The Faith: Book I of the Uprising Trilogy

Page 13 of 45

Chapter X

Logan rocked with the movement of the train, an ignoble spot of drool forming on his cheek.

"Rather inspiring, isn't he?" said Jacob, a laugh in his tone.

Blinking out of my reverie, I regarded him. "Jacob, can I ask you something?"

He froze, his smile fading. Perhaps he sensed the hesitancy in my tone, but he leaned forward. "Anything. What's troubling you?"

"Have you killed before?"

"Have I . . ." he repeated.

"Killed. Have you killed before yesterday?"

Recognition flashed through his eyes. "Ah. You mean the ambush. Or do you mean Di Luca?"

I sighed. "Both. I can't help feeling that . . . I don't know. Feeling that we're no better than the murderers who killed Di Luca."

He paused, composing his thoughts. "Ah. We'll come back to Di Luca's death and why we're so very different. But I have killed before, yes. When I gushed my story to you, on the train to Rome, I skimmed over several things. Remember that I wasn't athletic?"

"Certainly. Your brother overshadowed you. To be honest, I wondered about that yesterday. For being so apparently unfit, you handled yourself rather well."

"Yes, to be perfectly frank, I did. There's only one skill in life I wish I hadn't been forced to learn. I take it you've never been to the South?" I indicated I hadn't. "The South," he continued, "Is essentially a collection of all the worst aspects of European society. The United States doesn't have the nobility, in law anyway. In practice, that's all a lie. You've heard of Cotton Barons, haven't you? Everything you've heard about that is absolutely true. Southern nobility, per se, is determined solely by the amount of money a family owns. That and if your parents and their parents had just as much money. Bloodlines are important still, but no one has titles, so it makes it hard to exclude others on the basis of blood."

He took a sip of brandy; a train attendant had brought drinks to us awhile back. "The more slaves a man owns, the more cotton he can reap in the year. The more cotton, the more money. The more money, the more noble a man is. This all leads to folks taking offense to everything. 'The European aristocracy practices honor, why can't we?' they reason. So people duel. A lot. So much so that the newspapers are full of the proceedings. It's almost like a game to Southerners. Shooting is the one skill I had to learn, and I can do it very well."

"And have you fought before?" We jumped as Logan let out a sharp snore, his mouth clamping together. I chuckled, but Jacob remained unmoved, his face dark.

"Four times," he said simply.

I stared at him, my mouth agape. I shut it. "Oh, that few? Just four?" I said sarcastically.

"Yes." The response held no pride, no shame, no emotion really.

"What for?"

"Various reasons for each. I insulted Voltaire's writings at a salon once. Our host didn't take kindly to that. How was I to know the man doted on that philosopher like an overbearing mother? My analysis didn't suit him, and after several long arguments of the subject, he demanded satisfaction. God's truth — that's what I fought for, what I risked my life for. The man wouldn't take my apology if I didn't retract my words, so what was I to do? To back out, I would lose all credibility, and all of my writings would become drivel. Men without honor don't do well in the South, and men of honor don't back down from duels."

"So what happened?"

"He missed. I didn't."

"You say that so callously. What did you feel afterwards? You killed him, I'm assuming."

"He died, yes. I was sad, yes. But it's not like it was murder; the fight was fair, and it was at his behest. Besides, someone who would kill over philosophical opinions was probably better removed from society before he caused more trouble."

"He was a life though. He loved and was loved."

"I don't doubt that, although he had no family to speak of — just his ideas and his money. But life was a game to him, or at the very least a contest. If he couldn't be the winner, of moral arguments or anything else, why bother with life? A man doesn't go into a duel without something on the line. Our sleeping friend here knows that too. I wasn't there, but Fuchs felt strongly enough to issue a challenge, and the game was on. But life's not a game. To take a life is a terrible thing. But to offer it to be taken, as in a duel, is perhaps even worse."

The words were profound, and I needed a moment to process everything. He went on without pause however. "That's not to say I'm a saint. Two other duels I fought over politics at the others' challenges. One was not terribly serious — one shot for each combatant. My man nicked me in the arm." He pulled up his sleeve, revealing a long scar along the entire forearm. "The other man I killed. But, as I said, the others initiated those. Like our fight and Di Luca's death."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"The bastards crucified a drunken man along a road for all to see. They killed him in a tortuous execution reserved for the basest of characters. They bled his hulk dry and left him for his friends to find. Without cause, without injury, they started a fight and killed a man. Do I need to go on?"

I shook my head. "And us?"

"We fought in defense of our lives from an ambush by these same devils. There is nothing comparable between the deaths we caused and Di Luca's slaughter. They instigated; we reacted."

I paused for some moments, only breathing. I'd need more time to ponder that. Demurring, I steered the conversation elsewhere. "You mentioned four duels earlier."

"Yes. The first three others started."

"But the fourth one . . ." I guessed.

He smiled sadly. "Yes. No man is above his own ideals, and I can be a hypocrite too. In the wake of Lilly's death, life ceased to be enjoyable. I've mentioned before that I didn't avoid death, but it came to avoid me. Regardless, no one will insult her memory in my presence without revenge." The comment hovered in the compartment, neither of us responding for a very long moment.

At last, I grinned. "You're a surprising man Jacob Douglas. Remind me to keep you where I can see you."

He laughed, the mood lightened. "Suppose we should wake our sleeping beauty?"

I laughed but shook my head. "Let him sleep. We all deserve it." Logan had been in and out of consciousness for hours now. Our train had left Rome without incident, and the rest of that afternoon was spent admiring the passing countryside. As with the trip into Italy, the varied landscape and beautiful architecture remained stunning. Eventually, the sun had dipped, and blackness fell. The night had passed quickly, but as dawn crested the horizon, our friend had continued his sleep, allowing Jacob and I the chance to converse. All told, it had been a pleasant journey, a needed escape from the carnage of Rome.

Now though, as I peered through the glass into the dawn, the landscape had changed. Deep forests surrounded us, and I could almost imagine the clash of Romans and the German tribes, battles long forgotten, and tears uncountable. In every passing tree, drops of dew were falling towards the ground, creating a false sense of rain. Occasionally, a deer would raise its head, sensing the train. Some would bolt, their instincts dragging them from the onrushing unknown. Others would stand, proud and defiant. People were rare, but several man-made paths led through the forests. It was clear that the area was inhabited.

Looking up, I regarded my companions. For his part, Logan continued snoring, the hero embodied. I smiled at that thought. Jacob was engrossed in a newspaper.

Fleeing from danger and fighting it when the chance had arisen, we had formed a fast bond, the three of us. Friendship is always a powerful tie, but in this case, it was deeper, stronger. I knew that either of these fellows would die defending me, and I felt the same for them. A person reads all sorts of similar rhetoric in history: David and Jonathan, Alexander and Hephaestion and whatnot. But books spoke of a bond where each surrenders himself to become almost one with the other. To me, this had always sounded like propaganda to puff up the subject's ego and reputation. Now, I realized it was all true.

After staring out t

he window for a while longer, I looked at Logan again. Then I spoke to Jacob. "Maybe now we can wake him. I've no idea where we are, but Teimsfeld can't be too far ahead." When asked, the ticket-master had been more than helpful in describing Riktenburg; he was a native of that small kingdom. The train, we were informed, would be in the capital by midmorning.

Jacob leaned over and shook our friend. Several more attempts finally roused him. Logan jerked awake, his face twitching in excitement. He mumbled incoherently before he got his bearings. "Good morning gentlemen," he murmured, stretching. "You've had a pleasant night's rest, I take it?"

"Shorter than yours," answered Jacob.

"Welcome to Germany!" I spread my arms towards the window, all the world like a dramatic performer. Ignoring me, Logan drew out some bread and cheese from a small rucksack. He began to snack, and after a moment, he offered the food around to us. We passed several minutes enjoying the simple fare in silence.

Our reverie was broken as an employee rushed down the train's corridor. He shouted "Teimsfeld, ten minutes! Teimsfeld, ten minutes!"

"That answers that question," said Logan between bites of bread. My pulse quickening, I swiveled my gaze towards the window. Even then, the forest was beginning to clear, the trees becoming smaller and more infrequent. They were being replaced by open swathes of ground. Along the horizon, a range of mountains loomed above the train, casting its majestic shadow over the land. The occasional farmstead and cultivated field dotted the landscape, and we finally began to see people. These were invariably poor peasants. They scurried about, ensuring that the farm's chores were all accounted for, and the animals and workers would be ready for the day. I watched them, transfixed. Even as we studied them, these laborers ignored us as our locomotive hurled by.

In an instant, the fields and pastures were replaced. The transition was so quick I almost missed it. One moment, the scenery was an idyllic picture of country living, and the next, buildings of every size surrounded us. Logan shouted in excitement, and a brief laugh escaped Jacob's lips. Like my friends, I was impressed. The buildings were beautifully constructed. Many had traditional German frames. Angular lines sloped to distinctly pointed roofs, shudders were framed expertly, and many homes had a turret attached to the building, almost as an afterthought. Shades of pale yellow and earthy browns adorned everything. Alexandra Klein had not been false. Riktenburg was a stunning land in many aspects.

Letting the cushions draw be back, I smiled, glimpsing Teimsfeld. This city would offer us answers; we would discover, at long last, what the Faith was and why the scoundrels were hounding us. Besides, it would offer the chance to meet more of the enchanting Klein family. If Mercedes' father was anything like his other relatives, our visit would be enjoyable as well as informative. These thoughts pooled about my mind as the train slowed, its engine hissing. At last, we were at rest once more.

"Come on Logan." I called, standing. "Let's see your lover's homeland!" His ears turned red, and he pushed me back into my seat good-naturedly.

"She's not my lover. Yet," he called over his shoulder. Striding after him, Jacob and I exited the compartment in his wake. The corridor was filled with passengers. Teimsfeld was the main destination on this line. We struggled past them. It helped not having luggage; we'd left that in our compartment, hoping to hire help to cart it to Mercedes' home.

Reaching our car's exit, we paused, the others looking to me. In a prearranged plan, I was to leave first, look for the Faith, wander around for a bit ensuring our safety, and call the others. Meanwhile, they would wait, weapons ready for any trouble. We didn't expect a gun battle in such a public place, but given the Faith's presence at the station in Rome, we were taking no chances. Being kidnapped once more was not on the agenda.

I stepped down, shivered, and drew my waistcoat around me. Hunched down, I walked about, avoiding eye contact and shifting my gaze. The distinctive bowler hats were missing. Rising to my full height, I lengthened my stride and returned towards the train.

A hand grabbed my shoulder.

In an instant, I whirled about, a knife clutched in my fist. Concurrently, my other hand shot out, grabbing the man and shoving him to the ground. The blade lunged towards the throat of my attacker but froze, waiting. It was a youth, no more than twelve. His eyes bulged, and his skin was the color of faded parchment. In one hand, he held a handkerchief.

"S-sir," he said weakly. "You dropped this." He offered my faded cloth towards me, and I raised him back to standing height. Spluttering apologies, I ushered him away, my cheeks coloring.

I turned as Jacob and Logan wandered towards me. Logan could barely walk he was laughing so hard. Tears rolled down his cheeks, and he weaved, clutching Jacob for support. Even Jacob chuckled a bit. I just crumpled my lips. "It wasn't that funny."

Logan wiped away a tear. "You should have seen your faces. We watched him come up to you, and as he reached out to tap you, I turned to Jacob. 'This'll be interesting,' I said. Next thing we know, you're practically murdering the boy. All for a handkerchief!" He broke off as he collapsed into another fit of mirth.

"Nice move though," spoke Jacob.

"Thank you," I said dryly. "Now, if we've collected ourselves, shall we?"

Logan bowed. "After you, Great Warrior." I puffed out my chest and strutted off, giving them their show. They caught up eventually. Finding porters for the luggage was no difficulty. In fact, the men we selected even knew the Klein's household. Our new friends were apparently well regarded within Teimsfeld. Trusting the laborers to their work, we left the platform, walking into the city. Sitting on the train for hours had left our legs sore. It felt wonderful to amble the streets once more.

"At least we lost the devils. The sooner we find out about this Faith cult, the better it'll be for all of us," I said.

Jacob shot me a dark look. "Not so loud. Mercedes was too scared to even whisper about them in public. It wouldn't do for us to be shouting their name through the streets."

Logan said "Good point. Any advantage we can steal is worth our while. Maybe, for once, they won't know where we are."

"Or maybe we've just been lucky in not seeing them yet. It seems out of character for these men to misplace their quarry," said Jacob.

I chuckled. "I have faith in them yet." The others groaned, and the conversation lulled at that point. None of us had seen Germany before, and our eyes began to wander towards the scenes around us. The Grand Tour had brought us through two major cities thus far. Each was packed with crowds of residents, and the sounds were almost overwhelming. In Paris, vendors had waited along the Seine, hawking their wares. Rome had revelers abounding. All told Paris and Rome were raucous. Teimsfeld was decidedly different. The street we walked along was narrow. Cobblestones flowed unevenly under our feet, and wagon and carriage traffic was scarce. I couldn't remember how many times we'd needed to step out of the way of a cursing driver in Paris.

It was different here. No one was cursing. In fact, much of the street was silent. We could see several vendors, yes. But they were mostly women, dressed in humble, durable garb. They sold fresh vegetables and fruit or bread piled high in wicker baskets. Dogs, domesticated not wild, circled their masters, begging every passersby to pet them. Children ran about, their innocent squeals a din amid the relative quiet. Water, perhaps from a recent rain, trickled through grooves in the stones, forming puddles in the low places; the children raced through these, splashing about wildly. Homes of brick, wood, and mortar lined the street. Some were brightly painted in shades of blue, but most were covered in modest earthen tones of brown, yellow, and dull red. None stuck out in size or architecture. They were all similar, and I guessed that that didn't bother a single Riktian.

On the homes were carvings of all kinds. The craftsmanship was exquisite. Proud warriors waited, their beards twisted and braided like the barbarian chieftains of old. Ornate circlets of wood wrapped about columns. Crafted birds seemed animated to flight, escaping from their prisons of pin

e and oak. Each home was a work of art, while still maintaining its air of simplicity. In Rome, homes like Di Luca's towered over the streets, spreading their marble walls to clasp the riches of their residents. Here, homes were for living. I was coming to like Riktenburg very much.

We walked, silent in admiration, for several hours. We could have hired a carriage, but the allure of a new city was too strong, and I was enjoying our decision. All the while, we made our way towards the Klein's home. No one expected us. To be honest, we didn't even know if Mercedes would be home. She had been leaving the morning after the ball. In theory, she should have arrived before us. We had left hours after her, but travel can be rife with delays, and there was no guarantee that the woman would be home. It simply wouldn't do to barge in upon her parents with no introduction. If Mercedes hadn't arrived, things would be awkward.

Finally, after receiving the pleasant help of a passing merchant, we came to the home. The place was large but not sumptuous. I had no idea how well a minister of war would be paid, but I was surprised that the home was not larger. Of course, it would certainly be large enough to host us. We could see at least two wings in the building. Regardless of the simplicity of other Riktian dwellings, this one was smaller than I had pictured for a powerful figure in government. It didn't matter though. Striding up a small staircase, we knocked on the door. The wood reverberated before being swung open.

A beady-eyed fellow peered up at us through half-moon glasses. He smiled pleasantly, then spoke, "Good afternoon gentlemen. Welcome to the home of Mister Joseph Klein, Minister of War for His Majesty King Martin III." The greeting sounded polished and practiced, almost as if it had been given for years and years, which I'm sure it had.

"Thank you sir," said Logan, extending a calling card. "My name is Viscount Logan Harling, and my companions are—"

"Ah!" cried the valet. "Miss Mercedes mentioned you would be along soon enough. Come in! Come in! You are expected." He disappeared back into the gloomy doorway. Peering inside, I shrugged towards the others and followed the excitable servant into the home.

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