Two chapters of a work-in-progress historical novel concerning the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, Habsburg ruler of Christendom from 1576 to 1612, and his pursuit of objects for his ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ – a highly exclusive collection of items of artistic, alchemical and astrological interest from the four corners of the known world. He was a ruler who patronised many artists, and was obsessed with what constituted advanced technology at the time – a field he termed ‘Artificalia’, something we would understand as clockwork automatons, some of which were exceptionally complicated. He was also greatly concerned with the cosmos, and patronised multiple astrologers, including influential academics such as Johannes Kepler, and this story concerns Rudolph’s dispatch of his most prized agent to convince the Danish nobleman and astrologer, Tycho Brahe, to attend his court.



The wide moat ahead reflected the grey and featureless sky, turning at its edges into a muddy bank and mild incline. Visser took a breath, and holding the reins of his horse, surveyed the scene. A showy moat, not suited for defence, he thought. A man could wade in full armour across the whole thing in seconds, and a horse would barely notice its own wet ankles. He stroked his horse’s mane with affection, as though in implicit understanding with the animal. Though not a soldier now, and not for many years, Visser came from a family wealthy enough to afford martial training, and for a time had performed admirably against the infidels in Vienna on their regular incursions. His duties as an agent in recent times were more adventurous, and he greatly preferred them to the rigid military discipline of a city garrison. He’d certainly not had to breach a moat before, but was confident he could breach the one before him. Köstner called out ahead.  

“What of it, Visser?”  

Köstner had also dismounted, and was cocking a knowing eye at his travelling companion. What it meant wasn’t entirely clear to Visser, and he resented the suggestion of like minds. Perhaps it was simple mockery, but this would be an intolerable show of disrespect in such close proximity to the castle here, in this miserable stretch of Denmark.   

There were, however, no sentries to meet them, or any official representatives at all. No bowmen on the low walls, no noise save the gentle waters behind them.   

“What now?” Köstner called. 

Visser assumed caution, adopted the protocol he had learned over the years of approaching unknown outposts: enter on foot, sword rotated to the rear, hands visible. He reached the ambassador, relayed the plan and waited for the horses to be set.   

“As far as I’m aware, and by the appearance of the place, we are to expect no troops here, but I have made this assumption before, in my unwise earlier years. It pays, I have found out, to be cautious in all things” He glanced at Köstner, who was frowning.  

The landscape, Visser thought, seemed to be frowning too. The totality of it, the flatness, the radius of perhaps only a league visible before dissolving to mist. The only colour the grass, a green that seemed to moan at its failure to be. Köstner, in contrast, barely noticed it, he was focused instead on the task ahead, fretting at the reports of the arrogant nobility awaiting them. This no-show at the gates confirmed his fears, and they grew inside him, suffocating his already weak confidence. He resolved to hide it.  

“I am looking forward to meeting this Nobleman, Visser. He seems quite the eccentric. You can see why he is more suited to our Emperor’s employ. Though perhaps not to the grandeur of our setting!”  

“Hmmm, yes perhaps. Though we are best to hold that judgement, don’t you think?”  

Köstner was aggrieved at this undermining of his bravado, and began walking a pace ahead of the agent to hide his blushes.

The moat bridge was rather haphazard, an assemblage of rough cut hardwood beams, splintering here and there among the wheel tracks. He noticed no chain or pulley system to raise the drawbridge and wondered whether this was laziness or the job simply wasn’t finished yet. Nor was he aware of the age of this castle, though it seemed new, almost heretically un-christian, no forms of the great civilisations prominent. There were two wide and very tall towers within the inner grounds, roughly occupying the extreme north and south. Neither, somewhat oddly, were attached to the perimeter wall, and simply stood alone, each possessing a flat, open top.  

Among a collection of indistinct instruments at the summit of the South tower, Visser laid eyes on his first humans at Uranisbörg, two figures in apparently very animated conversation, one gesticulating rather wildly. It was some distance, and he couldn’t distinguish the dress of either, but an unfortunate soul was receiving a dressing down, it appeared.  

The put upon figure glanced to the entrance as Visser and Köstner were crossing the bridge respectfully slowly, and the dressing down ceased as the larger figure held up an arm, waving it around in exaggerated fashion. 

“What is this?” Köstner scoffed, thinking the gesticulations rather uncouth and peasant-like. His eyesight was better than Visser’s, and he recognised the grand outfit of the arm-waver.  

“This, my esteemed companion, is the estate of our target, and we should remember this.” He emphasised the word esteemed and Köstner took his time to reply. 

“Well, yes, indeed. Seems this is our man, wouldn’t you think?”  

They reached the main entrance courtyard, paused.  

“This will do, let’s see, shall we?”  

Ahead of them was more mud than they were used to observing within the city of Praha, let alone within the distinguished walls of the Imperial Castle of Hradçany. The emissary wanted to mention it, but was wary of receiving further rebukes from the technically lower-ranked Field Agent. This was a great stretch for the man, his sense of compromise and honour greatly less than his estimation. He simply observed Visser instead, and regretted the lack of conversation from him, those idle observances that speed along a journey’s progress, that gave some vent to what he considered his excellent imagination and keen eye. This was a grim travelling party, and Visser was altogether too used to travelling alone.   

The put-upon figure appeared in the doorway ahead, at the head of a large and dirty staircase. He clicked his heels together in the manner of a court jester impersonating a soldier. The visitors were taken aback, glanced at each other. The figure trotted jauntily towards them, calling out as he went.  

“Greetings, and welcome to Uranisbörg! The kingdom of Brahe! If you seek knowledge, you have travelled to the correct corner of the world!”  

He skidded to a halt in the gravel and mud of the gateway, bowing deeply. The visitors bowed uncertainly in return, unaware of the protocol set by this unusual emissary.  

“Allow me to introduce myself – I am Arnbrand, Head of Instruments and official representative of Lord Brahe at the Danish Court,” He lifted a hand across his mouth in mock secrecy, “and a troublesome task that is, these days, I might say!” He followed it with a wink and a snort of laughter, swivelled on the spot. Immediately swivelled back.  

The two arrivals looked at each-other, unsure what to do next. Köstner took the initiative. Removed from his tunic a sealed scroll of introduction, offered it to the scruffily dressed emissary.  

“We come as official representatives of the Holy Roman Emperor, His Highness, Rudolph II, protector and ruler of Christendom. I am the Chief Emissary, Mariusz Köstner. Allow me to introduce my travelling companion, our chief field agent, Mikulasz Visser.”

He held the scroll of introduction formally, with both hands.  

“Excellent! Follow me, new friends!” Brahe’s emissary replied, and snatched the scroll, trotted off through the mud as if completely used to it. Both men paused a while, but Visser seemed more at ease, and shrugged as he began to follow. Köstner, face like a chastened schoolboy, was startled by the disrespect shown to the official communication of the most powerful man in the known world. The man didn’t even glance at the thing, let alone unseal it with gravitas.

“What mess is this…” He muttered under his breath. 

They were led through a series of very dark and mud marked corridors into what seemed to be a dining room – Visser marvelled at its vaulted ceiling with huge wooden beams, imagining it to be something from a dark past of magical kings and mythical beast slaying. He had seen many a reference to dragons across the writings and artworks of many different, disparate cultures, and was convinced that they existed. This place had an unfamiliar, sour smell.

In the middle of the room lay an enormous darkwood dining table, almost black and finished roughly as though sliced from a single gargantuan tree. A red cloth lined with gold stretched the entire length, ending at the head of the table, where the King of this ancient-seeming place sat, twirling the corner of a moustache, eyeing them sidelong.

Tycho Brahe stayed seated as the men approached, only rising at the last moment, and as he turned to face the men, the candlelight revealed the gilt glory of his prosthetic nose. Its shape was striking, a fuller and more Roman appendage than seemed ever likely for this short and soft featured man. It had fully worked nostril openings, and the two new arrivals couldn’t help but admire the workmanship, and wonder at the fixing mechanism, wonder at the face without it.

Arnbrand handed the scroll to Brahe, which relieved Köstner somewhat, but then after a brief glance at it, tossed it aside.   

“Don’t worry fellow” Brahe said as he slapped the Emissary’s shoulder, “I have very good contacts, I know you two already. Köstner, am I correct?”  

Köstner was taken aback, and was also mid-flinch from the hearty physicality of the greeting, and the sum of the two produced a rather pathetic grimace. 

“And Visser, I hear you have travelled to the far, far East? Is this true?”  

“Yes, my lord, it was a very long journey, full of wonders.”  

“Well then, my fellow, we are going to talk about this at great length, over dinner. I’m sure you have a lot to teach me about these intriguing places!”  

“My pleasure, my lord.”  

“But first, your quarters. Arnbrand, make yourself useful and show these estimable guests the way.”