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An explosion of sound and smoke ruptured my senses as the entrance doors swung on their massive hinges. My reflexes still worked, however, so I threw myself to the ground, the popping of muskets reverberating through the room. Laying prostate, I took a second to look about.
The scene was pure chaos.
At the door, more than a dozen men, all dressed in the garb of the royal guard, had taken up a firing line and were shooting down the occupants of the room. Elsewhere, others returned fire, and men dropped, screaming on both sides. The king had been grabbed by someone and thrown into the corner of the chamber; above him stood two guards, reloading and firing as fast as possible. Of course, my friends and I were powerless to resist. Like me, Jacob and Logan had dropped to the floor, preservation taking the lead over courage.
Smoke from the musket fire was filling the room, and the enemy shot volley after volley into our group. Around us, defenders of the king huddled behind the limited furniture, returning fire when possible, but it was clear to all we were outnumbered and outgunned. Little by little, our forces dwindled.
"Cease fire!" a voice called out of the smoke. To a man, our attackers lowered their muskets. Our men didn't, and the enemy paid for their hesitancy — two men cried out in pain and dropped to the ground as our shots found their mark.
The king cried "Hold!" before anymore shots were fired.
The enemy voice spoke again. "Surrender Your Majesty, and no one else will be harmed.
As shouts of defiance and rejection arose from our side, I looked to the king. About him lay the dead who had thrown themselves between him and the withering fire. He was still huddled in the corner, his clothing askew. A strange silence descended upon the chamber.
King Martin rose, gathering what dignity he could find. He marched forward, striding into the center of the room. Around the monarch, spilt blood dripped and pooled through the grooves of the floor-stones. A pungent taste and acrid smell of gun-smoke hung in the air. Mixed with the silence, the scene was ethereal. King Martin opened his mouth to speak, forming a response to his attackers.
I watched the following scene as if from afar. Vaguely, I noticed movement from the enemy firing line. Then, as one, a report from a musket filled the room and someone cried "Treachery!" The king spun about from the ball's momentum, and the deep wound in his shoulder began adding to the pooled blood. His body bounced as it hit the ground, sliding across the wet stones. Cries of horror and wordless yells of rage arose from our side.
The remaining defenders charged our assassins to a man. As for my friends, we leapt towards the king. In the background, I could hear men dying and weapons discharging. Yet, these sounds were only a distraction. Royal blood soaked into my trousers as we knelt before the wounded king. He smiled sadly up at us, clearly in shock.
Then, all of a sudden, I registered the silence in the room. This thought came an instant before rough hands dragged me to my feet and a blow from a musket butt sent me back down into the mire of blood and gore. Jacob, Logan, and Minister Joseph were thrown next to me. No others survived. All lay sprawled about us, lifeless eyes reflecting in the sunlight descending from the skylights.
Above us, our attackers loomed. Four of them had bayonets resting inches above our throats, begging us to resist them in some way. As I mentioned, each man was clothed and armed in the uniform of the royal guard, and given their recent performance, all were adept at soldiering as well.
Nearby, the wounded king struggled to sit up. I watched two of the enemy assist him in this, dragging him to a kneeling position. The monarch clutched his shoulder, and the wound continued to pulsate, gushing scarlet blood onto the floor. I was surprised the man was still conscious.
"Well, gentlemen." The smooth, distasteful voice that had offered surrender earlier spoke once more. The speaker moved out from behind the group of attackers. Even knowing the details behind the plot, it still caught me off guard. The approaching enemy was the king! At least, he had every appearance of being Martin. His green eyes smiled at the victory, and although stained from battle, his long goatee and black mustache were identical to their counterpart. Mask, makeup, or magic I wasn't sure, but for whatever reason, the man whom I assumed to be Aloysius Fuchs looked all the world to be King Martin III of Riktenburg.
"Valiant, foolish gentlemen," he repeated. "Did you really think you could stand before the will of God and not be crushed?" His words dripped like honey and tasted like bile; I loathed the bastard.
Jacob scoffed. "If I recall your ideology, sir, shouldn't you respect God's anointed, not assassinate him?"
"And from what I've learned about you Jacob Douglas, you don't even believe in God anymore — theology lessons from a heathen, indeed. Regardless, we have business to settle first."
He turned towards the kneeling king. "Your Majesty," he said, his frame bowing in scornful mockery.
"Phillip?" asked the wounded man stupidly. In answer, Fuchs drew out a revolver in a flourish, cocked it, and put a single ball through the helpless king's head. The monarch's body collapsed like a sack of wheat, the rest of us too shocked to utter a sound.
"Long live the king," said Aloysius with a chuckle. Laughing still, he dropped into the throne, crossing his legs. The laughing ceased as he swiveled his gaze towards us. I wondered if the man might be insane.
He blinked at us several times before speaking. "Friends, countrymen . . . traitors." With the last word, he shot a single finger at us. His face was gleeful and had the boasting air of one who had just won a lengthy debate or sporting match. "Here's what's about to transpire: As you have apparently found out, the Archduke is currently in our possession. His brother, the king, is dead. We all know that. But the palace doesn't. Teimsfeld doesn't. Riktenburg has no idea. But the best part is that none of them ever will. After your trial and execution for this treasonous murder, the whole ordeal will be long forgotten."
"What?" Logan spat his defiance towards the villain. For his troubles, a Courtier kicked him in the chest, driving him back onto the bloody stones once more.
"Silence, you cur! You dare to disrespect the king!" the other man spoke. At his words I took another look at him. With shock, I realized he was the man who'd chased us across the train platform in Paris; his massive facial scar was just as hideous in this country as that one.
Fuchs held up a hand. "Not too violent, Kurt. They have to look at least decently presentable for the public trial. And of course, who wants to see an execution where the victim's worthlessly broken?" Kurt nodded. Given his status, I didn't believe it could be a coincidence. This must be Kurt Weber. I was only surprised at what Eva ever saw in him. He was ugly and cruel as well. For his part, Kurt stepped back. But the bayonet on his musket never left Logan's throat.
Fuchs continued. "As I was saying, you'll be executed for Phillip's murder. A tragic ambush in the woods of Switzerland. The poor Duke went to hunt the deer but found himself the prey instead. As to that wretch," the imposter pointed towards the dead king, "We'll simply throw him in some unmarked grave." He moved his gaze towards Joseph. "Ah, yes. And our lovely Minister of War Joseph Klein. Now, minister, you'll be continuing as you are."
Joseph sputtered in protest. "I'll do no such thing, you dog!" Kurt moved to kick him, but Fuchs again held up a hand, clicking his tongue as well.
Lowering his arm, the imposter continued. "Oh yes you will. At this very moment, your lovely, precious daughter is being whisked away. Some Courtiers made their stop by your home just a few moments ago. You were one of the keys to the kingdom we needed. If we'd have replaced you, people might have become suspicious. No, no. You'll be working with the new government. Or rather, the same government; there hasn't really been a change. Same king and all."
Joseph made a wordless growl at the back of his throat. I put a reassuring, halting hand on his arm. It wouldn't do to be shot now in some idiotic attempt at revenge. Fuchs let his foot sway, kicking the boot of the dead General von Ric
htofen. "It's too bad about that one though. I was hoping we'd be able to keep his service. He did know so much about the palace. We stole his wife from their home too. Oh well, easily remedied," Fuchs said. "We'll find a replacement."
He sat back, staring at us for some time. I leered back. He cackled and said "The only problem I find with you all is your lack of vision. You're from the upper classes, for heaven's sake! Don't you long to have things back to what they were before the Revolution? Before Robespierre, Danton, and all those other heathens filled everyone's minds with heresy? God built the social order for a purpose. People like you and me have been bred for leadership. We're above the other classes, because we've been divinely designed to be. That's the Faith. God didn't want the prideful peasants ruining His order. It's an order that's lasted since Christ was on this earth. Who were they to believe they could step in and change His world? No. It won't do. But what's worse are traitors like you and especially our recently departed king. Martin was whoring himself to the masses. By divine right he ruled. And by divine design, he was removed. God gave us the victory today. Remember that. We don't act alone; we carry out His will. God wills it."
What began as a small chuckle on my lips exploded into a guffaw. "You're mad. You're simply insane! Have you even read the Scriptures? The Messiah's message was about loving your neighbor, not subjugating him into poverty or raising up one man above another to rule them all."
Fuchs' face visibly darkened. He leaned forward, almost standing out of the throne. "Well spoken for a peasant. I'm not surprised that you cannot grasp the meaning of the Gospels, lower class scum that you are. Please leave the interpretation for those who actually know what they're reading. Regardless, I grow tired of this. You will never learn anyway. Instead, you'll be meeting God soon. Kurt!" He called, standing.
"Your Majesty?" the other man bowed.
"Send a messenger; it's time we killed off the baggage. Have Phillip's body brought to the palace, and arrange an honor guard for the occasion. Also, call off the alarm. It's obvious that no plot was attempted here today. Elsewhere though, Riktenburg mourns the loss of one of her royal brothers. Otherwise, it's business as usual. We'll set about changing policies soon enough." At his words, Kurt dispatched two men to carry out Fuchs' orders.
Then, the pretender turned to Joseph. "Minister. You'll return to your home for the next few days. Be warned. You will be watched. If I so much as suspect you're acting out of line, I will have Mercedes tortured to within an inch of her life. If you continue, it'll only worsen for her. Believe me, Joseph, the Faith has long been well-suited to such a thing. We can keep her alive to suffer more for a long, a very long time." He turned to the Courtiers. "Let's be off."
Rough hands grabbed me and dragged me to my feet. Looking down, I saw my clothes were in shambles. Blood coated my attire in several places, soot had smudged everything, and several cuts from our rough treatment were already appearing. If presented correctly, we certainly would look the part of treacherous assassins. They bound us of course, but Joseph was free to walk as he wished. However, we all knew that he now had a terrible, human chain. They'd taken his daughter, and he didn't dare risk her life.
Several Courtiers stayed behind to clean up the mess and gather the bodies. I noticed them remove a long black cloth from a sack they carried. As we exited the chamber, they wrapped the king's body in the cloth; he became a faceless corpse. No one would miss or ever find him. Shakespeare was never so tragic.
The imposter led the way, his gait impeccable. He carried himself regally, the top half of his body never moving. His hand gripped a sword at his side, and the uniform he wore was easily recognizable as a royal military outfit. I had little doubt that the Archduke Phillip had suffered much before he revealed how the king moved and dressed and acted. But, with time and the Faith's apparent talents, anything could be learned from a prisoner.
They forced us down the hallway and into the maze once more. I had expected the men to stumble through the darkness as we were without a guide. However, they seemed to know the path as well as the guard, now dead, who lead us before. Fuchs, at the front of the procession, called out the various turns, and we followed. Exiting the darkness, we continued down the long corridors, turning when necessary, and generally taking the same route we had walked earlier. We descended the winding staircase and emerged into the massive main hallway.
Now, servants and passing soldiers began staring at us. Guards were everywhere, and the buzz of curious conversation filled the hall. Fuchs leaned over to Kurt. "I told you to cancel the alarm," I overheard him say.
"I did, my liege. They're returning to their stations, I'm sure. We'll make your announcement, and no one will know." I found it interesting that the Courtiers were already playing their roles. To a man, they referred to Fuchs as royalty, even though they all knew the truth about his disguise.
The group continued its pace, ignoring the blatant stares and whispers. I saw more than one person pointing at us. I walked proudly; they could frame me, but they couldn't make me guilty before my conscience. All the while, I looked for some way out of the mess, and I was sure Logan and Jacob were doing likewise. We reached the entrance to the palace at the end of the corridor. Instead of halting, we were lead to the winding stairs there and traveled back into the upper floors. Reaching the next level, we were thrust through a massive double door.
It was the throne room.
People milled about, the latest court fashions flashing. The walls glinted with gild, and the polished wood floor squeaked as we moved. Frescos loomed above, and various candles flickered along the walls. Two large skylights revealed the morning sky, casting large swaths of light into the giant room. Guards lined the perimeter, but a messenger flitted about to each, and slowly, groups of soldiers peeled off and exited the throne room. Kurt had done his job. We'd soon be without guards loyal to the real king. Not that it really mattered though. The real king was dead, and no one would believe a word we said. A man who dressed, looked, and spoke like the king was leading three bloodied captives into the throne room; in a duel of credibility, we were decidedly unarmed.
Reaching the dais, the king paraded up the steps, leaving the Courtiers to guard us. He raised his arms, and the room fell silent in an instant. When he spoke, I panned the crowd, hoping to see some sign that they knew him to be false. I saw none.
The masterful imposter raised his voice, encompassing the space. "My friends, I come before you with a heavy heart. You must be wondering at the alarm that was sounded this morning. Unfortunately, that messenger was mistaken. There was no plot to kill the king today. Instead, another messenger arrived with the most heart-wrenching news. My brother, your Archduke Phillip, has been murdered."
A collective gasp filled the room, and horrified whispers danced around the space like the sounds of hornets. The false king again held his hand up for silence. "Yes, my dear friends. Phillip is gone. But take heart. He will not go un-mourned, and he will certainly not go un-avenged! For look there!" He pointed a long, accusing finger at us. Around us, I could feel the gaze of every attendant turning to stare at the battered captives. Their rage was palpable.
Fuchs continued. "Yes, Riktians. We have the murderers. You know my brother loved the sport of hunting, and he often spent summers away from us. Yes, even this summer he went to find stillness amid the fields and forests of Switzerland. To spare you the details, these men, foreigners from America and England, lay in wait. As my brother hunted the deer, they hunted him. And they succeeded. Their motives are base, their actions monstrous. But know that judgment will be swift. For now, let us mourn our lost, and remove these dogs from our sight."
They spat curses at us as the remaining four Courtiers led us away through the crowd. I looked over my shoulder to see Fuchs being comforted by various courtesans and officials.
"Bastard," I muttered. Then, we were back in the halls of the palace. Now, however, we descended. I can't recall our route, for we were shoved and prod
ded along through many doors and corridors. Eventually I could tell we were underground by the dank, thick air. We came to a hallway, lit only by lamps. Doors lined the wall. Some were barred, but not all looked to be entrances to cells.
Our captors paused. "Where do we put them?" said one, a burly man with a thick beard.
"I don't think it really matters," answered his compatriot. "Kurt just said to drop 'em in the dungeons. It's not like they'll be here for an extended time."
Before the first man could respond, an ear-wrenching scream filled the hall. It was followed by a voice crying "Oskar! Oskar, help me!" Then, the screaming resumed. I looked around furiously. The sound reverberated around the corridor, but it seemed to come from one of the rooms. Then I noticed the thickset man. His eyes were wide, more shocked than all of us.
"Do you think she means you?" a Courtier asked him stupidly.
"And who else would she mean!" said Oskar, his hand fumbling with his musket. His face clouded for a moment, then cleared in an instant. His decision made, he raced to the nearest door and threw it open.
"Help me Oskar!" The keening was deafening. The summoned man was flying from door to door back down the hallway, throwing them open. Apparently, he found no one inside, because he continued to each door without pausing. Finally, he threw one open and hesitated.
The scream sounded again. It was a terrifying echo. Oskar looked through the door, then turned back to face the other Courtiers.
"It's a big room. There's only one lamp at the other end, and I can't see anything besides that. The screaming's from inside though." Another shriek cut him off. When it subsided, he resumed. "Watch them close! It's our necks if they escape." With that, he dashed into the room, his musket lowered.
The remaining three guards stared at us. "If you three had anything to do with this . . ." said one. We shrugged in confusion.
"Not us. We can't scream that high," said Logan, a cocksure grin on his face.
An eerie silence fell then. The screaming had subsided, and Oskar's movements had died away in the dark room.
"What's taking him so long?" asked a Courtier.
"He'll be a while longer. A lot longer. Drop your weapons," spoke a woman's voice behind us, further up the passage. Our guards wheeled about.
Eva stood there, a cocked revolver leveled at the Courtiers.
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