Hooves swept across the sandy square.
Riders in a crouched position, welded to their horses, lay in wait for the last feet. The shouting of the men waving small papers drowned out the battle cries of the horses.
It took seconds before the shouting turned into burgeoning laughter and outrageous swearing.
Between the sliding caps and suits, the winners waited for the money. A few flower bouquets and confetti were thrown onto the racetrack. The winning horse and its rider bowed to the divided crowd.
In the last seat of the tribune, a young gentleman was smoking a cigarette, engrossed in a letter from a friend.
He had only started betting in the last few months. His win rate was less than one percent. He didn't bet on the wrong horse. The right horse had the wrong number.
He left the betting slip as he took the steps down.
The promenade around the racecourse was right next to the river. The many different types of flowers such as capuchins, roses, or tulips embellished the pavement as well as the hand-painted scenes from antique horse races on the otherwise barren wall.
The river lay somewhat hidden behind brambles and thorn hedges. The white-grey, polished stones had been collected by the water from the surrounding mountains and brought down into the valley.
Fertile were the green mountains in this landscape. It shrouded a castle, the brewery, an old abbey, as well as the view of a lake, far to the south.
The chic ladies wore their unwearable, noble hats with street-wide brims, others the bowl-like cloche hats. Between their clothes gathered grumpy child and well-behaved dog. Whiskers between glasses. Automobiles between carriages. A homeless man shifted when an HePo chased him off a bench with a truncheon.
Passing under the lime trees to the theatre promenade, the letter reader did not recognise the many visitors from the thermal baths who were enjoying themselves in the luxuriantly warm water. The park behind it, the green lung of the city, made up the charm of the valley community.
Vogtstadt - renamed Bad Reichsbach after the annexation of the Free Duchy to the Greater Sagauvelian Empire - had the nickname Heart of the Mountain Country. Due to the mountains, the many hiking trails, the thermal baths, and the evening theatre events, the secluded villa quarter, the old town with its cathedral, the architectural craftsmen's houses, the first gondola lift in the country, and the fact that the ducal family spent their holidays there every year, it was a popular destination for the inhabitants of the Free Duchy.
The pubs were more crowded in the evening. Now some performers, writers, and rich shareholders could be found at the terraces. The artists and the rich did not know that between them the letter reader began to write a letter himself.
As I write these lines, my thoughts are with you. A ridiculous amount has happened to you lately, as I can see from your telegrams. With me, on the other hand, I live every day as if it were my last. As a denounced man, I look for escape and a place to hide...
I see the fact that you are now in a celebratory mood and want to toast your birthday as a clear indication that you have made it. I have also read the news about Kapellengarten. As long as Karoline, Stephan, and you are well, I am reassured.
I hope Monique is also in a good mood. You can enjoy the celebration. I would be delighted to return to the Melaten estate - I know you're smirking and thinking I could just come, but no. I'm not.
My place is undefined at the moment. To look you in the eye without having done anything is not my way. I will fulfill the promise, then we can see each other one last time.
I continue to gather information and try to get in touch with the Berg family. I'm going there at the end of the month. You will read from me.
I am in my own way decayed - yes you read correctly - decayed. After all that has happened, I can only help you from this distance. My knowledge will be of use to you. Even though the telegrams are encrypted and short, they reflect the most important things.
Now I am sitting here. At one of the countless street cafés in Vogtstadt, pardon Bad Reichsbach, as the faithful follower of the Empire says, and no longer know what to write.
This is probably the worst thing that can happen to a writer, but I am no longer a writer. I have become a product of politics. Oppressed by the power behind those figures at the top.
Don't take my writing too seriously, they are my fantasies that you are reading. I wish you a happy birthday and a pleasant and crowded party.
J. K. S.
In his leather bag, he had everything he needed to put words on paper. Fountain pen, ink, and envelopes. His last possession had been a gift.
With care, almost a mania for perfection, he folded the sheet and put it in the envelope. He wrote Léonard's name and address in cryptic characters in curly script.
Reading the address, he thought.
"It's been five years. You with your reckless adventures... if only I had understood you from the beginning... maybe then we would live together at your place. “
He looked in his suitcase for something and pulled out a photo. It was already bent at the corners and in some places it looked as if water had gotten into it. Blurred, he could read the text written on the back.
Rocking horses hung from the ceiling.
Masks and puppets lined up on the walls. Mirrors lied and pretended a larger room. A chessboard table stood next to a cello. The wooden benches had been softened with cushions.
The lamps mixed the colour of the room. It glowed light brown. A jacket hung next to a bust. An umbrella, broken, waited between a group of men at the counters. A small woman ran down the narrow stairs. The bar owner was smoking a cigar, talking about the war.
It was not a worry that troubled the guests. The alcohol changed their view of reality.
The smell of tobacco mixed with a stuck sweetness on the curtains was omnipresent. The dive already looked dilapidated from the outside.
The narrow interior was crammed with utensils that no one needed anymore. Flags and banners hung under the ceiling, right next to the rocking horses. Newspaper articles covered some mirrors. A stuffed dog was next to the window, guarding two or three orchids.
Julius Siebenfeder was sitting by the window, looking at the sheepdog and writing something incomprehensible in his blue notebook. A tankard of beer stood in front of him. The heads of the duke's family were depicted on it.
With a big gulp, he emptied it.
"He's late,” he muttered, pulling his jacket tighter.
Startled, he winced as he knocked on the window with a smile. Seconds later, Léonard was standing in front of him.
"You have already started? Excellent. Shall I bring you something?"
"One more, please."
A little dizzy, he was about to open his notebook when he forgot what he had wanted to write.
"How's the writing coming along, Julius?" he asked as he set the tankards on the table.
He sat down next to him. Following their actions and conversation, one could guess that they were up to no good.
"Good. The research is going well."
"Excellent. I will also help you. Short and sweet; I'm travelling to Knokenhofen."
"Are you serious, Léonard?"
He nodded with conviction.
"Nothing will happen to me. You will know what I am looking for as soon as I have introduced myself," he explained.
"You're insane," Julius gushed, "you're not just trying to help me. You intend to contain information!"
"Not at all. Ever since I've met you, I've wanted to help you write this book. Believe me, it will be a complete success. I will confess everything I have to you so that you have a good impression of the situation there. The imagination will fire you. So, everything will take care of itself."
"You want to find out more too," the writer whispered, "If I didn't have to look after my sister, I would have come with you."
"Léonard, what does the future hold?"
"Golden. After my detour at the abbey, I'll write you the first letters, then I'll set out to travel to Fasich. Do you know Fasich?"
"It is a small community on Lapis. Was once a significant farming village. There is no other settlement within three hundred miles. Just beyond the town, at Fasich Pass, live the reclusive monks of the Muses. They will be able to help me."
"They have their abbey there?"
"The foundations are still standing. They live together in a small community and try to undo the Long War. Through prayers and petitions for mercy to the Goddess,” Léonard spoke, "After that, I'll come back. It will be enough for you if I share all this with you, won't it? To write is your business."
"When I was messing with you then, I didn't know we would fall into such a hole."
"You hide too many things, Léonard. Why do you really do it? Your altruistic streak has a selfish point. We're not friends. I don't trust you any more than you trust me. Let's start with the first point, why this particular back alley?"
"Monique and I loved coming here," Léonard replied, "I'll tell you more when I get back from Fasich."
"This can't end well. If they kill you-"
"That's not going to happen. Don't worry. I promise to tell you everything when I get back."
Julius gurgled. The second jug was emptied.
"I don't see why I should trust you..."
"Do you remember the first time we met?"
"In Weymouth. We found out the truth about the du Murnaux family," Julius mused.
"You and I are on the same quest. You are looking for it in order to write, I am looking for it in order to understand. So, it's quite human when we travel to the former court historian of the ducal family."
"Albert Reck... do you play with him as well as with me?"
"Julius." laughed Léonard, patting him on the shoulder, "We'll be good friends as soon as I return from Fasich."
Julius, absorbed in the photo, tried to caress the young girl. He imagined her long, straight hair and her breath. While he prayed a few words, he did not realise that he was thinking more and more of the deceased girl. His sister is dead. There is no way to see her smiling face again. He lost a tear while thinking about her last day alive.
The world had changed.
While man counts the days and weeks, it is only as he grows older that he realises how the months are replaced by years. When he sees how slowly nature changes around him, he knows that time is endless. Trees take generations to grow to full size, let alone rocks that become smaller and smaller over the millennia until they disappear as a grain of sand.
But human influence, a deadly poison, deceives them with a false fact. The premonition is a deception of their brain. The duration has nothing to do with all this.
Life is neither short nor long. It is happy or unhappy.
Julius Siebenfeder had an unhappy life.