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The days following Rupert's departure were unbearably long. The dying autumn left the woods about the school littered with fallen debris, and the naked trees hung overhead like passing specters, swaying to the rhythm of an unknown dirge. Conversation grew stilted and people's nerves were on edge. Each day the straw-haired spy failed to return brought one more day of frustration and worry.
Eventually we took to conjectures. Supposing he'd been captured in the attempt, we'd be set upon by all sides and rounded up like traitors. Phillip would be murdered, and we'd suffer some ignoble death at the hands of a charlatan. Our fears proved to be ungrounded when Rupert paraded into the common room early one afternoon, a huge smile splayed across his face.
The poor man was mobbed by all, each shouting questions and slapping his back. It was like the return of a triumphant Roman general, complete with feasting. The institute's chefs prepared untold delights, and all ate and drank with complete abandon. Of course, the hero was not allowed to enjoy the celebration unmolested. Offering a report on everything he'd seen, Rupert barely touched his food.
He stood before the entire group, at times waving his arms emphatically in the tale. From the resplendent grin on his face, he was enjoying every minute of it. "I traveled by train mostly, but it still took a couple of days to reach the place. I got off at the station and was instantly wary. The town seemed quiet, but I found an old gentleman and asked him where the palace was. He pointed up a road, and I wandered along for a few minutes before coming to a sentry post. There were lots of guards just milling about, which I expected. What was strange, however, is that these soldiers were being bossed about by three gentlemen in civilian attire."
I raised my hand. "Let me guess: they wore bowler hats with a silver diamond attached to it?"
"How did you know?" he cried.
"Lucky guess," I said.
"Anyway, so these men saw me and bustled over to ask my business. I explained that I was a mason and had been hired to help with the renovations at the castle. It was a bold-faced lie, and I had no idea if anything was actually being worked on. The guard checked with one of the civilians and they waved me right along. So, what could I do? I shouldered my rucksack and took off up the road. It wound around through the woods, always upwards. Eventually, I came to a lake. It wasn't cold enough to be frozen yet, but the edges were crusty with ice. With a bit of snow falling, the whole scene was idyllic. Then I looked up. Right above the lake was the palace, looming overheard like a gargoyle.
"At another time it might have been breathtaking, but it struck me as terrifying then, and I had to will my body to move forward. I presented myself at the gate, a massive affair with two sets of thick doors. We were right — any charge in the front would be suicidal. The guards there all had that same diamond medallion pinned to their breast. They ordered me inside and pointed to where I should go. I soon found the renovations. Parts of the great hall had a light layer of snow about them, and the room was incredibly drafty. Stoneworkers were examining the different cracks and deciding how to proceed. Seeing me, they called me over. Shivering, I complied.
"It's a good thing I actually know the trade, because they welcomed me in and started asking all kinds of questions about my training, what type of jobs I like best, my family, and the tools I'd brought. I hadn't scrimped with the money you all provided, so they were quite impressed with my equipment. It all seemed to help; I'm sure I was nervous enough, but they didn't seem to notice. The next few days, I went about my masonry work. But that didn't stop me from looking around.
"I scouted the various halls and took note of all the entrances. They've put Fuchs in the north tower. It's secluded and apparently sumptuous, but I never got the chance to check that for myself. After I felt I could, I begged illness, received my pay, and slipped away with no one the wiser." He spread some crowns on the table to everyone's applause. Then, he sat in a chair next to Simon and began wolfing his dinner.
Simon patted him on the back. He waited a few moments for the man to at least taste his dinner before pestering him again. "What about the entrances? How do we get in?"
Rupert grimaced a bit. "There aren't many, and the ones we might consider using for an assault are fewer still. The place won't be easy to break into. There's one near the kitchens. It's a small door, but it's thicker than the main gate and would be louder than a drum to batter down. There's a garbage chute nearby. A few times a day, they throw the refuse out, but it's above a ledge, and we'd need a ladder. What's worse, it's right in view of the two towers, and we'd be seen in nothing flat. One door to the stables did look promising. It's a metal grate, but it's not thick. When I saw it though, there were lots of guards milling about, and people were passing to and from the paddocks as well. Maybe it'd be less crowded at night, but I'm not sure."
I interrupted then. "Was there nothing else?"
Rupert nodded after a time. "It's a long shot, and I didn't get a long chance to examine it much, but maybe this other one will work. In one of the corners of the great hall, right in the shadows, is a well. More than once, the other masons and I took a break to sip from it. From what I understand, the whole castle uses much of this water. They have a pump to push the water up into the great hall. And the pipe's huge — almost like an indoor pond! I asked and the water comes fresh from the lake. There's no runoff into the water, so it's wonderfully clean."
Jacob grinned. "It comes from the lake, you say?"
Rupert smiled right back. "You've got it. I snuck down to the water, and I could see the pipe sticking out through the castle's foundations. Like the well, it's not small. I didn't have a chance to look further though. A guard wandered up and told me off. I said I was interested in the masonry, but he waved me away. A scary looking fellow; he had a massive scar across his face."
"Kurt," Eva and I spoke at once.
"So I wasn't able to swim inside or anything like that, but if there's no grate for the water, anyone could swim inside in no time."
"And from there, our man could open the gate and let all the others inside. It'd be like Troy, except with a fish in place of a horse!" Simon clapped his hands as he leaned back in his chair.
"Rupert, how far was it from the lake to the great hall?" Logan asked.
He tapped the table distractedly for a moment before replying. "Let's see. Not terribly far. The great hall has a window that looks down onto the lake." He pursed his lips. "The water's probably sixty feet down. All told, it'd be maybe a ninety foot swim. Doable, but it'd have to be quick."
I rubbed my chin. "And the whole thing fails if someone's in the great hall at the time. If we blithely exit the well sopping wet, we're done for."
Simon smiled. "But if they can do it and unlock one of the palace doors, we save lives and valuable time." He turned to Rupert. "Do you think it can be done?"
"I do. But as Nathaniel pointed out, there's more than one thing that can go wrong." He ticked them off on his fingers. "The water's bound to be freezing. The pipe could be blocked. The swimmer might run out of breath. Someone might be in the hall. Someone might notice a soaking-wet man unlocking the palace doors and get suspicious. There's a myriad of things to fail on this one, but honestly it's our best shot. All of the other doors are too thick, too guarded, or too visible to use."
Jacob spoke. "We need a swimmer then."
Logan pointed at me. "As a boy Nathaniel could swim better than any adult I've ever met. He was practically a fish until they started making us learn pointless languages . . . like German."
Gentle chuckles filled the room, but Simon silenced them with a listless wave of the hand. "Is it true? Can you swim well?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "I haven't taken a dip since last summer, but he's right. I used to love the water. If I haven't gotten too much worse at it, the swim itself shouldn't be a problem. It's the other factors I'm worried about."
"There's no real way to test any of it until we're actually there. What are we thinking timing-wise? Our window
can't be too large. The king's bound to return to the capital sometime, and if we miss our chance, it may be months before we have another opportunity. Who knows what kind of damage the blackheart will do to Riktenburg in that time?" said Logan slapping the table for emphasis.
Jacob took a long sip of wine before speaking. "I vote as early as possible. Leave tomorrow even."
Simon looked at me. "I'm all for speed. But let's not commit ourselves too soon. If Nathaniel can't handle the swim or is discovered, what will we do then? Leave him to die? Fuchs will torture the life out of the lad to get to Phillip, that's certain."
"If Nathaniel fails I vote we charge the stables," growled Rupert. "There's no possibility of surprise in that, but if we overwhelm the guards, we might get to the king before they surround him. We'd lose men, but killing the imposter would be worth it."
Cheers filled the room and it took more than one withering glance from their master to quiet the swordsmen. Logan raised his voice above the murmurs that remained. "What about the minister's daughter? Joseph said that Mercedes would be sent with Fuchs to Vielfurt."
I patted his arm. "Obviously we'll look for her too. But Fuchs is the most important catch for now."
"To most people," he muttered under his breath. No one else seemed to notice, and I didn't press him.
The celebrations turned to things more frivolous then. After a seemingly endless parade of dishes, wines, and conversation, the party broke up. The gatherers wandered away to collapse into their bunks. I wished Eva a pleasant sleep before turning to the library. While it was late, I couldn't bring myself to sleep just yet. Something was bothering me, but I couldn't place it. I perused through the pages of a novel whose title I can't remember. The words glided by unnoticed, and I began turning the pages without really reading them. Eventually I stood to pace. I wandered back and forth in the dark common room. All others were asleep.
Or so I thought.
"Something on your mind, friend?" came a voice through the gloom. Phillip stepped into the light.
I smiled. "There is, but I don't know what. Our plans just left me feeling uneasy at something. And you? A bit late isn't it?"
He smiled sadly. "Like you, I find my mind unable to rest. But at least I can place my discomfort." He settled into an armchair, leaning against the leather padding like it was a crutch. I nestled down in a similar one nearby and folded my hands to listen.
He didn't speak for a long while. At last he flicked his eyes towards mine before regarding the floor again. "All of these people are willing to die for my family. It's not a pleasant thing to have on one's conscience."
I nodded. "Flattering though, isn't it? Besides . . . perhaps they aren't willing to die just for you."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, death as a sacrifice can be given for one man, but often, it's for the betterment of many. Riktenburg as a place, as a happy country, is worth dying for. Freedom as an ideal might be worth death to achieve. If Fuchs has his way, your land will fall right back into the excesses of pre-Revolution Europe. The French realized these things, and they fought back, despite the death that followed." I waved my hands to indicate the building around us. "Perhaps our friends here know the same thing."
He stroked his chair's armrest absentmindedly. "Would you die for these things?"
The question caught me off guard, and I had to pause. Would I? Looking back at my life, I'd been a part of the excess. While I hadn't constructed a Versailles or taxed the people into poverty, I was a noble, if not by blood then by practice. I'd lived off the good fortune of my ancestor and hadn't really thought about the justice of any of it. My forefather had saved Logan's ancestor's life and I was a noble as a result. My education, my relationships, my very presence in the room could be traced to my privileged dealings with the Viscounts of Harling. Would I really die to protect a notion that, until very recently, I'd never used in my own life?
It was a terrifying question, but after some time, I spoke. "Your Grace, I believe I would. There are some things that make death hollow. I . . . I think this is one of those."
He didn't smile, but there was a bit of warmth in his eyes. "Thank you Nathaniel. You've put some terrors to rest. And I think I will follow. Good evening." Without another word, the man stood and wandered off into the darkness.
I was left alone to fight my own demons.
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