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Our horse clipped up the lane churning the gravel with each step. Phillip leaned down, patting his roan before turning to me. "And this Duval fellow — we're sure of his loyalty?"
"No," I answered. "But Joseph is, and that's good enough for me anyway. Do you trust your minister of war?"
"I've trusted him with the defense of the country for more than a decade. I suppose that means yes. I'm just not sure how wise it is to fling ourselves upon the kindness of a complete stranger."
Logan turned in the saddle to face the king. "If it's any consolation, Eva's met him and thinks he's nice."
Phillip chuckled ruefully. "That's actually not helpful. I've met Eva only once or twice, and from what her father Aleksei says at court, she's a free spirit." I smiled inwardly; 'free spirit' was exactly how the woman should be described. I could well imagine how her father, the Russian ambassador, would feel about her dalliances. She was an invaluable addition to our group regardless of her temperament.
"It's too late to turn back now," I said as our horses turned a corner in the tree-lined path. A building loomed ahead. It was constructed like a Roman or Grecian temple. Fluted columns shot skywards, supporting the roof of L'institut de Duval.
A stash of crowns in the hut had left us relatively wealthy, so we eventually collected horses for each of us and made a surprisingly uneventful trip to Hemline. Phillip was familiar with the territory and he led us expertly through the forests and byways. We camped under the stars and were bothered by no one.
Now I grinned as a I glimpsed the monks' carriage in the trees by the path. We wandered by this and dismounted before the wide steps that led to the entrance of the school. No doorway was visible in the shadows of the pillars, but I suspected one existed. Two youths were just descending the stairs towards us.
Their attire was singular. Each wore fencing gauntlets and carried honed sabers, but their entire front was covered by a thick leather pad. It appeared bulky and I was surprised at their mobility. I guessed that neither was older than fifteen. I'm not sure what I expected, but when Joseph had mentioned the school's waiting army, this wasn't it. They smiled in greeting but didn't appear to comprehend our visit until they saw Phillip.
"Sweet heavens," mumbled one, dropping to one knee. The other quickly followed, but Phillip made them stand.
"I'm not the king," he said.
"Sire, I won't contradict you," returned one of the fencers, but he didn't look like he believed it himself.
"I see by your faces, gentleman, that our reputation precedes us," I said.
They nodded. "Your friends arrived and broke the news a couple of days ago. They're eating with Simon right now."
"You're students here?" asked Logan.
"Oh yes," replied one. "Follow us." One boy grabbed the reins to our horses and led them towards an outlying building. From its practical look, I took it to be a stable. It lacked all the refined architecture of the structure we were being led into by the other youth. We climbed the stairs and walked into the gloom beyond. The portico narrowed towards a wide door, which the boy swung open with ease. He motioned for us to go first, so Phillip took the lead.
Stepping inside, we paused, dumbstruck.
The building's exterior paled in comparison to the space before us. While the outside had been honed to look ancient, the inside was a pleasing blend of modern and old. The school must've been large, but most of the floor space was housed in the single room gaping in front of us. I noticed sunlight streaming down into the massive room from dozens of skylights. My eyes tracked downwards and noticed the room's multiple occupants for the first time.
About the room's floor, which was finely polished hardwood, dozens of students practiced. Sabers, foils, epees, and even some weapons I didn't recognize flashed beneath the skylights, the reflected sun glancing off the blades like a mirror. In contrast to the boys who led us into the institute, students here were of various ages. Thankfully, most seemed to be about my age. Other boys were present, but these were scarce. The older men were even fewer but still present. They were not old, per se, but in comparison they stood out. I estimated the oldest to be thirty-five.
The motions within the room swirled about, and I failed to notice Eva and Jacob approach. The latter walked slowly, leaning on a cane while Eva held his other arm. They were accompanied by a handsome, if scarred, man clad in the same attire as the rest of the students. He had a bushy red mustache that matched his flamboyant hair. Seeing our group, he first bowed to Phillip and then wrung Logan's and my hands energetically. Then he backed up a step and smiled.
"I am, of course, Simon Duval, at your humble service. Welcome to my institute." His German was accented in the French inflection, but his words were warm and his grin genuine.
As he'd been speaking, I hadn't noticed the rest of the room, but once his voice stopped the sheer silence of the space took me off guard. I glanced around. All eyes looked to us, all weapons resting. Simon spread his arm backwards, indicating the mass. As one they bowed to Phillip, a graceful display like a flock of swans descending to land upon a glass pool.
"My students," said the fencing master. He passed his own gauntlets and saber to one of the pupils and sauntered into the massive room. Without another option, we followed.
He turned back to speak. "As you can see, this is the main room. In fact, there are only four rooms within the building. I possess a private bedchamber, there are two dormitories, and then this area. We cook, dine, read, lounge, argue, live, and fence all within the space. It wasn't practical to sleep here for the echoing, but the servants and students spend most of their careers within the confines of the space you now see." He said this as if it might be an imposition to some, but I couldn't fathom that; the common room was simply enormous.
As the group wandered on, I held back a moment to speak with Jacob and Eva. "You two made it without trouble?"
Jacob grinned while Eva spoke. "Yes. Yes we did. Simon recalled me instantly and was more than welcoming. When we told him the news, he was horrified and astounded. He quit teaching for the rest of the day, pawned us off on some attendants, and we never saw him again — strange, really. He was back the next morning though. Other than that we've been well received."
I wondered where the man had disappeared to, but he called out from the front of the group before I could ponder. "Lady and Gentlemen, you must be tired. Perhaps a morning aperitif would be welcome?" Logan's stomach growled noticeably then, and he blushed while Simon chuckled. "I see I am not mistaken. Please don't be shy."
I was reminded instantly of Di Luca's home, a time at once so recently past and yet so long ago. I stifled the picture of his grotesque, hanging body and moved towards the food. The meal before us smelled delicious and was a collection of German and French delights. "We keep two chefs in service. It helps sustain my bi-national temperaments," Simon uttered with a shrug.
We were all seated, the servants adjourned, and in the hall, the clattering of sabers and cries of excitement provided a pleasant background to our conversation. Sipping delicately from a glass of wine, Phillip regarded his host. "Simon, we are indebted to you and your school. But if I may be so boorish and bold . . . can they all be trusted?" He flicked his eyes towards the many fencers practicing behind us.
Simon pursed his lips. "I would not dream of contradicting Your Majesty, but you have my word. Each man here is devoted to me in every capacity. I cannot offer that same assurance of their loyalty to you, for there are students from many countries studying here. But the Riktians would sell their lives for Your Highness in an instant, and the rest would follow me into the very maw of Hell. Their loyalty is above reproach, and I have spoken to them of the dangers to come. Not one has shirked from the responsibility." He paused, his nostrils flaring. When he spoke next, I could practically feel the hatred flowing from his veins. "I promise you, sire, that we will take vengeance for your brother and flay the bastard that did the deed, or my life is
forfeit." Chills crept up my arm. I would rather stop a locomotive with my bare hands than cross this scarred Frenchman.
Phillip leaned over and patted him gently on the arm. "Your devotion is greatly prized." The other man bowed his head at the praise but raised it moments later, a look of fierce curiosity in his eyes.
"Now that we're all safe, may I ask what our course will be?"
Phillip pursed his lips and looked towards Logan and me. I spoke first. "Sir, there is not much we can do but wait. Joseph has promised to keep us informed. Other than this, we can't fight back in any conventional manner. The people will not be with us in this fight. My companions and I have already been branded as the murderers, and our faces are publicly known. Fuchs will not hesitate to kill anyone to cement his control over Riktenburg. He's shown that much already, and despite their name, there are no Christian principles within the Faith."
Simon scowled. "The scoundrels performed pretty well, didn't they? From Jacob and Eva's description, the plot was brilliant and so farfetched, it defies belief. I even had a moment of pause when they explained it. What's more is that I've seen Fuchs act. I saw him in one of your English roles, Hamlet, some years back and believe me, if anyone could play a king, it was him. No disrespect intended, sire."
Phillip waved a hand dismissively. "How well I know. I've chatted with the snake several times at court. He moves regally, and his tongue is sharper than the deadliest knife in all of Germany."
I spoke up again. "So you see, our course is difficult. We can't assault the palace. That would be suicide, and the populace might even resist our attempt. Fuchs has control of the military, so he'll be quick to quench any uprising we might try. No. The only feasible plan is to attack him while he's not guarded."
Phillip spoke up. "The man won't be sitting idle either. After the sorrow for my fake death quiets down, he'll start changing things, you mark my words. The man was always pestering my brother to take a heavier hand against the peasants. Now that he has his chance, he won't squander it."
"Indeed. With Joseph as our informant we should know more soon enough. Can I show you to your lodgings?" Seeing that we'd finished eating, our host rose and escorted us away further into the institute.
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