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Eva moved the pistol back and forth, aiming the barrel at each guard in turn. Despite their shock, our captors hesitated and held onto their guns — not surprising, really. Fuchs would probably kill them for their failure.
"Ah, ah ahh," she said as one man twitched his musket. "Try it and you'll end up like Oskar. I said drop them." They still hesitated. Eva didn't. She flicked her arm and shot the nearest man in the arm. His weapon fell as he clasped the wound and screamed in pain. "I'm not joking. Drop them!" Eva spat. The others complied. "Now step back," she finished.
As they backed away from the guns, the wounded man leaving a trail of blood in his wake, I dropped down and snagged the bayonet from one musket. Although the edge wasn't incredibly sharp, it worked well enough to saw away the rope binding my arms. Once free, I assisted the others. Eventually, new muskets in hand, we became the captors.
"Now what?" asked Jacob.
"We lock them up, and get the hell out of here," snapped Logan. With that, he barred his musket towards the Courtiers."Which of you dogs has the keys?" The tall one offered them without a fight. Eva's violence had made quite an impression on the group. In addition to the key, we pulled three more revolvers off the men. Next, we thrust them into the nearest cell, locking it without ceremony. Hopefully it would be hours before their plight was discovered.
I turned towards Eva. "Thank you. They came for Mercedes. How did you escape? How did you come here?"
She grinned. "Russian women don't back away from trouble. They did come for Mercedes. I had only just left the house when a carriage raced up. Half a dozen men rushed towards the door. I recognized one of them from my time with the Faith. Of course, they wore nothing distinctive. None of them even had the silver diamond displayed. But I knew that man, and I knew it meant trouble. They burst through the Klein's door, and within moments, were dragging an unconscious Mercedes back out into the street. They threw her in the carriage and raced away. I ran back inside, passing a weeping Adele. I hugged her but wouldn't stay. I dashed to the hunting room, grabbed the first revolver I found, loaded it, and raced here by hired carriage."
"Forgive me for saying this, but you shoot quite well, especially for a woman. I haven't met many women who can shoot," said Jacob.
"You're from the American South." I chuckled. "Not many belles are handy with a pistol."
"And you've never been to Russia," said Eva laughing. "Apparently your alarm was lowered because they let me in. You know my father's position, of course. It allows me free access to much of the palace. I arrived right as you were being led into the throne room. I heard Fuchs' lies and his order to take you to the dungeon. Another benefit of being an ambassador's daughter is that you come to learn the palace well. I took another route and beat you here. Then, I hid myself in that room and waited until you arrived. I saw Oskar leading you up by the throne room. The ugly brute's hard to miss. So, when I heard you passing here, I started screaming his name. The buffoon searched for me, just like I anticipated. He's not dead, don't worry. I just clubbed him in the dark. We'll have to toss him in with the others. Anyway, that room is long and runs parallel to this hall. There's another doorway further up the passage." She pointed. "I came out there, in front of you and snuck back. The lot of you were so distracted it wasn't difficult. The rest you know."
"And now we have to leave," I broke in. Looking down at my appearance, I grimaced. "Our wardrobe's not exactly the best, is it?" Logan and Jacob looked as bad as I did. It wouldn't do to escape once and be captured, which I feared should we leave in our present state.
"Right," agreed Eva. She smiled wickedly. "I imagine we could find a change of clothes." Without further delay, we snatched Oskar's unconscious body and threw him in with the other Courtiers. Then, muskets lowered, we forced them out of their uniforms. In a moment of chivalry, we threw our own clothes to the wretches. They grumbled and shot us loathing looks during the entire exchange, but our weapons held any further revenge at bay. Of course the uniforms didn't fit us exactly, but it was far better than before.
Locking the cell once more, we moved quickly back up the hallway. We didn't dare leave by the main entrance. Even with the uniforms someone might recognize our faces from before. Since none knew the truth of King Martin's death, we were fugitives among those who should've been friends.
Luckily, Eva was familiar with the entire palace. With her father's position, she had grown up in Riktenburg, and the palace was like a second home. Without hesitation, she led us through various passages and across rooms. Without her aid, the three of us would have blundered around helplessly. But even knowing the layout, Eva took one or two wrong turns, and we were forced to backtrack. Eventually though, we made it to a stairwell. She turned back to face us.
"Up these steps are the kitchens. At the back is an exit. It's on the exact opposite side of the main entrance. We'll need a carriage though. I arrived by hired coach, and that's long gone."
Logan smiled. "With the uniforms, it shouldn't be difficult."
She nodded. "Remember that you're seen as the murderers of the king's brother. The Riktians love Phillip. They would easily sacrifice their own lives to prevent your escape. We must be careful."
"We must be fast," I said. "This very minute, a messenger is on his way to actually kill Phillip! After we leave this miserable place, freeing him is our next goal. He's king now. Eva, you have to lead us to that country estate. If they've moved him, we're lost. Fuchs strikes me as overconfident. With luck, we can save the new king."
They all nodded, but Eva tapped her foot. "If we're to have any chance of that, we go now. I'll tell you about that estate in the carriage. Have any of you ever driven one? We'll need a driver."
Jacob raised a hand. "I've had some practice. I assume it'll suffice."
"Good." Without waiting for us, she turned and took off up the stairs. I was struck again by her drive. This gorgeous woman was unlike any I'd ever seen. Forceful and decisive, she was breathtaking.
We followed her up the stairs. At each step, we could hear raucous calls from the kitchens above. The buzz of activity grew louder as we reached the top. Eva threw the door open, and we bustled inside.
Like many of the palace's rooms, the kitchen was simply massive. It being mid-afternoon, the preparations for supper were well underway. Dozens of chefs and attendants rushed about. They called to each other as they stirred delicious looking concoctions. Our presence instantly drew attention. I assumed it wasn't often that three guards, accompanying a beautiful woman, dashed about the kitchens.
Logan raised his voice as he shouldered through the crowd. "Make way! Make room! We've important business for the king." At this, the chefs cleared our path, and we passed through the culinary menagerie. In all the mess, no one recognized us, and I breathed a prayer of relief as we reached the back of the kitchens.
A small, very thick door waited. Eva unbolted it, and demurred for us to open it. The thing was surprisingly heavy, certainly medieval, and would have posed a major problem to any besiegers of the castle. It took all three of us to drag it open. We received curious stares for our troubles, but no one stopped us.
We ambled through the door, not bothering to close it behind us. Spreading before us were the gardens. The tall perimeter fence was still visible, and guards paced back and forth in multiple places. The kitchen door opened directly onto a gravel path that wound around the palace. Eva explained that, among other things, it led from the palace entrance to a barn and stable complex on the grounds. This structure was used for parking the royal carriages, and we'd need to steal one to escape. With her in the lead again, we strode along the path, attempting to look at once official and nondescript.
Within no time at all, we had reached the barn. Nestled in a small grove of oak trees and set back from the palace, it was faded and in a bit of disrepair. The palace's grounds' crew apparently had more pressing issues to handle.
More than a dozen carriages waited in
the barn. In sharp contrast to the building, these were immaculate. The regal red and black hawk of Riktenburg's crest was emblazoned on the side of each, and the carriages gleamed in cleanliness. The wheels were well oiled, and as a whole, they looked to be sleek and powerful vehicles. Nearby, dozens of horses milled about happily absorbed in their leisure. Quiet conversations filled the space as well. We could see servants shuffling about, performing chores, and generally seeing to the royal horses.
While Eva, Logan, and I selected a carriage immediately inside the building, Jacob roused some servants and ordered them to prepare the vehicle. Given his commanding voice and impressive uniform, there was no resistance. In less than five minutes, the stable-men were hitching the last of four horses to our carriage.
We heard the crunch of gravel behind us. Turning, we faced the approaching patrol of soldiers as their leader, a lieutenant, spoke. "And what exactly are you doing?"
The stable-men attaching a massive roan to the carriage paused. Logan snapped at them. "Keep working!"
I spread my hands to the lieutenant. "We're doing what you see. Preparing a carriage for immediate departure under the king's business and orders."
"Oh really?" shot back the man, a bushy mustache twitching in agitation.
"And what else?" I replied.
"Carriages aren't boarded here. The carriages are all brought to the palace. With a driver. And a detachment of guards. And a general level of ceremony. None of that is present here." His brows were furrowed, and his hand had come to rest on his saber. I found my own hand sliding towards my sword.
Just then, Jacob noticed the altercation. He stormed over. "What is the meaning of this!" he shouted at the patrol. As the American stomped up, I took a moment to glance at his lapels. Luckily, he had grabbed the right uniform; Jacob was the same rank as our pestering lieutenant.
"I was questioning your men, lieutenant."
"We'll get to names later," snapped Jacob. "It'll be nice to include yours in my report. Accosting soldiers while they work. Disgraceful."
The other man took a step back. "Excuse me. I was simply asking for details. Carriages aren't loaded here. And where is your driver?" He shot back, regaining his momentum.
"I'm the driver. And do you have any idea who you're speaking to? Any idea who this is?" He shot a finger towards Eva, who'd been minding her own business. At Jacob's gesture, she looked up, perhaps curious to find out who she was supposed to be. "This," Jacob continued, "Is Madame Fontaine of Lyons." Confusion clouded the patrol's faces. Jacob kept pressing. "Madame Fontaine," he repeated, as if speaking to naughty children. "You don't know her?" he chided.
"Well, I, uh . . ."
"You apparently don't know much." Jacob was putting on quite a show. "This just happens to be the late Archduke's special friend." Our opponents' faces turned red, and the lieutenant took another step back, his placating hands spread outwards.
"I didn't know. I'm sor—"
"You didn't know. You just jumped in like some trumped up corporal. You didn't ask questions, you simply listed accusations. Let me answer those charges, you incompetent excuse for an officer." He ticked each response off on his fingers. "We're leaving in secret to avoid further embarrassment and sadness to Madame Fontaine. The three of us are her guards. She doesn't need some massive gaggle of troops guarding her right now. There's to be no ceremony. Mourning souls don't enjoy pomp. As to a driver, I'll be serving in that capacity. Who better than the leader of her personal guard? Does that satisfy you, sir?" He spoke the last as a condescending slur. Then without a regard for the others, he held up a hand and assisted Eva into the carriage.
Then he turned back and stared the other lieutenant long in the face. "Now, if you've nothing better to do, keep standing there. I'll take the time to learn each of your sorry names and demote each of your sorry selves back to the sorry ranks you started from! Otherwise, move! Get out of my sight!" By the end, he was yelling, and the patrol ran to get out of our way. Jacob watched them go, stern-faced, until they disappeared around a group of oaks.
His face broke down into a quiet laugh. "When you've written about clichés, you're able to spot them. That soldier was a cliché. Throw in some new information and surprise him with ferocity, and he'll never know what hit him."
"Good work all the same." I chuckled, slapping my friend on the back.
Logan came around the carriage just then. "The horses are all hitched, and Eva said we need to go. Now," he urged.
"Forceful, isn't she?" said Jacob.
"I don't care if she's the bossiest person I ever meet on God's earth. She saved our lives today," I answered. They nodded in agreement before I continued. "But she's right. Let's get out of here."
We climbed aboard the carriage, Jacob taking the reins at the driver's chair. The gravel spit up from the wheels, and a musky smell of dust floated about as we traveled the short path towards the entrance. Unlike the castle, with multiple exits, the perimeter fence possessed only one exit large enough for a carriage. Our problem was now getting through that one exit without being recognized by anyone. In this, the uniforms might help or hinder. If we were challenged for official papers or were otherwise countermanded by another guard, things would get very complicated, very fast.
Jacob maneuvered the vehicle with ease, passing flowerbeds, small ponds, shady trees, and the occasional pedestrian. As we rode along through the extensive grounds, I turned to Eva. "We have to catch that messenger and rescue Phillip."
She raised a hand, cutting me off. "And in order to do that, you need me to tell you where he is." I nodded, and she went on. "Like I said before, we stayed at a country estate. I'm assuming it belonged to a Courtier, but I really have no idea. I do know where to find it though. It sits a few miles outside the village of Fielburg. Fielburg is noteworthy for nothing really; it's tiny, pleasant, and only occasionally attracts visitors for the rich hunting in the forests around it. Those visitors are nobles. So Martin built a railroad connecting Fielburg to the outside world. Luckily for us, there isn't a connecting line to Teimsfeld. Your messenger can't simply board a train to get there.
"The Fielburg line is connected to Luden. Do you know of it?" Logan and I shook our heads. She huffed. "Riktian geography should be your next task after saving the royal family. Luden is the second most important city in Riktenburg, after Teimsfeld of course. Luden was the royal seat for a century or two, until a king decided Teimsfeld was more important. They're quite close, really — only half a day's travel by horse."
"If it's so important, why is there no railroad connecting Luden to the capital?" Logan asked.
Eva rolled her eyes. "In the first place, I'll tell you if you'll stop interrupting. Secondly, you really do have work to do on your geography. There's no railroad yet because of the mountains." She jerked her thumb north. "If you didn't notice, there's a mountain range just north of the city. It's a narrow range and juts between the cities. Really, it bisects most of Riktenburg. It's made transport by rail difficult, although the king was working on connecting Luden and Teimsfeld by rail. Laying track through the mountains is a long process, so for now the two are only reachable by horse or by walking. As I said, it's not a long journey, only half a day, and the route is well established. That messenger has perhaps a two-hour head start, so you'll need to move swiftly. After arriving in Fielburg, the estate is to the west about three miles. There's a small road that'll lead you there. If they haven't moved him, Phillip will be in the west wing. The house is large, but they won't expect you. You have the element of surprise if you don't botch that somehow. That's lucky at least."
I smiled to avoid swearing. "Today hasn't exactly been our day for luck." King Martin was dead, murdered in front of us. Unless we acted quickly, his brother would follow. To the rest of Riktenburg we were still criminals, and Fuchs would now be sure to hunt us down. The situation was grim at best.
She reached over and patted my arm. "Where there's life, there's hope," she whispered. I nodd
ed. Just then, the carriage slowed to a halt. I could hear voices discussing something, but I couldn't catch anything but the tone. Someone was angry. Glancing outside, I saw the fence immediately before us. We'd reached the main entrance, and Jacob must have been arguing with the guards. I swung open the window a crack.
The muffled voices became clear. "I don't care who's inside. You have to have orders to leave with a royal carriage," said an official voice. I couldn't see the speaker, but I was sure he was an officer and apparently a stickler for rules. It wasn't good.
Jacob spoke up then. "Blast it, man! My orders have come directly from the king! He didn't write me anything. Send someone back to confirm it. Go ahead, bother him while he's grieving! The Archduke's mistress wishes to leave, to be rid of this place for the moment. And you're refusing to grant her some measure of solace because we don't have a by-your-leave paper! Do you really wish to anger the king?" Jacob had slipped into his authoritative role once more, beautifully shouting at the poor guard. I felt bad for the other man. He was only doing his duty.
Another voice joined the conversation then. "What's going on here? Why the shouting?"
Eva's face blanched completely white. "Oh, for the love of mercy!" she hissed. "That's Kurt!"
Logan and I glanced at each other before simultaneously removing and cocking our revolvers. If there was to be a fight, we weren't going to leave Jacob alone. I began breathing deeply, attempting to calm my nerves, letting the supple leather of the carriage's seats fill my nose. The faint earthy musk of the gardens wafted in through the cracked window, and once more calmed, I opened my eyes.
Outside, Kurt spoke again. "I asked what the meaning of this was. Who are you?"
"I'm on special orders from His Majesty."
The first voice, the gate guard, joined in. "He said they're taking away Archduke Phillip's mistress. She wants to leave the palace for a time."
A heavy pause descended before Kurt finally spoke. "The Duke's mistress? A mistress wants to leave the palace?" Silence fell again. This time, it was almost unbearable. I felt my finger twitching on my revolver's trigger. Fight or flight, I just longed to be free of the whole situation.
"Let's see her," said Kurt at last.
The carriage lurched as Jacob threw us forward, urging the horses into a gallop. I heard a scream and out my window, I glimpsed several guards leaping to avoid being run over. Apparently, the gate was not barred because I saw that pass by us next.
"Shoot them!" cried Kurt. Instantly, the crack of muskets filled the air, and faint thuds filled the carriage's interior as the balls found their mark. I leaned out the window, leveling my pistol. In the swirling dust behind us, several guards stood in a firing line. A few reloaded their weapons while Kurt fired his revolver again and again. Behind them I saw another guard running pell-mell back towards the palace. I fired my own weapon a few times, making them duck, but nothing came of it; the carriage was bouncing too much.
As the choking grit began settling into the carriage, and the intensity of fire dropped off, we sat back in our seats, sighing. Just then, a final shot cracked the air, Jacob let out a bloodcurdling scream of pain, and the carriage swerved. Within a few moments, the vehicle had corrected its course. But from the sound of repeated cursing and moaning above us, I feared the worst.
I leaned out the window, lifting my voice to be heard. "You're hurt!"
His response was gritted. "Yes. In the back. I'm losing blood like a sieve."
"Damn. Pull over! You can't drive like that."
"The hell I can't. If we stop now, we're as good as caught. I won't be chasing any messengers though, that's for sure. I need . . . I need a doctor, or I won't be chasing anything soon."
Eva pushed me aside, replacing me at the window. "You can't go to a doctor. We can't risk it. Fuchs will know you're gone now, and they know you're hit. Doctors are the first places they'll check. Can you last five minutes?"
"Yes," he called back weakly; it wasn't convincing.
By her face, Eva didn't believe him either."I know a priest. There's a monastery nearby. They travel the city, healing the poor. They'll help you, no questions asked." She shouted direction out the window, and we wound through the streets, seeking the monastery.
I could almost feel the chase being roused at the palace. Any minute, swarms of horses would be filling the city, looking for the carriage and hunting us. These loyal soldiers didn't know they were aiding a regicide, but it didn't matter. Killing us in ignorance left us dead all the same.
Finally, the carriage pulled to a stop before the monastery's walls. I leapt out of the vehicle, dashing forward. Jacob, a massively dark stain spreading across his uniform's jacket, fell into my arms, collapsing out of the driver's seat. I tried to prop him up, but his legs buckled.
"How bad is it?" he asked groggily. Before I could answer, his eyes rolled into his head and he fainted. Things were grim. I was no doctor, but I'd never seen someone so bloody. We hadn't even removed his coat yet. Logan rushed over then. First, he unbuckled Jacob's belt, throwing off the saber. Next, he grabbed the man's feet, hoisting him up. Together, we lugged our friend towards the cloister.
In all of this, Eva had knocked on the aged door. Swinging wide on rusted hinges, the door let out an eerie groan. A wizened priest in a simple habit looked out, spectacles dripping down his nose. "Eva!" he cried. "What a pleasant surprise! What's brings you here? I thought you were out of the country for awhile."
We brought Jacob forward as she answered."Yes, Abbot Baum. But there's isn't time for that. Our friend is hurt—"
"Merciful heavens!" interrupted the priest, crossing himself. "What happened? He looks mauled!"
"No, Father. He was shot. The ball's still inside, and we can't take him to a doctor. There isn't time to explain. He'll die without you."
"Lord have mercy." The little man bowed his head in prayer for a moment. Then, he stepped out of the way and ushered us inside. Logan and I carried Jacob in and laid him on a table at the priest's direction. Several passing monks cried in alarm at the sight before rushing forward to help.
Eva hovered over Jacob's form for a moment before wheeling to face us. "You've no time for this. Fuchs' man already has hours on you. If you let him through, Riktenburg will be lost. No one will believe us without Phillip now. Go! Catch the messenger before he's gets to Luden. Rescue Philip!"
Before we could answer, a dozen monks bustled up bearing cloths, boiled water and medical tools. Taking no further time, we left Eva and our wounded friend and raced back to the carriage. The two of us mounted the front, sitting together on the driver's seat.
With a flick of the reins, Logan and I set about saving a kingdom.
Back to The Faith: Book I of the Uprising Trilogy book
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