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A twig snapped and we froze in the darkness, snow trickling down around us. Even such a small offence reverberated through the otherwise silent woods. Next to me, Simon cursed soundlessly. A few feet further away, Eva stiffened. For long moments no one moved.
On my other side, Logan whispered. "Now which fool do you suppose did—" I snapped my gaze towards him, and the withering look shut him up instantly.
Ahead, in the pale moonlight, the summer palace rose up through the sky. The water from the lake reflected like glass, and although fall had bowed to winter, this water had not frozen. I shivered and stamped my foot lightly, flecks of snow falling with each move. Despite its fluidity, I had no doubts about its temperature.
Seeing no response from the guards we knew to be nearby, Simon waved us onwards then, and the shades flitted through the darkness once more. After Rupert's return, we'd wasted little time in preparing. Weapons were honed, rucksacks were filled, and small groups were dispatched one by one to Fuchs' stronghold in Vielfurt. Nearly fifty swordsmen crouched unseen in the trees. Simon had selected his best pupils. The younger ones had protested hotly when refused, but the fencing master had the final word. I experienced my own resistance when I asked Eva to stay behind. She made endless arguments about how she had rescued us in the palace.
'I'm more qualified than half of these!' she had cried when seeing the selected warriors assembled. I pleaded, but she would have none of it. Russia didn't coddle their women like other countries, she pointed out angrily. From my experiences with her, this was undeniably true. Her resolve, quick thinking, and forceful personality all spoke to that. Even Phillip tried to persuade her. He himself had needed to be persuaded to stay behind. The man was ready for revenge, but all involved refused to even consider it. If he fell, Riktenburg was lost.
If I was honest with myself, I didn't want Eva to go because of the affection I held for her. Should she die . . . But, no. She had forced her way and now crouched with us in the dark forest. I simply resolved to be her guard in the dangers ahead.
So, after debate and endless, if hurried, preparations, our assassins drifted away from the school. Taking the various train routes and walking along highways, we assembled near the palace. Our sheer numbers made the voyage dangerous, but we'd been fortunate. No one had bothered us.
As before, the plan was both simplicity itself and crazed beyond belief. I would dive into the freezing waters, swim up the drainage pipe if possible, and emerge in the shadows of the great hall. Given the hour, it was less likely that anyone would be lurking within the room, but that danger still remained. Then before hypothermia set in, I would rush down to the kitchens and let in the vengeful horde. Together, we'd arrest or kill Fuchs and snatch Mercedes back from the devils. In theory, not much could go wrong. While the palace was sure to have more than fifty guards, Simon's students were trained artists of the blade, and we had the dead of night from which to spring our surprise.
I just had to swim up the pipe.
In the few days after Rupert's return, I'd practiced. I was too nervous to do otherwise. The venture rested almost squarely upon my shoulders. Gasping for life and warmth, I'd descended into the pond near the school and swam from one end to the other. November in Germany is obviously not warm, so I'd only be able to try once each morning and night. Then I'd retreat to the school for a warm bath and hot soup. Even so I caught a chill and was miserable after each attempt. But I was succeeding. In fact I could consistently swim past the ninety foot mark without taking a breath. If the pipe was as long as Rupert estimated, I could physically accomplish the deed. Whether or not it was blocked was another matter entirely.
The shadow of another passing student plunged me back to the present, and I began moving myself. Step by step, tree by tree, we slunk ever closer, the twin towers of the castle glaring down at us in the darkness. The snow slid from my boots, but more continued to fall from the sky, blanketing the land.
Distracted by the snow, I came around a tree and almost bumped into a sentry. While we were both wearing black, this man possessed a plume on his hat, a signature of the royal guards. His back was to me, but the bayonet on his shouldered musket glinted. Even as I watched breathlessly behind him, the sentry began stamping his feet and clapped his hands together.
My breath escaped my lips like a fleeing captive, and to my right, I could see the form of a student moving forward. The others would be in the guard's line of sight momentarily. My hands were empty. With the coming swim, others carried my saber and revolver. So, without physical hesitation, I drew my only weapon, a small knife from my belt, and lunged forward. Even as I covered his mouth and opened his throat, my own heart cried out with self-loathing; some mother, some wife would weep with the morning. The man might not even be a Courtier. It was likely that he was only doing his duty. But as the blood rolled gently, almost peacefully, down his neck and my arm, I felt myself nearly collapse with him. The warm scarlet soaked my arm, heating it in the gloom. How many more must die by my hand? Laying him down, I shut his eyes and covered my work by shifting his jacket.
Elsewhere a startled cry was cut short, the scream ceasing instantly in the cold. The shadows continued to move, and I joined them once more, leaving my fallen crime in the snow behind me.
The final trees parted. We could see the castle and lake spread before us. The waters gently lapped against the manor, but the pale gloom cast the castle in a vicious, threatening light. It rose from medieval times, waiting to enclose more victims in its vengeful jaws. As discussed, the others waited amid the last of the trees, covered from view by the naked giants above.
I alone moved forward into the clearing before the lake.
Crouching low and darting forward, I rushed towards the looming water. As I slunk forward I gazed through the darkness, hoping to catch sight of any sentries before they glimpsed me. I saw none and within moments I reached the water. I walked the shoreline, coming nearer and nearer to the castle's walls. At last, I leaned against the massive stones on the building's foundation and looked into the icy abyss before me. From Rupert's description, the pipe would be directly below me. The shadows were too thick for me to see anything below its surface. I could only hope.
I slipped the overcoat from my shoulders, letting the garment fall listlessly into the snowy brush along the shore. I tightened my belt and ensured my knife was in its place. While distasteful, the object was my only defense against the murderous Courtiers that lay just beyond the walls before me.
I took in a breath. The air flowed into my veins, catching in my throat by its coldness. I let it out. I took another. With a final, engulfing gasp, I slipped into the water, letting the liquid death wander up my legs and over my head like a welcomed friend. Feeling my body respond to the cold, I kicked off from the shore and began moving silently through the dark towards the pipe.
I traced my hand along the castle's wall, moving downwards, ever downwards through the watery mist. I cannot describe the chill. Instead I will describe the lack of feeling in the chill. Time, breath, life itself seemed to die beneath that surface. I felt my lungs clenching, although not from lack of breath; I'd taken in a huge gasp. No. Instead they were slowly being clamped down by the bitter feeling that warmth would never be found again.
Through this fog of pain and disorientation, I fought to move forward. My feet kicked against the pool, and my hands continued to trace the castle's walls, finally coming to the pipe. As Rupert had said, it was massive, and I would have no problem fitting inside. I grasped the edge and flung myself under the top lip and into the tube beyond. Once inside, I clawed upwards, the coldness palpable through my very marrow. Inch by inch I moved upwards. Despite its initial size, the space continued to narrow. My arms scraped the sides, while my feet struggled to maintain the pace I needed to keep in order to avoid drowning. Soon my shoulders began hitting the sides, catching my body in the space. I pressed onwards, scraping my arms along the pipe. I could not stop
, for I could not breathe.
Then my arm hit a grate blocking my path.
For a second my mind froze colder than my limbs in the chill. A sense of death, of closeness, of lack of hope, swirled about me as I was lodged in the cramped pipe. I would die in this hole. I couldn't move. I was trapped. My arms caught. My body would freeze. I would never be discovered.
Reason took over then, and I grabbed the grate. In all the rush I truly hadn't been underwater that long, and my breath continued strong. This newfound calm drove me, and I ran my hands along the metal, feeling for a weakness. It consisted of two bars connected by a circular loop around the circumference of the pipe. In the cramped cold, I shook the metal, hard. It moved slightly, so I pressed more, throwing my weight and ramming my shoulder up against it. It moved some more. Rust had likely begun to eat away at the thing. I floated back down the pipe, and reversed myself, a feat in the confined space. I locked my arms against the sides of pipe, lodging my body firmly. Then I kicked my feet powerfully against the grate. I felt the water reverberate around me and even heard the blow. Once more I slammed my feet against the thing. I drove my boots a third time into the grate. This time I heard it snap. Wheeling myself about, I examined it once more, and my hand felt the fissure in one bar. Pulling with all my weight, I snapped the bar and shoved it against the wall, opening a space in the middle of the pipe.
Kicking with all my might, I shot through this space, slicing my arm on the ragged edge of the rusted metal. Even in the darkness, my blood dripped into the icy murk. By now I could feel my chest constricting. The dull pain in my throat was becoming impossible to ignore. I kicked faster and faster, moving upwards, the massive pipe snaking at intervals.
At last I saw light gleaming above me. Despite the danger, I felt I would drown if I waited another moment. Praying earnestly, I broke the surface. Despite my rush, I was dreadfully conscience of the danger. Only my face cut the water, gasped mouthfuls of sweet air, and then I ducked down. I treaded water a few feet beneath the pool's surface. None rushed to see the disturbance, so after long moments of terror, I slipped back upwards.
Rupert had not lied. The pool in which I floated was massive. One could easily stretch from side to side and not come close to touching both ends. The shadows also covered the space, providing a ready hiding place from the great hall which spread out before me. Still bobbing in the pool, I glanced at my surroundings. Most of the room was in shadow. The only light in the entire space was a small candelabra flickering on a table in the center of the hall. We'd planned well. The room was apparently empty. I stepped out of the pool. As with my practices at the school's pond, the cold was paralyzing. For several minutes straight, I simply rubbed my limbs and stepped about, quietly driving the life back into my members. I hoped it would be enough, because I didn't have the time or materials to change or dry off.
Instead I sauntered off into the room, my hand now gripping the dagger — the only protection I possessed. Rupert had schooled me endlessly on the twisting halls and staircases of the castle. As I passed the candelabra, I considered grabbing it. In the end though, I discarded the notion as too noticeable and moved on, but not before noting the silver diamond painted onto the table. Fuchs had found time to redecorate, it seemed.
Remembering Rupert's instructions, I slipped past the center table and down a flight of stairs along one wall. Given the nature of feasting within the great hall, the kitchens were nearby. Bounding down the stairs step by step, I could feel the warmth returning. Turning the last corner, I emerged into the kitchens.
Or rather, I nearly emerged but threw myself backwards into the shadows as Kurt Weber and another Courtier wandered past the doorway chatting. Their backs were to the door, and they seemed too engrossed in each other to even notice me, but I crept backwards all the same. Despite my fear, I couldn't help but overhear their conversation.
"He's making his move tonight, isn't he?" My jaw clenched. How did they learn?
"Why not? It's the perfect time for such things, and you know how His Majesty gets. If he can't get the father to follow orders and stick to the plan, why not the daughter? Besides, if they have a child, it'll make Joseph fall in line again. We've had months of problems with him." The wording gave me pause for a moment. Fall in line again? Since when had the minister been cooperating. What did they mean?
Kurt laughed sweetly. "Yes, so much for cooperation."
"I'm doubting either will cooperate but that's not the point. We outplayed him, and His Majesty fancies her, so that's that." The words drove ice into my veins and rage into my soul; Fuchs was going to rape Mercedes. Perhaps it was happening even now, and I was crouching in a dark stairwell listening to these scoundrels chat about it. I couldn't make sense of their talk about Joseph though.
I put it from my mind as one of the two yawned, then Kurt spoke. "I'm going to check the sentries before bed. It's late, and there's plenty to do tomorrow. We think we're close to finding Phillip; the monks left a note that points to Hemline. We'll see. Goodnight."
Even as he spoke, I heard a loud scraping as he opened the thick kitchen door. Although I couldn't see it, I was sure it must've been heavy. The man grunted mightily — any entrance leading to the outside would be thick enough to require excessive effort to break down. The door finally slammed shut with an audible groan.
I was waiting like a prowling tiger in the stairwell. I couldn't be sure where the other man would go, but I needed to get moving. If Kurt discovered our attack, things would get troublesome in short order. I shifted my weight, let my legs curl, and prepared to leap. If the man came my way I'd be ready.
After a few moments though, I heard him rummaging through the kitchen. Sighing inwardly, I began creeping downwards. I stuck my head into the kitchen just far enough to look about. Sure enough, the man, a heavy-set Courtier complete with the signature bowler, had his back to me and was bending down to dig through a larder. I crept forward, knife in hand. I'd kill the fellow before he'd raise the alarm if necessary, but my conscience hoped for otherwise. Passing the cold stove, I picked up a large pan, still unwashed from the evening's meal, and continued my approach. For a moment, I had to contain my laughter as he began humming. Our unfolding drama was almost comical. But then the pan rose over my head, and I brought it down. The force of the blow was great indeed, and I worried I'd killed him on accident, because his body collapsed in a heap before the larder, sliding forwards into the cupboard.
Pleased with myself, I looked about for rope of any kind, but couldn't see anything that would keep the man secured. One man wouldn't make much difference, and I doubted he'd be rising soon enough to take part in the coming action. So I left him. Dashing to the oaken door, I realized my previous assumptions were correct. The thing was incredibly sturdy. I threw open the bar locking it, and heaved on the handle, drawing the door open. As with Kurt's attempt, the groan it let out was ethereal, a ghastly moan in the otherwise quiet castle.
The kitchen's lamplight shot outwards into the night, illuminating the light snow. In prearranged fashion, I let out a long, low whistle. Pausing for several moments, I repeated the call and was gratified to see shapes dashing towards me through the gloom: Furies descending upon their unsuspecting, slumbering enemy.
Back to The Faith: Book I of the Uprising Trilogy book
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