Poor Schenk will be blamed!” Lies pleaded, practically wringing her hands.
The other six girls turned almost identical impatient expressions on her. They were gathered in the Princess’s state bedroom all ready to go, the up-timers in their jeans and and the down-timers in short, dark-colored petticoats.
“Nothing is going to happen, Lies. Don’t be hysterical.” Johanna sounded annoyed.
“All the danger will be inside the castle,” Julia explained yet again. “We’ll be as safe outside as in our rooms. And we’ll see Berners arrive.”
“If he arrives,” Jessie added, also repeating herself. “There’s a very good chance nothing will happen at all.”
“Don’t say that,” Mikayla pleaded.
“Don’t be such a killjoy, Lies,” Sherri said.
Johanna handed her cousin one of the two dark lanterns, “Here, you bring up the rear.” Dark lanterns were the seventeenth-century’s version of a flashlight—sort of. They consisted a candle in a tin box with a handle and a shutter that allowed the light to be cast or shut off at will without blowing out the candle.
Lies threw up her hands in despair, but she took the lantern.
The girls passed through connecting doors from the bedroom through a maid’s room to the sitting room adjacent to the walled garden terrace built against the castle under the Princess’s windows.
They moved as quietly as possible so as not to alert the men patrolling the passage. Fortunately, Schenk’s precautions were aimed at keeping Berners’ people out rather than the girls in. Apparently it had never occurred to him that they might try to get out, which showed a certain lack of imagination on his part.
“This is a really, really bad idea,” Lies said from her place at the end of the line as Johanna slid back the bolts on the garden door.
“We know, we know, now be quiet,” her cousin answered. “All right, everybody follow me, watch your step and no talking.”
Johanna slipped through the barely-opened door followed by Mikayla and the other girls, one by one. Lies brought up the rear, carefully closing the door behind them. They flitted single file, hugging the castle wall. Suddenly Johanna came to a full stop and Mikayla almost walked into her. Anna Sophia did bump into her and she could hear muffled ouches as the reaction moved down the line.
Johanna opened the shutter of her lantern a little more sending the square of yellow light rippling down a flight of moss-covered steps descending into a hole. “Be very careful here,” she breathed, “the stairs are slippery and quite steep.”
“Gotcha,” Mikayla whispered back then turned to pass the word over her shoulder.
They descended, still single file, into the damp tunnel, Johanna and Lies opening the shutters of their lanterns all the way so they could at least see where they were putting their feet. The tunnel was short and they soon emerged from the foundations of the garden terrace. Johanna and Lies promptly closed their lanterns all the way plunging the girls into pitch-blackness.
The shadow of the castle cut off what moonlight there was and the girls had to feel their way along the rough stone of the castle’s base to their goal, a clump of trees growing up against an angle of the wall. Once there Johanna and Lies opened their lanterns just a crack, enough to make out the tree trunks and the statue of some old Roman goddess. Seven pale faces blinked at each other.
“See,” Johanna whispered to her cousin. “We’re under cover, nobody will even know we’re here.”
Lies said nothing but looked unconvinced.
Johanna rolled her eyes impatiently. “Everybody find a hiding place.”
The girls arranged themselves as comfortably as possible under the trees overlooking the open slope running to the edge of the wooded park. As soon as everybody was settled Lies and Johanna closed the shutters of their lanterns.
Then nothing happened for what seemed like a very long time.
Mikayla shifted her weight off a particularly knobby root and wondered if this had been such a good idea after all.
Apparently she wasn’t the only one. “Maybe Berners isn’t going to come at all,” somebody whined off to her right.
“Be quiet, Anna Sophia,” Julia hissed.
“Look, do you see that?” Anna Sophia said, ignoring her.
“I said be quiet—”
A white light flickered among the trees and was gone. “I see it!” Mikayla burst out, then bit her tongue.
“Everybody be quiet!” Johanna snapped, and just in time, too.
Dark shapes detached themselves from the mass of blackness brooding under the park’s trees and moved at a brisk pace up the only slightly lighter slope towards the castle, the unbarred door, and the waiting Scooby trap.
Holding her breath in excitement, Mikayla watched with eye-tearing intensity as the dim figures passed the girls’ hiding place and entered the castle. The last disappeared and she let out her breath in a long sigh. She heard the other girls shifting position around her.
“I guess that’s that—” Jessie began uncertainly when she was interrupted by the sound of gunfire, muffled by the castle’s heavy stone walls. “Oh God.” It wasn’t taking the Lord’s Name in vain but a genuine prayer.
The door burst wide open sending a fan of light over the lawn. Three or four men tumbled out followed by further bullets and hoarse shouting. Clearly something had gone wrong. Come to think of it, Scooby traps almost always did go wrong.
Naturally the fleeing men turned towards the nearest cover which—of course—was the girls’ grove. Mikayla watched them coming, mouth hanging slightly open, unable to think of a thing to do about it.
Fortunately Lies has more presence of mind. She sprang to her feet opening the shutter of her lantern wide. Johanna instantly followed suit. The gun runners shied away from the lights, heading down the slope to lose themselves in the woods.
Burgmann Schenk showed no signs of pursuing them. Instead he stared at the girls, mercilessly revealed by the light, his face slowly purpling. “Your Grace!”
“Not now, Schenk, they’re getting way!” Johanna cried.
“No, they are not,” he answered grimly. “What is Your Grace doing out here? And you other ladies?”
Before anybody could come up with an answer to that entirely reasonable question, the woods erupted in screams. Horrible, hoarse, grown-men screams. The girls clumped closer together as Schenk and the guards turned their guns towards the sound.
The screams came nearer. Bodies crashed through the brush and into the open. The light from the castle and assorted lanterns was bright enough to show more men emerging than had gone in. They were also empty-handed so the guards held their fire. The men scrambled up the slope to throw themselves on the guards’ mercy. A few surrendered themselves to the stunned girls, groveling and sobbing in complete hysteria.
Mikayla looked blankly at the man at her feet then past him down the hill. A light flickered white deep inside the trees and disappeared.
“We’re grounded?” Mikayla said in disbelief.
“Can Schenk do that?” Sherri wanted to know.
“Oh yes,” Lies answered grimly.
“Believe me, we’re lucky he hasn’t decided to report us to Papa,” Johanna added.
“What happened out there, anyway?” Julia wondered.
Johanna had to admit that was a very good question. Pity she didn’t have an answer. “I have no idea.”
They were back in the state bedroom and in deep disgrace. Schenk hadn’t had much to say to them but his look had said volumes. The girls sprawled on the mattresses covering the floor and for a little while nobody said anything—but a great deal was thought by all.
“Typical Scooby trap,” Mikayla commented at last.
Sherri nodded agreement. “Everything goes totally wrong but somehow it works out in the end.”
“If you call this working out,” Mikayla said dubiously.
“We caught them, didn’t we?” Sherri said.
“If you call them throwing themselves at our feet wailing and crying ‘catching,’ ” Lies said dryly.
“What the heck was all that about?” Mikayla wondered.
“You know,” Anna Sophia said. “You saw her, too.”
“I saw a light,” Mikayla said a little nervously.
“A bright white light like one of your electric bulbs in the middle of the haunted wood,” Anna Sophia shot right back. “Why don’t you just admit it? It was the ghost.”
“That’s jumping to conclusions,” Jessie said.
“I thought you believed in ghosts,” Anna Sophia snapped.
“I believe in evidence,” she replied. “That light could have been anything.”
“Sure it could,” Anna Sophia snorted.
There was a knock at the door. “You may enter,” Johanna called, sitting up and trying to look dignified.
The man who came in was dressed in an up-time-like camouflage uniform with a pistol strapped to one hip and a helmet with a light like a miner’s under his arm. “Your Grace,” he said with a slight bow to Johanna, “I’m Agent Bauer, ABI, at your service.”
“Yes, Agent Bauer, what can we do for you?” Johanna said politely.
“You were in the forest weren’t you?” Jessie asked not at all politely before he could answer, her eyes on the helmet.
“That’s right, Miss,” Bauer answered. He turned back to Johanna. ‘My team had located the gun runners’ barge downriver and backtracked them into your park.”
“So you’re what scared those men so badly,” Johanna said with some relief. Jessie sighed, and Mikayla shot a triumphant look at Anna Sophia,
But Agent Bauer said, “Not exactly, Your Grace. Which of you young ladies were playing ghost there in the woods?” he shook his head. “That was very dangerous. You shouldn’t have taken the risk.”
“Playing ghost?” Johanna echoed weakly.
Agent Bauer looked from one wide-eyed girl to the other, puzzled. “That’s right. All I saw was a flicker of white light but you certainly convinced the gun runners. They’re still terrified.”
Johanna swallowed. So did Mikayla. Anna Sophia looked scared rather than triumphant.
“None of us were playing ghost in the park, Agent Bauer,” Johanna said as steadily as possible. “Whatever those men saw, it wasn’t one of us.”
Schenk came to their workroom the next morning, and the girls could see immediately that he was much calmer than he had been the night before. He even wished them a good morning before getting down to business. “I am told that none of you young ladies were playing ghost last night?” he said inflecting it like a question.
“Absolutely not!” Johanna answered emphatically, and the others nodded like bobbleheaded dolls. “We were irresponsible—we realize that now. But not to that extent!”
“It was a real ghost,” said Anna Sophia.
Schenk cleared his throat. “Most unlikely, Your Grace. It seems our park was full of people last night: the gun runners, the ABI team, and Union Master Weintraub’s friends. We’re still not quite clear whether they were there to help Berners or to avenge their leader, but I am quite sure they were responsible for those mysterious lights.”
Anna Sophia looked dubious. So did Jessie but neither girl seemed inclined to argue.
“You were right, Herr Schenk,” Johanna admitted, “and we were wrong. It wasn’t safe, and we shouldn’t have been out of our rooms.”
The much-tried Burgmann actually cracked a smile. “I will remember to be more thorough in my precautions another time.”
He withdrew, and the girls slumped back into various boneless postures, draped over the armchairs and sofas of their writing room, every one of them feeling let down, discouraged, and thoroughly disinclined to work.
Mikayla finally broke the silence, putting the thought all of them were nursing into words: “Well one thing’s for sure. Our book is no good at all.” Groans of agreement showed her friends agreed entirely.
Then she sat bolt upright and shouted one word: “REWRITE!”
The other girls also jerked up, staring at her in shock. Mikayla grinned manically and one by one the rest of the writing circle grinned back. Energy cracked through the room.
“Rewrite!” Johanna shouted like a battle cry and led a charge on the pens and paper.