The next morning Léonard was the first at the breakfast table.
He delighted in the faces of the four as they joined him in amazement. Amused, he apologised for his absence, neglecting scowls from Karoline and piercing questions from Emma.
Claire was also in a good mood. It was because of the little sleep she had. She was allowed to enjoy herself. After Kapellen Castle, there were two destinations. Emma had given her a new one. She would start a career as a conductor. Her euphoria that night made her flap her wings. With a smile, a fabulous, rare smile, a firework of new courage bubbled through her entire body. Even the expectation of travelling with Léonard sank in.
But who could have guessed what was still to come for the young woman?
They went on excursions in the surrounding area. It was strange because Léonard was there and led them. They travelled to Federsdorf, where they admired leather goods at a market. Stephan bought two belts because he felt like it and Léonard treated himself to a nice little bag for his cigarettes. In the afternoon, Léonard invited them to the zoo and although they had already been there yesterday, it was a fresh change to be out with him. It seemed as if everything was normal. In the evening, at dinner, no one was bothered by the soldiers around them.
Seldom had Claire lost herself so much in her thoughts in the last days and weeks. Seldom had she been in such a gloomy mood. And yet, in between, there were beautiful moments, there were hours of company and laughter, there was a being there. Since her birthday, her feelings had been up and down. Now, finally, she thought she had reached the end of her rollercoaster ride.
The last day of the year was started with rain.
Gloomy clouds drifted over Kapellengarten and rain doused fir trees like animals. The splashing of the rain turned the otherwise still Emerald Lake into a drifting, exciting body of water for the few remaining fishermen. Only hours separated humanity before the new year. Whether they were bleeding to death in a military hospital, dining humbly with family or killing the enemy at the front, the clock kept ticking. No matter how many died or were born, nothing could stop time. There was no more chance of not ringing in the next decade.
After a festive morning buffet, Léonard had to leave the group for the last time. The siblings accompanied him this time. Neither Claire nor Emma were convinced by the excuse that they had to get something for Karoline to wear. She looked up in confusion when he hinted at it. At this, Claire remembered that last night Léonard and Karoline had almost killed each other in an argument. It wasn't often that they were seen like that, Stephan said afterwards.
Not wanting to worry unnecessarily, Claire tried to bring her friend back to another level of reality. Emma played herself a spectacle in the castle. He organised everything with meticulous attention to detail. Something had to happen. Be it from the Mönchsberg Abbey or himself. She made up theories with no firm foundations until Claire almost had to beat her awake.
There was a brief moment of dryness. People tried to run as fast as they could to the desired place in the minutes before the next rain shower came. The two friends benefited from walking to the promenade. It was just behind Poppy Square.
The wide paved street was divided by a narrow canal. Splendid white bridges with busts covered the little river at regular intervals. The weeping willows had been deliberately planted to provide shade in the sultry summer.
Claire and Emma could not use a wooden bench. The last drops spoiled the sitting.
"Where shall we go?"
Emma was over being able to come up with theories. She didn't want to ruin Claire's holiday.
"We can visit the Spruce Stone Chapel," her friend suggested, "Karoline said the climb has over four hundred steps. From the top, you have a good view over the town."
"Claire in this weather I can't see a thing," Emma frowned, pointing upwards, "The rain."
"The weather is a bit changeable, so what? There will definitely be sun again at noon," she comforted, "So I'm already interested in this chapel. Imagine we could be above the clouds."
"We're already on our way, aren't we?" mumbled Emma.
An inconspicuous marker pointed to the narrow stairway between two houses.
"Just up here," Claire said calmly.
"I would prefer a lift."
"Where else are we going to go?"
Her friend was silent for a while.
"Let's go back to Poppy Square and sit down in a café. When was the last time we did that, just the two of us?"
It had been ages since they could really sit alone in a café or anywhere else without untruths, without Léonard. Doing something for once without worrying. There, Claire could confess her desire for the future.
"An excellent idea."
They did not make it to Poppy Square. Suddenly the storm started. The wind made the trees tremble. The collected drops bombarded the passers-by. Under the thunderous shower, they could barely hear the cheerful laughter of the other pedestrians. An umbrella flew after a top hat.
They walked until they reached the crossroads when Emma took Claire by the hand and pulled her into a house.
"Where are we?"
Emma noticed an elderly gentleman holding open the glass door to his shop and waving her in. With a soft sound, it slammed shut.
He was astonishingly tall. At least for his age, he seemed tall. He lacked hair, but his customers knew, which had been of virginal white purity. His exquisite beard bore witness to the years-long ago. Wrinkles overshadowed the pale blue, concise, tiny eyes. The potato nose served as a natural remedy for the sudden drop in wrinkles. It seemed clumsy and out of place, giving him something grandfatherly.
His discreet suit and bright red cross-tie were classy and impressive. He commanded respect. He did not resemble a poor salesman at all.
His shop was built like a chessboard. It consisted of black and white elements. Shelves and glass display cases dotted the room. All kinds of curiosities were collected in them.
Magic stones and minerals, herbal remedies, and other, nature-based medicine. The smell was like a forest. Or a field. Or rather all the landscapes that existed. In a ravishing basket lay the most fully divine apples Claire and Emma had ever seen.
They almost felt drawn into a strange world. Everything resembled glass. Cautiously they waited at the entrance, thinking that at any moment everything would have to come to life and dance around.
"I think it's prudent to spare you both the rain," the vendor said.
His voice was Goddess-like. It healed every wound of the soul. Balm wrapped around the dead places and resurrected every lifeless thing.
Only now did they both notice that other pedestrians had found shelter in his shop, too.
"Thank you very much for inviting us."
Reverently, the two bowed as if by magic. The old salesman laughed brotherly.
"No thanks are due. Stay as long as you like."
He stepped comfortably and eagerly back to his pretty cash register. He busied himself with a book on ancient architecture.
"This is a stunning place," Emma enthused, "I can't describe it. Claire, doesn't it feel like you're in a forest too? Claire?"
Claire followed the path to the cash register. Something had caught her iris. Vigilantly, she studied the fairy-like, magnificent painting behind the old man's head.
It depicted the same city as the Pfalzburg window mosaic. The realistic backdrop transformed Claire's interior. A gateway to an other world opened. The brightness in the centre brought the red bridge to life. On one side the detailed, luminous bell tower, on the other a dark mountain range. Did the artist want to immortalise a battle between nature and man? Below the centre there was a valley, how big it was she could not estimate. One recognised individual blades of grass, a little stream was hidden between them, passing an oak tree on the left. Apparently, a tall person sat below it, the black shadow merging with the stream.
The whisper immediately caught the old man’s attention.
"Have you found something that interests you?"
She melted away. His voice was a soothing satisfaction. The words floated around her head like musical notes and changed into a sonorous counterpart.
"This picture is beautiful. Which city does it represent?"
The salesman turned around quickly. It was a few seconds, for her it took an eternity.
"Erlenbrunnen at Freiberg."
"Erlenbrunnen at Freiberg? Do you happen to know who painted it? There's the same city in Pfalzburg in the window glass."
"In Pfalzburg?" he spoke calmly, "you are confusing things, young lady. The two works are by the same artist, but the city in the painting is not the same."
Claire was relieved. He knew immediately what she meant.
"Which one is it?"
The curiosity and impatience made the old man smile.
"Another Erlenbrunnen at Freiberg."
"It's the same city. But they are two views. They were visited in two different times," the seller explained, "One picture - the one in Pfalzburg - depicts the situation in peace. This picture depicts war."
"But they hardly differ."
"The artist must have experienced war and peace first-hand. It meant a lot to him to depict peace as something fragile. War, on the other hand, on something tangible."
Claire felt sorry for the painter. At the same time, she contemplated her life. It is easy to die. It's not easy to survive. Why arrange meetings far in advance when one could die abruptly?
He could tell she was unhappy.
"He did a lot in his life. Since he remained unknown, to this day he is only called the Master of Königsfall."
"Königsfall? Isn't that at Diekathedral?"
"You are a clever lady. The origin of his works is dated to the time of the third act of the Long War of the Four Domain Families. That's all the world knows."
"Why is this mosaic in Pfalzburg?"
The old man laughed.
"I would have to research that myself, but I think I once read that Pfalzburg and Erlenbrunnen both have monasteries that helped each other a lot."
"Thank you very much for the answers."
"I have to say thank you. I rarely have such nice conversations," the salesman clarified, "Take yourself - and your friend an apple. They taste ambrosial."
She nodded and thanked him again.
"Since when are you interested in art?" asked Emma as she walked back to her.
Claire had only begun to listen. The scents had turned her head. There was no answer. A big smile on her cheeks was enough.
The brief storm was over. The windows were no longer blessed by drops; the clouds remained. Most of the guests disappeared without buying anything. Curiously, they had looked at, touched, and smelled the goods. Claire felt the piercing sensation of pity in the pit of her stomach.
Why? Because of the altruistic seller?
No, not really, he doesn't want you to buy anything. He just helped.
Regardless, she inspected a fist-sized purple crystal.
"Emma, do you think this is better or the scented candles?"
"If I could choose, I would have taken something long ago."
Claire was finally relieved when one of the remaining people went to the vendor.
Her carrot-red curly hair, green-lit eyes and heart-shaped face made her a creepy human-sized porcelain doll. The cheeks were smooth as glass. The emerald green dress was tailored. The neat fingernails, short height and delicate angelic voice made her a rich, sinister woman. Her closed umbrella lay dominantly around her shoulder.
Claire followed her steps from a shelf. Claire did not notice the grass-green cloche hat.
The woman spoke too quietly for anyone to hear. Claire stood motionless at the shelf for quite a while, trying to hear something. With a loud bang, the woman suddenly said goodbye. Startled, she slammed against the glass.
"You won't see me here again!" she informed him loudly, catching them off guard, "Move aside."
"Who was that?"
Emma held Claire, who was holding onto a shelf of candles. The old man helped her to her feet and apologised for the woman's harsh behaviour.
"Who was that?" repeated Emma.
"Miss Schoditz von Wenteslaugen," the old man introduced her.
Claire almost agitated Emma's ignorance. Was it because she couldn't take her anger out on the inconsiderate woman?
"She is the wife of the Imperial Territory Leader."
Emma pulled back. Her deathly pale face resembled a statue.
"Nothing happened," the old man reassured Emma, "You don't get arrested for trifles like that."
Claire picked herself up and saw the relief on her friend's face. Could he read minds?
About five minutes later they had found each other again and could admire the shop. During another short shower, Emma bought herself a rose quartz. Theophilus, the salesman as he introduced himself, explained that it helped against homesickness. Claire wanted to buy the violet stone, which turned out to be amethyst but didn't have enough money left on her. Embarrassed, she realised that Emma ran her household better than she did.
With a dignified bow, Theophilus said goodbye to the two. He also gave an apple to each of them.
They set off on fast foot to one of the many cafés on Poppy Square. They had enough to talk about for the next few hours. Not only the extremely nice man who stayed in their minds but also this unfriendly woman called Wenteslaugen. They puzzled around a little. The whispering remained at a low level so as not to cause a stir.
The raindrops gradually became less as they went back to the hotel. Claire and Emma expected the three of them to be back. Léonard and the siblings stayed away. They reached Kapellengarten only towards evening. Karoline and Stephan were a little soaked. Léonard had brought Claire and Emma two books, neither of which they knew.
He did not explain much about their trip. It had been a rare flea market behind Ministerfeld. Stephan mumbled something about a cemetery, though it was not clear whether he had really said it. Karoline lay down without eating. It didn't matter to the two young women where they had been. They had had a little adventure.
A special dinner for the evening was accompanied by music and dancing. Between the soldiers singing about home and the front, one could sit down and sing along after a few glasses.
It turned out to be a nice if silent evening between the remaining three and Léonard. (Stephan could hardly be counted, as he seemed like a broken light bulb without his sister Emma had explained during the afternoon).
In bed, Claire thought about her last dinner before New Year. They always went to Auntie's restaurant. Before the real fun started, she lay in her bed reading a book. It was nonsensical to tout the New Year when each new day was separated by night. Every day you can start all over again. You don't have to wait until New Year. On a New Year's Day, Claire had once told Giselle when she had come back with Auntie. Neither of them understood her, which is why she didn't want to celebrate with the others and claimed such things.
The many people had always separated Claire from her aunt.