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The hallowed bells of Teimsfeld's largest cathedral cut the air. They rang with joy. They tolled with sorrow. Somewhere beneath their peal, tears were shed. Somewhere else, smiles were given. Riktenburg mourned, and Riktenburg rejoiced.
At the nave of the giant hall, Phillip rose. He turned to face the crowd. And as he did, the ermine cloak surrounding his regal body shifted. He nodded his gratitude to the masses, the crown bobbing on his head. I watched him though. He was not smiling.
Behind the celebrated man, another figure waited. Or at least, the remembrance of another waited, for we couldn't find his body. An empty casket was buried beneath heaps of black prince flowers, their petals flaking downwards, occasionally drifting to the silent marble floor below. A single red rose — a testament — lay atop these others.
The king walked down the aisle, always nodding at the applause. He slid over the recently installed marble slabs. Each held the body of a monk, the men hung for the king's survival. They would be forever honored for their loss, and they were buried in the royal crypts of the family they saved. Each slab was etched with gilded creases. The golden marks told the story of betray and hope, of the new king's saving and of a bright future for Riktenburg. Although they were gorgeous works of art in their own right, the slabs' very contents gave onlookers a shudder. Religious fanatics had stolen the life from Martin, while monks had given their lives in defense of equality. Above the bodies of these faithful heroes, Phillip glided onwards, no doubt more taken with his own brotherly grief.
As he passed us, I smiled sadly, and he offered a bowed head. Even if I could have heard him above the roar, there wasn't anything to say.
Nothing could change what had happened. Nothing would return Riktenburg to her former self. Nothing could remove Fuchs' stain. Impossibly, he had eluded all snares. Somehow the man slipped through the night and crossed, as His Majesty's spies reported, into Austria. To make matters worse, the traitorous Joseph was gone upon our return.
I'd told the others of Fuchs' story, and none wanted to believe it. I hadn't either, but the devil in the snow spoke the truth. Somehow the minister had learned of his coming doom, and he too had fled the country, presumably to the expanses of the Austrian Empire as well.
"Splendid. He looks splendid, doesn't he?" Eva, her hand resting on my arm, shouted into my ear. I turned to her. Despite her words, a pair of tears mingled in her lashes, and the lines of her face belied any festivity.
"Most regal — a lot he never wanted. . ." I said, my eye on the black princes and the rose. She tracked my gaze and gripped my arm still tighter.
By now Phillip was well past us, flowing out the massive doors of the cathedral and into the waiting crowds outside. Despite the gloomy, mingled emotions that surrounded it, the day felt momentous. The capital had swelled as thousands flocked to see the coronation and funeral. The idea of a sudden, double ceremony had been a rarity in all of Europe, and the press had tripped over themselves at the news of the coup and subsequent months under a false king. Shock was foremost in everyone's minds. None had recognized the charlatan. Fuchs' social purging, summary executions, and planned programs filled everyone with rage, and the papers had a field-day.
Around us, the sound continued to dissipate as onlookers followed the king to the streets. "Nathaniel!" cried a familiar voice of a woman through the masses.
I turned, and again hid my grimace of surprise at the sight. Logan and Mercedes strode towards us, arm in arm. Even as I watched she stumbled, catching herself.
"The depth perception . . . It's taking a while to adjust," she said, lowering her eyes — or her eye rather. Logan patted her hair familiarly and gently stroked the cord that held her eye-patch in place.
"There's nothing wrong with that," cooed Logan. "In no time, no one will even notice."
I tried valiantly to ignore the tear that fell from her other eye. Eva broke from my touch and wrapped the other woman in an embrace. After a long moment, she brushed the tresses from Mercedes' face and turned back to us. "Let's see Jacob. That'll cheer everyone up, and heaven knows he needs it too."
All agreed. We finally made our way through the crowd, and we walked along towards Mercedes' home. Our path wound through the city, but the streets were pressed by the mobs of Riktians who came to pay their respects and honor the new monarch.
Snow dotted the roofs, and our breath rose in sheets to the grey expanse above. I'd traipsed through this city in summertime, months ago. Jacob, Logan, and I had swaggered and laughed as if nothing was amiss. Of course, we'd been chased by the Faith even then, but nothing could've prepared us for what lay ahead. Looking at the buildings in the light, my thoughts recoiled, turning to the darkness of the summer now gone. I'd ducked through these streets at night, rainwater dripping about and guttered alleyways providing a welcome hideout. In the gloom, passing patrols had missed me as I dashed to safety.
Yet the man waiting inside that safe home was a traitor.
Somewhere, perhaps in the court of the Austrian emperor, Joseph Klein was resting. He'd flown from his country, a raven, a vulture escaping the descending storm. He'd been a friend. Now he was a curse.
Before melancholy could wrap its coils about me further, we turned a corner. Reaching that now familiar door, I held it open for the group as Mercedes led the way through the halls.
"Mother!" she called. "Mother!" For obvious reasons the woman in question had not attended the coronation.
Adele emerged from the library, wiping her hands dry on a cloth. Seeing us, she dropped the cloth in a titter. "Oh, company! You should have warned me Mercedes."
The girl smiled. "There wasn't time, Mama. The brood demanded to see our invalid."
"I see." She turned a feigned scowl on the rest of us. "Barging through homes like an army. How very rude. I'd expect you to know better."
I bowed, low and long. "Our sincere apologies, Madam Klein. How may we rectify our guilt?"
She laughed, a warm flutter that drifted through the home like the call of a bird. "Welcome all of you. Jacob's in the library as usual. He'll be more than happy to see you." She turned then and bustled away through the home. After Joseph's flight and exposure, the woman surprised me with her resolve. Although the country was decrying her family's name, and her husband had become a fugitive, she would not despair. I did not presume to know her pain though. Regardless of his flaws, it had been clear that Joseph loved Adele. Her loss was sure to have stung immeasurably, and I wondered if she would leave the country soon, following him into Austria.
I cleared away those thoughts as we entered the library. The bookcases loomed overhead, but our eyes were drawn to the man resting in the sunlight. A book in hand, Jacob sipped delicately from a glass of wine, his shattered leg propped up in another plush chair. A tight bandage surrounded the wound, but he was starting to mend.
He looked up at our entrance. "Ah!" he cried, setting aside the book. "Some visitors at last. I'd started to think you lot had forgotten me. Again"
I sat, slapping his shoulder. "You're never going to let us live that down, are you?" In the weeks since our coup, Jacob had dropped hint after hint about our actions in the tower. As he lay bleeding, Logan and I had leapt into the night, leaving him. We all recognized the rightness of that choice, but the American loved to chide us just the same.
Jacob shifted, adjusting his leg."How was the ceremony?"
The others sat, all settling into the sunlit chairs. "It's what we expected," answered Eva. "Martin was loved by Riktenburg. In the course of a few weeks, the people learned that he'd been viciously murdered, they've been ruled by a tyrant imposter, and his body is lost, an unknown corpse somewhere. It's a striking blow. Phillip performed brilliantly though. He never wanted to rule, but I've little doubt he'll do it well."
We all nodded, our heads bowed.
Logan looked over. "And you? How's the leg?"
Jacob grinned ruefully. He reached out and tapped the wound
ed limb. "It'll get better in time." He turned to Mercedes. "Your mother has been most gracious. I've felt right at home here."
She smiled thinly. "Given my father's hospitality, it's the least we can do." She held her head high, but I knew it stung. Like Adele, a man she loved had been revealed as a traitor. In a way he'd been a better actor than Fuchs, and the cut of treachery was sure to be deep.
Our conversation drifted towards happier thoughts from there, and we lost ourselves in each other. With the sunlight trickling in, a decanter of wine nearby, and a woman I was coming to love next to me, time seemed to slip away that afternoon. Time is, after all, reported to be a healer, and in time, I hoped to be healed. In all the chaos, I'd lost life and zeal. More than that, I'd lost innocence, and I wasn't sure I could recover from that fall.
But the world doesn't wait for healing. It rushes onwards, an uncatchable escape through a snowy wood.
"Excuse me ladies, gentlemen."
We turned at the unfamiliar voice. A messenger, resplendent in the black and scarlet of the king's guard loomed in the library's doorframe.
Logan rose. "Yes? Can we help you?"
The guard bowed and produced a packet of papers from his jacket. He handed them over, the polished buttons of his coat sparkling. "I come from King Phillip." When Logan didn't open the papers, he continued. "His Majesty sends his greatest respects and requests your presence at the palace immediately."
Eva jerked upright. "Is something the matter?"
The messenger did grin then. "Oh, no. Everything's fine; no need to get upset."
I shifted. "What's the reason for the summons then? And immediately?"
He pointed. "It's in the letter, but I can save you the trouble if you'd like?"
Logan nodded, and the guard's buttons flashed again as he moved further into the room. "You see, His Majesty is beginning to address the problems that occurred under the imposter's reign. As you know, Fuchs sifted through the palace's staff, removing all the lower classes — a distasteful business. I only just returned to duty myself."
Logan shrugged. "Horrid to be sure, but what does that have to do with us?"
The attendant cocked his head. "Ah. Well there seems to be several vacancies in His Grace's court — places closest to His Majesty. You've heard about Fuchs' purges. What you may not have learned about is our suffering relationship with Austria."
I perked up. "Austria?"
"We've received certain overtones from the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand. He's taken rather unkindly to Phillip's dismissal of Fuchs' economic and military alliance proposals. The imposter wanted shared resources and military backing. How the emperor fails to see the absurdity of his position is beyond me. It's as if the man doesn't believe Fuchs was not King Martin. It's as if Ferdinand wants war!" The last caught me as strange. Hadn't Fuchs and Joseph both escaped to Austria? Why the political shift now that Phillip was on the throne?
Before I could mull further, Jacob spoke from his chair. "Is it as bad as all that? There's threats of war?"
The guard nodded. "Oh yes! Of course I'm not privy to everything, but from His Majesty's own lips, Austria is angry enough to shed blood. Lots of it. How Riktenburg is forced to suffer catastrophe after catastrophe, I'll never know. But those are the facts."
Logan stared at me, his eyes set, his chin locked. I saw his logic had tracked like mine, but we didn't speak.
The messenger continued. "As I said, there are certain vacancies. The king can think of no men more deserving of these posts. The lot of you have done more for Riktenburg than can be repaid, but the king would like to try."
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