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Again, the scent of pines rushed at me as I entered the home. This first impression of smell was stifled by another sense, this one of touch. The barrel of a pistol was thrust into the small of my back. Then a voice breathed behind me. "Turn about slowly or it's your life."
I complied. And stared in shock at the quiet valet who stared back from his half-moon glasses.
"You!" he gasped.
I nodded, smiling. "Good evening." There wasn't much else to say.
"What are you doing here? You'll get us all killed! Fuchs is sure to be watching the house!"
"I know, but we have no one else to turn to. Is your master at home?"
"Of course he is. He hasn't been let into the palace since the coup, but we're sure they're watching his every move. The minister could ruin everything for Fuchs. But with poor Mercedes . . . " He trailed off, lowering his pistol.
The valet led me through the home carrying a small lantern to light our path. Striding through the dark corridors, the servant came to a pair of French doors and slipped inside, closing them behind before I could enter. I moved back from the panes and waited in the darkness.
The door flew open and Joseph raced out, his nightshirt billowing about him. "Nathaniel!" he cried, grabbing me in a hearty embrace. I patted him awkwardly on the back, again unsure of what to say.
He backed up, still grabbing my shoulders and stared me in the eye. His face looked creased and sunken by the valet's lantern. "You've no idea how good it is to you see you alive. I feared the worst." The minister paused. "However, it probably wasn't a good idea coming here. The Courtiers are sure to be around."
I nodded. "We had nowhere else to turn."
He chuckled darkly. "I know, I know. It's been two days since the coup, and he's already started the changes. Fuchs has implemented new policies in the palace and dismissed dozens of workers. They're all of lower classes of course, but he claims the need for heightened security since his brother's death. It can only get worse from here. And speaking of, you're alive! Does the Archduke live?" He appeared to hold his breath, his eyes stabbing into my mine.
"He does. Phillip and Logan are safe . . . for the moment."
"Thank heavens! We play with pawns and kings now. If Fuchs' pawns kill our new king, the country is done for. Tell me everything."
We moved through the house and found seats in the kitchen. As I launched into the lengthy tale, Joseph drew a bottle of cognac from a small cabinet. For his part, the valet disappeared into the shadowy recesses of the home. We drank lightly as I told of our ragged chase through the pass, the Faith's manor, and the flight through the darkness. I came to the end of the tale and sat back.
He leaned forward. "How is he taking it? Phillip's a strong man, but there's a limit to anyone's nerves."
I shrugged. "Like you said, there's a limit. When I left he wasn't despondent, but it's all so sudden. If nothing else, he wants revenge."
"We all do." The minister's teeth glinted in the light. "And have you heard from Jacob and Eva?"
I shook my head. "I didn't know which monastery it was or how to find it. I came straight here. We'll need them though."
"Oh, of course. From what you said, Jacob may not be able to travel though. The wound sounded serious."
"For all I know he may be dead, sir. The guards got him straight in the back. He fainted from loss of blood. It wasn't pretty."
Joseph nodded. "No sense in speculating until we know something. There's plenty of other things to worry about just now."
"Yes." I paused for a moment. "And sir, what are we planning to do? I assume we're going to fight somehow. And Mercedes. We need to get her back."
He sighed, a long puff of air leaping from his mouth. "That's the problem, isn't it? No one can help us. We can't tell anyone. First off, no one would believe us. Fuchs has already gotten the press to publish some nonsense about your supposed villainy. Did you see the papers yet?" I nodded as he continued. "Plus, if we do tell a soul, and the Courtiers find out about it, they'll kill her. It's a deadly game we run."
"We have to try at least."
"Yes, yes. Of course we do. What kind of father would I be to leave my girl in their hands? And what kind of Riktian would I be to leave my country in the hands of these lunatics?"
"Is there anyone deathly loyal to the royal brothers? Can we trust anyone at all? We talked about this with Phillip. We needed to gather a small group and attack him when he attends some state function or is traveling. There'll be less guards, few Courtiers, and we might have some chance at success."
The minister pursed his lips and didn't respond for a long time. "Do you fence much?" he asked at last.
The question took me off guard, so to speak, and I barked a short laugh. "Excuse me?"
"Do you fence?" he repeated.
"I do. My master taught me the Italian school. Of course, other than a few occasions this week, I haven't had a chance to practice in a while," I said wryly.
"There is one man, a fencing master, who would believe us. Simon Duval. He's a Frenchman, but he emigrated to Riktenburg ages ago. We served in the army together, and he's the best swordsman in Germany. He was trained in the French school of course, but has since learned all the styles: Italian, German, and so on. But that's all besides the point. What really matters is that he's incredibly loyal to Martin, Phillip, and myself. We can trust him. What's more is that he runs a school. His students, like him, are some of the finest swordsmen to be had. Plus, they're mostly young bucks like yourself. Adventures are what they dream about. You show up at his school and tell them about the plot, and we'll have fifty recruits before the hour's past. Then, like you said, it's only a matter of catching the fox when he's unprotected. And keeping out of his grasp in the meantime."
"This Simon, where is he?"
"The school's about fifty miles south of the capital, outside the village of Hemline. His students live there, training. Most of them receive commissions in the Riktian army or travel elsewhere to serve in the military. They're almost always second sons without a chance of inheritance. Like I said, they'll be willing to fight."
"And what will you do?"
He laughed bitterly, the lamplight flickering in his mirthless eyes. "What am I to do? Nothing. They know what I could've done, which is why they took Mercedes. Now they're sure to keep watch on me to ensure I don't do anything stupid. No, I'll act my part and advise Fuchs as the Minster of War. He's kept me on, you know. He refuses to replace me. The people know that Martin and I are, were, incredibly close. They'd suspect something if I was dismissed. Also, he needs my expertise. If any need of the army should arise, I have the best knowledge about it, and he won't dispense that."
"A wise move, I'd say. But it certainly doesn't help our cause."
"No, it doesn't. But you can. You and your friends managed to save the duke. That's more than something. Find Simon and kill Fuchs. Then maybe Riktenburg can start sorting through this entire mess. I'll send you any information I can, but I can't be too blatant with Mercedes in their grasp."
"Do what you can, minister. We'll handle the rest. Now I need to see about Eva and Jacob. Do you know where we would've gone to?"
He chuckled. "There's not terribly many monasteries in the capital. Tell me how you got there again?"
The details were slim, even in my own mind, but I attempted to recall where our carriage had gone after escaping from the palace. It seemed ages ago, and the images blurred together like some kaleidoscope of memory. Joseph finally described what might have been the place and told me how to find it.
Then he led me through the dark home, passing through the halls in silence. At last we came to a small back door.
"A good precaution," was all he said about it.
As I slipped through the door my foot caught on something. Bending down, I picked up a rough object and held it in front of the lamplight. It was the diamond crest of the Faith.
"What's this?" I as
ked, showing it to the minister.
He took it from me, quickly pocketing the piece. "Hmm. One of the devils must've dropped it when they took Mercedes. Now you'd best be on your way."
We clasped hands firmly, and I took off into the night once more. Sneaking through the dark streets, I wondered at my endurance. How long could I keep this up? I doggedly pushed that thought away as I walked beneath the moonlight. I traced my way through the dark city, but soon, I was too lost to continue. I had an address, but without knowing the city it was impossible to find my way. I'd been lucky to find the minister's home in the first place. Lacking other options, I nestled down to wait for dawn in a winding alleyway. I couldn't sleep though. Rats and the occasional dog wandered nearby, and the water from some runoff dripped incessantly.
Having to wait for the dawn annoyed me. But if I'd be more recognizable in the light, I couldn't help it. Wandering through the streets without a clue was foolish and dangerous. I rested my eyes, feeling my pulse slacken as the luxurious feeling of sitting washed over me like a gentle wave. I breathed in, out, in, out. Each time was cathartic, and the stench of the alleyway was forgotten as I centered myself. My hands grew moist, gently tracing the watery stones around me as I waited for the dawn. It came at last, but I held my pose. When I could hear the bustling of a crowd start to form in the early light I stood, brushed the worst of the dust from my form, and strode into the morning.
I was painfully aware that people all around me might have seen my face. I walked through their midst, not drawing attention to myself. The streets were confusing, and I found myself lost on unfamiliar lanes over and over. Finally, I got up my nerve to ask for directions; it was a task I normally detested, but under the circumstances, it was terrifying. I approached a well-dressed man with a kindly look on his face. He sat outside a cafe, gently sipping coffee and observing the passersby.
"Excuse me, sir." I said, approaching him.
He looked up, a smile on his face. As he saw my face, the smile froze, and his cheek noticeably twitched. "Yes . . ." he said smoothly. "How can I help?'
Even as I spoke, he gave me another look, gazing over my features like a painter studies his subject. This examination gave me the chills, and I had half a mind to leave. He seemed a strange fellow. "I'm a bit lost and I'm looking for an address. Can you help?"
The examining glance disappeared, and he smiled again. "Of course I can. You must be a foreigner; your accent betrays you, sir. Where is it you're heading?"
I gave him the street, but not the number. The entire ordeal had me on edge.
"Very well. It's a simple route from here. You won't miss it." He proceeded to lay out detailed directions. It was very helpful, and I thanked him warmly, pumping his hand before I trotted back into the street. Out of nervous habit, I looked back over my shoulder.
The man was gone.
I paused in the midst of the street. Then it struck me, and I began to rush, nearly throwing people out of the way in my hurry.
"There he goes!" cried an angry voice behind me. I abandoned any chance of anonymity and sprinted.
"Move, citizens!" I cried, shoving through a waiting pack of busybodies. They shouted in anger as I jostled them out of the way. I didn't take a moment to look behind, but from the shouting, my pursuers — whoever they were — were close.
"Stop him! Stop that man!" the voices cried. I redoubled my pace, the soles of my feet loping across the ground like a fleeing stag. During all of this, I had reached into my waistcoat and pulled the revolver from within. As the street turned, I glanced behind, breathing hard in the run. Three constables pounded up the cobblestones behind me. They were brawny men but quick-footed and easily kept pace with me.
I threw myself into a dark alley, knocking crates and abandoned rubble to the ground in my flight. Even as the debris slowed me, the men behind were able to leap over it, closing the distance between us. I threw my arm back and shot wildly behind me. Aside from a startled yell, there was nothing, and I doubted I had hit anything. Apparently my action had inspired them, for three shots bounced off the walls around me, slicing through the stones like razors. I ducked down, collapsing my frame and continued my run. The alley was one of those long constructions that wound through the various buildings of the street, and it forked in several places. I chose erratically, flinging myself down whichever direction seemed best, hoping to lose them in the labyrinth.
I eventually exited into the sunlight once more. I skidded to a halt in shock. Looming above me was the royal palace, the perimeter fence directly in front of me. If my problems weren't enough, I'd thrown myself in front of the very maw of Fuchs' layer. I swung to the left and took off down the street once more. People stared curiously at me, but then my pursuers left the alley and cried for help. I swore deeply as several other men took to the hunt, fresh legs helping them keep pace. Loathing myself, I turned and shot once more. This time, a scream of agony answered my move, but I couldn't stop to see the results. I turned onto streets at random, dashing through crowds and around horse carts. I could barely breathe anymore, but I seemed to be gaining on my enemies. Stumbling, I launched into another dark alleyway, splashing water from a puddle in my flight. The water leapt through the air, drenching me in the foul liquid and blinding me for a moment. Spitting to rid myself of the acrid taste and wiping my eyes to regain my vision, I raced through the constricting passage. Above, Riktians hung their laundry to dry, and several low-lying garments were caught in my path and thrown to the ground in a rush. Skidding, I exited into the street again, the shouts of the constables reverberating through the alley behind me.
It was the right street.
I recognized various buildings, and I could see the monastery's walls jutting out from the skyline to my right. I raced to the door and pounded on the wood for sanctuary. As with the night before at Joseph's home, the moment the door swung open, I threw myself at the feet of the brothers and begged for mercy, praying for escape.
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