The first day of the new year, of a new decade, gave people a change of weather.
The sky was free of any clouds and of any birds. People saw only the blue, free sky. Even in the morning, there was reason to talk about the warmth. Those who could not afford to go out for a fancy meal tried to dine outside the house and accompany the novena to a glorious conclusion. The birth of the Goddess, creator of the world, was the holiest holiday for the Sagauvelian Empire.
The bright sunlight did not make it easy to locate the sandstone castle. A hallucination would have been easier to find, Stephan said in the car. Léonard managed to get the whole group there in one piece, although he was convinced it was further away.
The turnout of guests was sensational.
They arrived at the castle from all walks of important life. Owner Otto Ludwig von Karolsfelde and his wife, Auguste Charlotte von Löwenburg invited to the annual gala. Money was not an issue. The day was, to begin with, many excursions, talks and fun, while the actual celebration was to begin in the evening, where Otto Ludwig was to give a speech.
Laughter and clinking glasses were heard by the five after Léonard parked his car not far from the main entrance. They were right on the bank of a stream.
What little water there was, shimmered seductively in the slate-grey colours and lured the fish closer to the surface. Claire drearily surveyed her own reflection. It reminded her of Weymouth. It blurred in the waves. Gently they lapped against the shore. The low grass in the shade received its refreshment.
What was I thinking about right now? About later?
The gloomy eyes, black dots on the water could not reflect anything of the sucking emptiness.
"Claire? Claire!" cried Emma.
She stumbled over to her friend, "Are you admiring your great dress? It's really wonderful. Mine too, isn't it?"
"Yes, Emma. Wonderful. Shall we go?"
The background was lined with noise. Some did not miss the opportunity to drive their cars right up to the entrance to let their companions get out.
A staircase past the gate brought one into the gravelly courtyard. Gates made of larch wood were wide open. Claire watched the wide hallway sink into darkness. A fountain with strange figures spewed water incessantly.
Through the people talking in the courtyard, the five reached the castle. One could literally feel the division. Karoline had not spoken a word to Léonard since yesterday. Her brother was just as silent. He seemed to be thinking about something. Emma noticed this because Stephan was actually the one who yapped the most at the breakfast table.
The entrance area was pretty and old-fashioned.
It was more reminiscent of an old manor house than a castle. Nevertheless, the entire complex was small-scale. The gardens took up most of it.
Besides the actual residence with a round tower separately, there were two houses near the entrances ready for the servants. A barn, a mill and some greenhouses were the remaining buildings in the valley.
At an unspectacular table, one had to show one's invitation. Léonard strutted there with feigned friendliness and an unusually open smile. In the process, he almost pushed the guests aside. Emma followed him.
While he was talking to the man in the tailcoat, the siblings were discussing mysteriously away from their friends. When he returned, he pushed them all outside.
The sound of the birds was sadly drowned out by the cars. Through the lattice gate, one could see into the Great Garden. Some aristocratic people were wandering around. Surprised and perplexed by the natural world here, they later treated themselves to a few glasses of wine.
The gigantic grounds were worked and tended by sixteen or seventeen court gardeners, as Claire found out later. All their heart and soul went into the roots. One not only saw it, but the man of the world also smelled it.
Away from the entrance, Léonard lit a cigarette. The siblings avoided his gaze and showed interest in the many vehicles and carriages.
"Can I have one?" asked Claire humbly.
Emma no longer thought about the fact that she was now smoking and shook her head. Something else came out of her mouth.
"Who is this Murrhardt? The man called you that. “
"A friend," he stated confidently, "He got the invitation for us."
"Didn't he want to come?"
"Something came up," he muttered. Passing Emma, he bellowed to the du Murnaux: "Are you done admiring cars?"
The siblings were reluctant to come to him and avoided eye contact.
"Garden, stalls or straight to the banquet?"
"I didn't expect that from him at all. This behaviour..." Emma whispered to her friend. She glanced at the cigarette. Claire made no reply. She found it fascinating how Emma's clothes had changed her. With her fancy, sparkly, dark dress, and a sequined hairband, she almost looked grown-up.
Léonard dug out his pocket watch.
"We still have time."
Silently they followed him.
The tour guide was one of the court gardeners. Obviously infatuated with his creations, he couldn't resist stopping to tell the visitors the whole story of each tiny flower.
As the largest of the palace's grounds, it was blessed with all kinds of genera. Rose arches and small fountains, between elegantly trimmed hedges, sunflowers, and other plants. Surrounded by a lattice, one could break one's neck if one had the idea of climbing over without permission.
The middle-aged man, as well dressed as he rarely was, told about some of the rose families they grew here. The crowd listened intently, even though they had never thought so much about botany.
"They have no maiden roses..." whispered Léonard, a little apart from the group, "No matter how beautiful all these delicate little flowers are, the maiden rose is missing from this place..."
He was slightly worried. There were more guests than expected. At the same time, it allowed him to be even more inconspicuous in the castle. Full of anticipation for the coming meeting with his fiancée, he already thought he had everything behind him.
The almost two dozen people of the group became smaller before his eyes. He had been forgotten.
Digressing from the actual main topic, the gardener had to be brought back to the local world for a short time. The botanical names did not bring very many contented minds to the group. How, when no one knew anything about the flora?
Léonard's cigarette was literally destroyed shortly after the gardener saw him coming back to the group. He didn't just get upset, he accused everyone present of complicity. The madman, as some of his colleagues called him, was a doting shrub lover. Anything that appeared to hurt them had to be kept as far away from the plants as possible. Truly a madman. Not only his colleagues have been calling him that since New Year.
Emma could add a lot when he hadn't told her enough about something. Her grandfather had taught her a lot, which made her tell Claire more about them after each new species. They continued to follow the group, literally forgetting the time. Claire was preoccupied with the siblings, she noticed, as they seemed to absent themselves.
When they were finally allowed to leave the Great Garden, the onlookers dispersed.
"The tour took quite a while."
Emma sat on a unique bench. Her left foot was being massaged by her. It was the first time she wore shoes with (small) heels. She felt more comfortable in her ankle boots.
"There will be food soon," Karoline comforted her sympathetically.
It was the first time she had communicated. A troop of servants with two horses passed them. A young couple treated themselves to a ride.
"That's what I want to do! Riding! "Emma said euphorically and forgot all about the pain in her foot.
"Maybe later," Claire said, "I'm done too. The garden is interesting, but I would have preferred to explore it on my own."
"The rest is open to everyone," Léonard explained, "The Topiary mill is open to visitors all year round."
Around two in the afternoon, a trumpet sounded. Literally like a horse race, the first people hurried into the hall. Claire and the others benefited in this way to get to the stalls at the Topiary Mill.
They offered homemade jam, baskets they had woven themselves, curious things like taxidermy (who wouldn't want to have a stuffed fox above the fireplace, said Léonard jokingly). There were also gifts to buy for your loved ones, soaps, brandy, embroidery... Most of the proceeds were used to maintain the gardens.
Claire and Emma felt transported back to Theophilus' shop. The goods on offer were similar and their disappointment was all the greater when he was nowhere to be found. Unfortunately, they saw the unfriendly woman called Wenteslaugen instead. She was talking to the mayor of Kapellengarten, a plump character in an incongruous black lounge suit.
Emma's exhaustion and hunger pangs were comforted by a short ride that took her past the many cars and carriages. Claire accompanied her on a white horse, as her friend did not want to be alone. Léonard showed stubbornness when he didn't want to get on a horse and accompanied them on foot. He will just ride when it´s necessary, he added. Léonard preferred walking or using the bicycle. Only Karoline and Stephan remained a little grouchy, Claire noted.
Their minds must be like that through Léonard... but why?
With the next trumpets, they too finally joined the lunch.
Crowds of guests streamed through the banquet hall to get something from the buffet. Music and dancing were incidental. Tobacco smoke hid the chandeliers as the five entered the room.
There was a monstrous table with delicacies from all over the world. Although Otto Ludwig had never left the country, he was an advocate of appetising food from different cultures. People jostled to get to the front to try some of everything. Even now, in wartime, he procured everything his heart desired.
The overpowering windows gave wonderful views off the balcony and the pleasure garden. Portraits of the von Karolsfelde family hung between them. An oversized painting was dedicated to Viktoria Luise von Karolsfelde. The chandeliers, tiny in comparison, were rarely used. The magnificent fireplace was used all the more often.
The ballroom resembled a cosy, large living room. There were scattered tables and sofas, fine carpets, servants, and musical entertainment.
"Let's serve ourselves," Léonard spoke solemnly, "New Year's only comes once a year, after all."
Only Stephan chuckled at his statement. He was the first to indulge. The cooks stood in front of their creations and wished that everyone enjoyed it.