The events and concerns in Daughter of Mystery were very parochial. We heard about secondary and tertiary effects of the French Wars (i.e., Napoleon) but ordinary people's everyday lives didn't concern themselves much with international affairs. When I brought in the character of Kreiser, the Austrian agent, in The Mystic Marriage, I started digging a lot deeper into what was going on elsewhere in Europe. What was his political context? Who might he be working for or against? I was already laying the seeds for the mystical peril that forms one of the major plot strands in Mother of Souls and I needed to know who was doing what, and when and where and why. Barbara likes to think of herself as fairly politically savvy for internal Alpennian affairs, but once she started playing games of intrigue with Kreiser, she needed to scramble to keep up.
Judging by feedback, readers aren't quite sure what to make of Kreiser. Is he a villain? Antuniet certainly thinks so. Is he simply an entertaining antagonist? Barbara treats him as such. And Serafina's interactions with him will be more complex. What's his angle? Why is he spending so much time hanging around in Rotenek? And when he taunts Barbara into intellectual skirmishes with him, is it purely for amusement or is there something he hopes she can provide to further his aims? If the reader isn't entirely certain at this point, that's pretty much what I intend.
During the summer of 1824, when Barbara is making the usual circuit and survey of her properties, she has an appointment to meet up with Kreiser in Saveze, as he returns over the border from Switzerland. They fence with each other, trying to determine how much trust to offer in pursuing a mutual goal. Or are they both pursuing the same goal at all?
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Chapter 16 - Barbara
“It had been suggested back at the Congress of Verona,” Kreiser continued, ignoring her stumble, “that a larger, more balanced force should intervene in Spain. Moving across the mountains here and then by ship. But…”
“But they couldn’t get through,” Barbara finished for him. “They would have been stopped before the pass. But wasn’t the mystery already in place by then?”
Kreiser waved aside the objection. “By the time anyone gets to talking, the moves and counter-moves have already been made. Someone wanted to prevent that army from traveling to Spain. And even leaving behind artillery,” he continued, “by the time they could march through under those conditions, the battle would have been decided. The debates were a meaningless show. The army never moved and France had a free hand in Spanish affairs.”
“So you think it’s France?”
Kreiser’s sidelong glance was both amused and suspicious. “Do you?” He leaned back in his chair and seemed to be enjoying himself greatly. “If it were only that simple! I suspect everyone. There were some who signed to the accords who were quite happy to have had the matter taken out of their hands. Within my own government there are forces who have moved in the past to pre-empt the ministers’ decisions. And there are companies of thaumaturgists on every side. Not all have the power to work something of this sort, but the ones who do are rarely those who boast that they could.”
For a brief moment, all masks seemed to drop away and Kreiser looked more tired than Barbara had ever seen before.
“There’s a good reason why my activities in Alpennia have not fallen under the most official channels,” he said. “And why my public mission has been cloaked in playing at marital intrigues.”
If it were a ploy for sympathy, it fell short. Kreiser’s “playing” had left bodies in its wake the year before, and it was only good fortune that none of them had been people she cared for. But she could believe it had been nothing more than misdirection, for it had come to nothing in the end.
Barbara was no longer certain how much of Kreiser’s tale was belated honesty and how much was still part of that game. If he could pretend to bluntness, so could she. “Why Alpennia? Why me? Why haven’t you brought this directly to Princess Anna’s ministers or to your own ambassador? Why quiz me like a catechism rather than stating what you need outright?”
Kreiser exhaled, halfway between a sigh and a grunt. “Alpennia is at the heart of it, I’m certain. Not in the way my superiors think, but they wouldn’t take my word for that, and—” He leaned forward in a move that might still be playacting. “—I don’t trust them any more than I trust you or the Russians or the French, though perhaps more than I trust the English. I have been tasked with determining whether we’re dealing with external enemies or with hidden forces within the Empire itself. If this is the work of foreign thaumaturgists, I am to cripple them as best I can. And that is where I hope to have your support.” His gesture took in the entirety of Alpennia. “No one in Vienna has the power to work at this distance, and we don’t have anyone with the right talent in place in Paris. The Russians don’t do this type of work. The English won’t even admit to having thaumaturgists. The last thing I want is to get tangled up with the disaster that is Rome. You have the mystical traditions and people with the skills to help carry it off, as well as the will to do so. I can’t be seen to be working directly with your government, but no one will notice my dealings with you.”
Yes, Barbara thought. She had played at cat-and-mouse with him over most of his false distractions. No one would find anything suspicious in their continued entanglements.
“And if it turns out to be agents within Austria itself?” she asked.
Kreiser’s face settled into grimmer lines. “Then it’s possible I will be a dead man as soon as I make my report.”