In The Service Of Princes


Monday 8 September 1777 was a red letter day at the Sign of the Rabbit on Westergasse on the summit of the Altstadt of Strelsau. Freddie took Bastian’s coffee cup from the kitchen out the back into the stableyard, where his lover was supervising the saddling and fitting out of his stallion, Oliver, in his new furniture. A double band of gold lace on the saddlecloth and new saddle holsters with the royal monogram, as much as two gold epaulettes on his shoulders marked the Baron Wollherz von Stock as the new lieutenant colonel of the Leibgarde of King Rudolf III, a duty he would be assuming that very morning.

‘Glorious,’ Freddie commented, to be answered by a broad grin.

‘Everything must go well today,’ Bastian beamed. ‘That includes your new responsibility too.’

‘Yes well, if it doesn’t only the concerned parties will ever know about it,’ Freddie responded. For this same Monday, he was to begin his own new responsibility at the Osraeum Palace as English tutor to His Serene Highness Duke Willem Stanislas of Glottenburg. ‘I’m walking down there now,’ he added.

Freddie and Bastian kissed, knowing that their house steward and staff would not turn a hair at the open homosexual display. Ludovic the page and Paulus the stable lad merely exchanged grins and winks, though Ludovic’s flickering fingers seemed to be conveying rather more to his deaf and dumb boyfriend, whose eyes widened at what they were conveying.

Herr Losman had recently established that the two boys had themselves graduated into a passionate love affair, and Paulus now had permission to share Ludovic’s bed in the main house. Bastian had rolled his eyes at the news and said he had caught them snogging in the stable a few weeks before it became official, and the amount of straw in their hair and clothes indicated they had been doing a lot more than snog before he caught them. Nonetheless he and Freddie had got quite sentimental over the developing romance between the two youths. A new bigger bed would be installed in Ludovic’s garret chamber, and the two housemaids had obligingly made a couple of sets of bedclothes for the couple.

Freddie headed off down the Domshorja to the Neustadt. It was a 40-minute stroll across the river to Gartengasse and the Classical pile which was the Strelsau mansion of Princess Osra Madeleine. He found that the palace guard had his name on the day list, so he mounted the steps and entered the great marble entrance hall under its glazed dome.

‘Ah! Mr Winslow,’ the princess herself was awaiting him. ‘A moment of your time if you please.’

He was shepherded into a downstairs drawing room and offered a seat. ‘Now sir,’ the princess said, ‘my nephew and your employer recommends you highly as a tutor. Excuse me however if I ask you something about your proposed teaching plan. My grandson is seven years of age, and in my partisan view, very advanced for his years in many ways, not least in his mastery of languages. You’ll find that in French, German and Latin he is most proficient, and beyond what one would expect. I don’t mention Rothenian, as it’s been the language he learned from his nurses, and in more ways than one, it is his first language. English however is a different case from all these.’

‘How so, your royal highness?’ Freddie had to ask, not being at all sure of the point she was making.

The princess gave a slight shrug. ‘English is not one of the traditional court languages, nor one of the ancient languages of scholarship. Yet in this changing world, it is becoming something new: a language of commerce and communication across the world, not just the European continent. And of course, as my nephew would say, it is becoming the language of science and discovery. Your employer has made the case to me than no modern monarch can afford not to be acquainted with it. So here you are, Mr Winslow.’

‘Yes, ma’am. Your point being …?’

‘I think you will find that the prince is already quite fluent in English. How he has got to be, I don’t honestly know, but Prince Henry tells me that he is and that what he really needs now from you is some polishing rather than the basic ground work. Our expectation is that you will bring him on past mere fluency to conversational ease. And you should also strive to select works in English for him to read that will open his mind to this new world that the British Empire is creating. Also I believe that the English of the British Isles is not itself monolithic, and varies from province to province. Then there is the English of North America which is developing its own unique flavour. All these things should be comprehended in your tuition.’

Freddie frowned. ‘I think I follow you, your royal highness. Prince Willem Stanislas seems to be quite a remarkable child.’

‘That he is, sir.’

Freddie was by now very used to courts and the ways of royalty, but even so he felt an odd trepidation when he came to knock on the door of the young prince’s room.

‘Ah!’ the boy greeted him in English with a grin. ‘It’s Mr Winslow. I remember you from that day when Bessie Wollherz brought me to granny, hiding under her cloak.’

‘Really, sire? I had no idea I made that much of an impact. What a strange day that was.’

‘And the strangest thing of all was what Bessie Wollherz did, of course. Now Mr Winslow, we both know that the baroness had magic, and we are both friends of Jonas Niemand. Did you know that?’

‘I suspected you knew him, sir. He was passed off as your “imaginary friend” when you were smaller is that not so? But did your venerated grandmother ever know of the connection?’

The boy gave a strange little smile. ‘No. Jonas and I decided to leave her in the dark. Not that I liked that, for I do love my granny. But Bessie Wollerz made everything so complicated. I hope she’s happy now.’

‘The last I heard, sir, she’s settled well amongst the Poor Clares in Munich. She’s to take her vows in the new year.’

The prince giggled. ‘That’s a bit funny, Mr Winslow. She was quite adventurous. Not like a girl at all.’

‘Not like a girl is supposed to be, sir, but she made her own rules. You can admire that in her, though not the uses to which she put her powers.’ Freddie suddenly stopped dead, as something occurred to him. ‘Oh … her powers. Did Jonas …?’

‘What, Mr Winslow?’

‘Well sir, your abilities with language are quite exceptional, magical you might even say.’

The boy burst out laughing. ‘Jonas says you’re sharp for a human. You knew Bessie Wollherz and what she was capable of. And it seems to have occurred to you that I can do the things she could. Your guess is correct. When Jonas stripped her of her power he gave it a new home in me.’

‘That would explain a lot, your serene highness. So why in that case are my services at all required here?’

‘The power has its limits, Mr Winslow. Language is only one thing you need to be able to understand a people and their land, as Jonas himself told me. I am much interested in the English people of North America, and it is not easy to study them here in Strelsau. Cousin Henry is good friends with Dr Franklin of Philadelphia. So I would like to know more of the province of Pennsylvania from which the doctor comes, and the Society of Quakers who were its first colonists. I am also curious about the native peoples of the province and the life they lead. You see?’

‘I think so, sir. I shall get busy collecting books. Prince Henry has quite a few already.’

‘There’s another thing too,’ the boy chipped in.


‘Cousin Henry talks all the time about Reason and Enlightenment as the way forward for humanity. Now I won’t deny his Science is important. But the thing is, how do you fit our friend Jonas Niemand into that world? He’s not at all a creature of Reason, but he still exists. You’ve been to Faërie, Mr Winslow. It’s the truest place there is, but it’s wild, dangerous and beautiful, not reasonable and orderly.

‘Now the thing is, I picked up a German book about an unhappy boy called Werther, who is full of emotion, ideas and love, and not at all rational. Yet he seems more real to me than Cicero and Plutarch and the Latin writers I have to read. Can you find me books like that in English?’

Freddie left Staszek’s chamber with his mind reeling. What was Jonas up to with this boy? Adding that amount of magic to a child already far in advance of his age in learning, and beautiful beyond the measure of any other mortal boy, seemed to be yet another of his reckless experiments with humanity, even more dangerous than what he achieved with the long-ago boy Wilchin. No wonder Princess Osra seemed so disconcerted by her grandson, though it seemed she did not yet know the half of what was going on around her.


Freddie got home to find a note from Bastian telling him that the officers of the Leibgarde were entertaining their new commander in their mess that night, and giving his apologies that he would not be there to greet their guest. The much-anticipated guest duly arrived. The Reverend Charles Winslow had come to visit his brother after spending several days with Lord Burlesdon in Munich. Charlie was in a sober suit of black, suitable for the newly ordained curate of their father’s parish of Burlesdon. Other than that, Charlie was as amiably cheeky as he ever was.

‘So how was the embassy?’ Freddie asked.

‘Old Potts sends his love,’ came the reply. ‘He said he’d like to come over before Christmas, and you should write more often. He’s thinking of getting married to a brewer’s widow. Pretty woman, and not as old as you’d think from that description.’

‘Talking of friends,’ Freddie riposted, ‘whatever happened to your old partner in crime, Martin Griffiths?’

‘He survived Cambridge, though he had the bad luck to pick up the pox, poor fellow. He had to settle down when he got home after some very painful treatment. He’s getting a bit boring, I confess.’

Freddie grinned. ‘How odd it is when an ordained clergyman of the Church of England complains of life being boring.’

‘Well there’s not much to do around the parish. Dad is so hardworking. Leaves me with too much time, which I fill … I say, Freddie, you won’t laugh? I fill up my days with my poetry. And what’s more, it’s getting noticed. The London Review has taken some of it. So the thing is, I’m the second Winslow to be published! Mum is really impressed.’

‘What? Really? That’s great news, Charlie. A rhyming clergyman. Is that allowed by canon law?

‘No one’s mentioned it as a problem. That good old man, Bishop Hurd, is my inspiration, and you can’t imagine him doing anything wrong, and him a bishop too. There’s talk of a book of poems. A publisher is interested.’

‘Now that’s really impressive. So what do you write about? You’re not still grinding out odes to the unattainable virgins of the Eastern Division of Norfolk?’

‘Ha! See, I knew you’d mock me. Typical brother. No, I burned those long ago. Have you read the poems of Ossian? Ancient Scottish feller who wrote epics as good as anything Homer did. Sort of inspired me to write about ancient knights and their sorrowful loves and battles with monsters in black forests and desolate glens.’

‘Ossian?’ mused Freddie. ‘I thought he had been proved to be a fraud.’

‘Who knows? But you must have heard of the poet Goethe and his Sorrows of Young Werther: everyone’s reading it these days. He translated a lot of Ossian into German.’

Freddie was startled. ‘Werther? That’s the second time I’ve heard that name today. Prince Willem Stanislas is a devotee of the book and he’s quite as enthusiastic about it as you. I need to get a copy of it. I’d also like to read your efforts, and so maybe might the prince.’

‘Good! I have copies of the Review. Mum told me to bring them and show them off to anyone who might be interested.’


Prince Staszek had little difficulty whenever he was bored and restless and wanted to escape the Osraeum. He simply walked out through the front door; he could make it so no one saw him go and so far he had not been missed. That afternoon, on the same day on which he had met Freddie Winslow, he skipped down the palace steps and out on to Gartengasse, the military guard quite unaware of his passing. He crossed the road beyond the railings and into the park. There he found a gang of boys playing with a hoop on the paved paths. He was welcomed into their fraternity and enjoyed a happy half hour with some new friends. After that he tagged along with the gang to the Platz, and enjoyed the bustle of the great city square from the steps of the huge new monument to his grandfather, King Henry the Lion. When the other boys disappeared to their homes, Staszek decided on an expedition further east out along Domstrasse.

The road took him down to the river at the castellated bulk of the Osten Tor. Walking through the city gate and across the river bridge he found the road climbing up the steep incline of the Domshorja. He shrugged and decided it was worth the effort to pursue his exploration of Strelsau.

Staszek toiled up the hill and eventually came out on to the great square at the west end of the cathedral of St Vitalis. It was smaller than and very different from the Platz of the Neustadt below. The tall precinct wall of the abbey of St Waclaw was to his right, and the Gothic grandeur of the archbishop’s palace was to his left. There were no stalls or shops in the square and most of the people he could see passing by were clergy. He leaned against the wall of the palace and wondered if it was now time to make his way back home. As he did the bells of the cathedral, the abbey and many more churches of the Altstadt rang out the hour, which was four in the afternoon.

Just as he concluded that it really was time to head home and get his tea, Staszek was distracted by a very different group of passersby. A column of a score of boys in pairs walked south into the square. They were uniformed in Elphberg olive-green coats decorated in gold, laced tricorn hats on their heads. The column was headed by a tall verger with a staff, clearing their way for them, and brought up at the rear by a man in a clerical surplice, a document case under his arm.

The boys were chatting one to another and were heading towards the cathedral. Curious, the truant prince tailed along after them. The sexton at the cathedral west door looked askance at Staszek as he followed the boys into the church. He took off his hat as he went in, and deflected the man’s suspicions with a practised flick of his mind. He took a seat at the rear of the nave as the boys headed down the church towards the screen, and looked around. He had not been in this cathedral before, though he had frequently been in the one at home in Glottenburg, not least on his solemn installation as duke at the age of five, when the archbishop had held the coronet of the duchy above his head and placed a gold sceptre in his hand. It had been so long and so heavy he had almost dropped it, which would have been very embarrassing, an anxiety that was his main memory of that solemn day.

People walked past him towards the screen and through it. It occurred to him there was service about to begin in the great choir, so he joined the flow and took a seat in one of the lower ranks of stalls. Above and immediately behind him were some of the boys from the procession and it finally occurrred to him that they were choristers here to sing the office.

A clergyman entered the choir and before the bidding prayer informed the congregation that tomorrow was the feast of St Hendrik of Esterhwicz, subdeacon and martyr, who died at the age of fifteen at the hands of pagan Rothenians some 900 years ago. It had become, he said, the tradition for boys of the choir of the Royal Hospital of the Fenizenhaus to provide the music on the feast day of the boy-saint in the cathedral of Strelsau. And so he was delighted they would be accompanying the worship for the solemn vespers of St Hendrik that evening, the first office of the feast.

Staszek was as well schooled as any Rothenian prince had ever been in the faith of his ancestors, so he rarely felt at a loss in a church service. He had sat through vespers daily when he was resident with his grandmother at Medeln abbey, so all was very familiar to him and indeed routine until the conclusion of the office. Before the benediction, one of the choirboys opposite got up and made a slow progress down into the alley between the stalls. He made his way to the bottom step of the high altar, and with the gentle backing of the great organ from the screen above them, and without the benefit of any score, he began to sing an anthem. It was to the text Mein gläubiges Herze, and the voice was as pure and sincere as any voice could have been, apart perhaps from that of an angel.

The prince had heard a good deal of sacred music in his short life and like any sensitive child had enjoyed it, though had you given him a choice at the age of six, he would have still preferred the excitement of a band playing a military march. But this anthem was something beyond any he had previously listened to. For the first time in his life Staszek found himself experiencing music with the intensity an adult would, and it spoke directly to his heart of all the sorrows and joys of existence. Tears filled his eyes and streamed down his cheeks, such was the power of the experience. It was almost painful, but when the choirboy completed the anthem he only wished that the delicious pain the song had inspired would continue.

A matron sitting beside him smiled indulgently and offered Staszek a scented handkerchief with which to dry his eyes. As he thanked her and returned it he noticed the chorister was still standing on the step, looking lost, till one of his fellows reached him and took his hand to lead him back. The boy chorister was blind.


When he left Staszek found the choristers milling around outside the west door of the cathedral, ebullient now they were free of the discipline of the office, racing around and scuffling. Four of them however were to one side leaning against a wall. Among them was the boy who had sung Mein gläubiges Herze. Never shy, Staszek walked up to the blind boy and greeted him.

‘And who are you?’ the chorister said.

‘My name’s Willem. I was in the church just now. Your singing was just … amazing. I just had to tell you.’

‘You’re young to be out on your own,’ the boy observed.

‘Hmm?’ Staszek was surprised. ‘How can you tell my age?’

‘You have to be around six. Am I right?’

‘You are. But how do you know?’

‘If you can’t see, you have to notice things other people give little attention to. The tone of your voice is one key, also the direction from which it comes. You’re getting on for a foot shorter than me, I would estimate.’

‘You’re quite right as it happens. But I’ll be seven soon. What’s your name?’

‘I’m called Orestes, Orestes Ortolan. And so you don’t need to guess, I’m nine years old.’

‘Well Herr Orestes Ortolan, you sing better than an angel.’

The boy Orestes giggled. ‘To be able to say that and be believed, you’d have to have hear an actual angel sing. And who alive can say that?’

‘I do know at least one angel, and he has a pretty unimpressive singing voice. It’s an embarrassment to him, though he tells me his brothers are a lot better at it.’

‘You tell a good story, Willem,’ Orestes laughed. ‘Also, for someone your age you speak much older than you are.’

It was only then that Staszek realised something very odd about Orestes Ortolan. He could not sense and read the other boy’s mind, as he could those of the other lads fizzing and playing all around them. It’s not that Orestes was a blank. He just radiated a calm happiness that was quite impenetrable to Staszek, but strangely seductive. Now how was that?


‘My dear Lord Burlesdon’, said Elector Max Joseph, as the audience at the Nymphenburg Palace came to an end, ‘I am just now off back to the Residenz. Do please accompany me. I wish to know more about the current campaign of your king’s army in his American colonies. I hear that your General Burgoyne has been obliged to surrender to the Continental Army in the wilderness south of Canada, with the loss of many thousands of soldiers, many of them German. Very embarrassing. Monsieur de Folard was speculating that his master at Versailles might be encouraged to join forces with the American rebels if they can pull off such a victory.’ The elector shot James a look. He was deliberately dropping that hint of French thinking though he knew the intelligence would be conveyed on to Whitehall.

The favour continued as James was called to sit opposite the elector in his own carriage. ‘The Nymphenburg is not the best place to be in winter, your excellency,’ the elector said, as he settled himself cosily under the carriage rugs. ‘However, with smallpox on the rise in the city it seemed best to come out into the country while the disease does its worst in the back streets and the packed servants’ quarters of the great houses. But business calls me back to the Residenz.’

The electoral equipage preceded by a jingling troop of dragoons trundled into the city at the Neuhauser Tor. As they approached the great tower that spanned Kaufingerstrasse the dragoons halted and the carriage lurched to a halt. A religious procession was passing through on its way to the Liebfrauenkirche and blocking the arch. The elector checked his watch and gave a sigh. Then he looked up startled as the bell of the tower clock rang out above them.

Himmel!’ he exclaimed. ‘It’s not yet two o’clock and the bell rings?’

The bell continued clanging irregularly. ‘It seems to be malfunctioning, sire,’ James observed. By the time the procession had passed and the carriage resumed its course the bell had rung out 77 times. The elector had counted them. He fixed James with a nervous glare. ‘My dear ambassador, if we believed in omens, we could make a bad story of that.’ He crossed himself.


Teddie Carfax burst into James’s study with barely a knock on the door. ‘He’s dead sir! The elector’s dead!’

‘Then may God have mercy of his soul, poor man. It was quick, at least.’

‘Now what, sir?’

‘What indeed?’ James frowned as he considered the consequences of the death of Elector Max Joseph. First things first. ‘Ask Dr Constable to check the staff for signs of smallpox once more,’ he ordered. The disease remained rife in the city. James had required the embassy children to be vaccinated as soon as the outbreak began. Most of the adults had already been vaccinated before coming to Munich, so the embassy was untouched by any mortality. Dr Constable had been very active in offering the procedure of variolation to the other embassies. As James pondered, the bells of the city began tolling for the elector’s passing. The court would be issuing regulations for mourning. Someone had better get copies. In the meantime, despatches needed to be written, to London and to Strelsau. He did not really know how he was to get his government to deal seriously with the inevitable crisis in the Empire that was going to follow Max Joseph’s death. Everything took second or third place to the American war at the moment.

The next day James went next door accompanied by Frank Potts to the church of the Theatines and viewed the huge castrum doloris already erected in piety for the late elector. The vast structure adorned with dyed plumes and surmounted by a huge black canopy of state reaching to the church’s roof vault proclaimed the elector’s piety and virtue in inscriptions and statuary. Incense burners on all four corners produced a heavily scented haze.

The elector’s favoured image of the Virgin from the chapel of the ancient ducal hospital occupied the central position for the veneration of the faithful, where in other such ceremonial structures the corpse itself might lie. The body however remained in the Residenz chapel, though not all of it. The heart had been removed, embalmed and encased in silver. It was placed at the moment in front of the image of the Virgin in the castrum doloris. James had been informed by the marshal of the court that he was to accompany the religious procession that would take it to the pilgimage church of Altötting in Upper Bavaria, where it would rest next to the shrine of the Black Virgin. It was observed that when the procession set out from Munich on a hard and cold January day, the coach of the British ambassador was placed next after that of the papal nuncio, by the late elector’s own request, as it transpired.


Prince Henry stopped off at Freddie’s desk as he passed through his library. ‘Any news from Munich?’ he asked.

‘A letter from Frank Potts, sir. He visited the Theatinerkirche the day after the elector’s death to view the arrangements. The funeral would be today, I believe.’

‘Did he mention the proclamation of Karl Theodor of the Palatinate as the new elector?’

‘No, sir.’

‘The Hapsburg army has mobilised, and it’s expected Archduke Joseph will march into Bavaria on the day of the funeral, so, depending how far they march, Mr Potts may well have some Austrian neighbours today or tomorrow.’

‘So, it’s war then?’

‘Most likely. Frederick of Prussia will not stand for the annexation of even part of Bavaria by the Hapsburgs, and the balance will thus have to be kept by Ruritania, as my father well knows. So expect to see a lot of blue uniforms on the streets tomorrow.’

‘Sebastian’s already moved his regiment to Vorplatzenberg, where the crown prince is mustering an army.’

‘Yes, indeed,’ the prince drawled, ‘and quite a challenge for Ferdinand it will be. His preference would be to march his forces to join the Prussians, but our father has quite different ideas.’

‘How’s it to be resolved, sir?’

The prince sighed. ‘With some very patient diplomacy, I imagine. At one level it’s simple enough. The clear and nearest heir to the late elector is his cousin, Karl Theodor, the Elector Palatinate. What makes him unacceptable is that he wants to keep the Palatinate as well as take Bavaria. That is clean against the governing statutes of the Empire as laid out in the Peace of Westphalia. There is another Wittelsbach who might be preferred in Munich over Karl Theodor, which is his cousin and his own heir, Karl August of Zweibrücken. If he took Bavaria – which he would get one day in any case – Karl Theodor would happily settle for just Mannheim. Very simple, yes? Between you and I this is my father’s own preferred solution, and Princess Osra is currently on her way to Postdam with Ernst Albert of Thuringia to urge this solution on King Frederick.’

‘What are the chances he’d accept it, sir?’

‘With a Hapsburg army sitting in Upper Bavaria not good. Archduke Joseph married the late Elector’s sister, giving him a meagre claim of his own. But it seems he intends to overawe the Bavarians, or carry out a forced partition of the electorate. As long as that remains a threat Frederick will not stand down. Austria and Bavaria united would destabilise the Empire. Now this damnable American War has eliminated what hopes we had your King George could have helped arbitrate the succession.’

‘So now it is all on King Rudolf?’

‘Exactly, my dear Freddie. Fortunately he can deploy the not inconsiderable army of Glottenburg in his support. As long as Austria or Prussia fears he might join the other, they dare not do more than mobilise. The combined Rothenian forces would make one side or other invincible. Hopefully this period of doubt will allow negotiation to bear fruit.


Willem Stanislas VI of Glottenburg enjoyed some aspects of his rule over his realm, though not many. But one he really liked was using the great seal of his duchy, and affixing it to pancackes of warm red wax to validate important documents. With his granny away in Prussia, the Chancellor of his duchy had brought one for him to authenticate.

‘This, Serene Highness,’ the old man said, ‘is an order for the mobilisation of our army and its assembly at Ranstadt. And here is a brief from your venerated grandmother asking you as your Regent to seal the document with your great seal as duke, which we have laid out here already.’

The prince beamed. ‘Thank you, my lord, I know what to do. Is the wax ready? Now, I place the silk cord here, like so, across the pancake laid over the lower face of the seal, and now I put the second layer on top. This is the tricky bit. I put the upper face of the seal over the wax so it engages with the rods and push slowly down until they meet. Give me the little hammer. One sharp tap. Count to twenty! Done!’

The grinning boy removed the upper silver plate of his seal and there was a perfect image of himself in state on a throne. The image on the reverse side was of the arms of the duchy under a canopy. When he became sixteen a new seal die would be cut for the reverse side showing him in armour on a horse. But at the moment a martial effigy was not thought appropriate.

The Chancellor and his staff bowed to the boy duke and took their leave. Staszek was soon bored, as his tutors would not arrive till the late afternoon. He looked out across Gartengasse to the snowbound street and the groups of children raising snowmen in the park beyond and knew where he wanted to be for the next few hours.

Sooner or later the fun of sculpting ice and snow wanes with the pain of very cold fingers, and after a half hour Staszek joined a gang of boys heading towards the Platz for a hot drink. Their next proposed scheme was to cross the frozen Starel on foot and climb up the Domshorja to take the opportunity of sledding down the ice slides of the Domstrasse. The best one, it was agreed, was the one at the west end of Armengasse which the Fenizenhaus boys customarily made and maintained. Staszek got a lot of credit amongst his new friends for buying one of the sleds being sold at stalls on the Platz. They sat him on it and dragged him along the street down to the river whooping and laughing in triumph.

The gang edged cautiously on to the frozen river, but so many people were out on it, they soon lost their nervousness and ran out on to the surface. Staszek cleared the snow from a patch of the river ice to find it was not flat, but rippled as it was when it froze. The ice was green and cloudy. ‘That’s ‘cos of all the pee and poop in it,’ one of his new friends declared, which got all the gang bellowing with laughter. They found steps up to the left bank of the river and then toiled up the zig-zagging back lanes of the Domshorja to reach Armengasse.

The west end of the street below the hospital walls was alive with children, many of them in the laced hats and green cloaks of the Royal Hospital. A stall selling roast chestnuts was doing a fine trade. The senior boys of the hospital policed the event. They had sleds lined up in a queue along Armengasse, and Staszek noticed how carefully they were timing the turns, and checking the number of boys on each sled.

A large and humorous youth who must have been sixteen looked down at Staszek’s gang and grinned. ‘So whose is this? Yours little feller? I can only allow one passenger on this. Too small. Rest of you, the hospital can let you have bigger sleds for only three pfennigs a go. Money goes to the Altstadt fund for winter fuel for the poor. So who’ll you take, kid?’

Staszek chose one of the smaller boys, a little lad called Rudiger, telling the disappointed ones that he had a kreuzer they could use to hire some of the hospital sleds. He joined the queue, very excited. One by one the sleds in front of him took the slope with whoops and screams until finally he stood on the platform and saw what was in front of him. ‘Oh!’ said Rudiger, ‘I’m not sure …’

A great trough cut through the snow ran downwards through raised banks to curve away through the houses below.

‘Don’t you worry, little feller,’ said another of the big boys. ‘If you keep your hands in and hold tight to the rope, you’ll be fine. The hospital lads have been cutting this slide for years, they’re masters of getting it just right. And there’s a soft landing at the end.’

Rudiger shook his head, and declared he was needed at home. And off he ran, leaving Staszek bemused.

‘Looks like you got an empty place,’ the big boy said. ‘You could do a kindness. Look over there.’ He pointed at a group of hospital children gathered around a nearby brazier. ‘Those are our kids who are blind. They need to go down the slide with a sighted kid. Would you take a passenger?’

Staszek scrutinised the group, and then beamed with recognition. ‘Hey! Orestes!’ he yelled. ‘It’s Willem! Want to come down the slide with me?’

Orestes Ortolan was led over to the head of the run and settled down on the sled behind Staszek, whose little rear was squeezed between the bigger boy’s thighs. ‘Ready!’ yelled the big boy, and gave them a push over on to the slope.

‘Hold tight!’ Orestes shouted in his ear as the sled gathered speed on the first slope and houses began to flash past. ‘When we hit the bend lean into it! I’ll show you,’ Orestes called.

And as the sled took the carefully canted bank the hospital boys had constructed, Orestes leant to the left with Staszek, and the sled shot round to take a hair-raising dip into the next sloping street, which sent Staszek’s tummy into his boots. ‘Hey!’ Staszek shouted back to his friend. ‘How do we stop at the bottom?’

‘Don’t worry, Willem,’ came the confident reply. ‘It’s all set up ready for us.’

They took two more bends and then a long straight run took them down almost to the river bank. The sled ended up running onto a flat stretch thickly scattered with straw by another team of teenage hospital boys. It came to a halt and boys helped them quickly off the run as another sled, this time with four boys on board followed them.

‘Phew! That was just amazing!’ Staszek said, as Orestes took the rope and tugged the sled after them.

‘Yeah, and now we have a long walk up the hill to do it again.’

‘How was it for you, Orestes? I at least could see where we were going and how fast we were.’

The blind boy shrugged. ‘Oh, I got the feeling of our speed alright. It was thrilling enough, even though I can’t see the houses shoot past us like you can.’

‘Were you always blind, Orestes? Is that why you’re in the hospital?’

‘No. It came on when I was a toddler. But I’m in the hospital because my father, who took care of me died when I was six. My mother … well, she had left him and me years before and couldn’t be found. Our parish priest organised my entry into the hospital. It’s a good place to be. The Fenizenhaus has quite a few blind kids and knows how to look after and train us. The choir is fantastic. I have lots of friends. What about you?’

‘Me? My father’s dead too, and my mother’s remarried and lives abroad. My granny looks after me. She’s wonderful.’

‘You’re not from Strelsau,’ Orestes observed. ‘You don’t talk like a Strelsener kid. If I had to guess, I’d say you’re from Glottenburg, Willem.’

Staszek was impressed. ‘You can tell that just from my voice?’

‘Yes, and also you speak like someone who has a lot of money and servants.’

‘You can tell an awful lot just from what I say and how I say it. More and more impressive. Enough questions, Orestes. I’ve got time for us to have two more goes on the slide. Then I need to get back home. I have tutors and lessons.’