TW04 The Zenda Vendetta NEW (2 page)

It was all very much against regulations, but the soldiers of the First Division were given the greater leeway in such things, and rank had its privileges. In the case of Colonel Forrester, those privileges were considerable.

He was the only colonel in the service whom a general would salute. Those who did not know him by sight needed only to glance at his golden division insignia to recognize him. There was only one full bird colonel who wore the number one bisected by the symbol of infinity and that was Moses Forrester, commander of the First Division of the U.S. Army Temporal Corps, leader of the Time Commandos. He owned a chestful of decorations, though he never wore them, preferring the clean and uncluttered uniform of crisp black base fatigues. This rather austere look was more than compensated for by the appearance of the man himself. Tall, barrel-chested, broad-shouldered and completely bald, Forrester looked like nothing less than a tank made of flesh and blood. The only evidence of his great age were his wrinkled, craggy features. His face looked as though it had been sewn from well-worn leather. His hands were huge and gnarled, but the power in his arms was considerable. He could curl an eighty-pound dumbbell easily with just one hand. Everything about him, from his erect carriage to the direct gaze of his deep-set eyes, to the sharp crease in his immaculate fatigues bespoke a soldier. In the Temporal Army Corps, Forrester was the most widely respected soldier of them all.

The men and women under his command performed the most unenviable job a soldier could be called upon to do. They were the guardians of history, assigned exclusively to deal with temporal disruptions created by the actions of the Time Wars. Forrester was proud of his command and of the work they did. His one great regret was that he no longer accompanied them on their hazardous missions to Minus Time. His days in the field were now over. After a lifetime spent fighting on the battlegrounds of history, he was now firmly stuck in time, in the 27th century, on a large military base in Southern California. He lived in luxurious quarters located in the heights of the Temporal Army Command Headquarters; he ate and drank nothing but the best; he had orderlies to see to his needs and he lived the full if regimented life of an officer and a gentleman. Yet it was not enough, far from it.

He longed for the old days. During the quiet times, a great wistfulness would sometimes come upon him. At such times, he would enter his den, light up a pipe, pour himself a glass of wine, and toast his memories. He would gaze at the collected artifacts and books, select one item or another, run his fingers over it, and smile as the memories flooded back to him.

Here was the pith helmet he had worn when he served under “Chinese” Gordon at Khartoum. Here was the iron cross which Otto Skorzeny himself had pinned on him for saving the German commando leader’s life during the raid to free Il Duce. Here was the cutlass he had carried when he sailed under the freebooter, Sir Henry Morgan. And here was the most significant memento of them all—a lock of raven black hair kept in a tiny enameled box.

It was the one item not prominently displayed. He kept it in the left-hand drawer of the ancient rosewood writing table at which Lord Byron penned his poems. He never took it out. Now, for the first time in many years, he took out the tiny box, holding it in his hand as if it were a sacred object. His eyes softened as he thought of the woman it betokened. She was long dead, her dust stirred by the passage of some eight hundred years. It had been one of only two times in an incredibly long life, even by the life-extended standards of the 27th century, that he had ever been in love. Both loves had been ill-fated.

Both were part of a past he had tried hard to forget, never with complete success. Those memories were very fresh now. Painfully so. He held the tiny box in one hand and a letter in the other. Each represented one of those two loves. One woman was long dead; the other, whom he had thought dead, was still very much alive. She had reached out across the centuries to unite them all and twist the knife.

He had received the letter earlier that evening, delivered by a bonded courier from New York.

However, it had been written in another city, in another country, in another time. He sat down at the rosewood writing table, placing his elbows on it, pressing the letter in one hand and the enameled box in the other against his temples. He sat that way for a long, long time, his eyes shut, his breathing laborious.

The past had finally caught up to him and this time, there was no escape.

Chapter
1

As the train pulled out of the Dresden station in a cloud of steam and early morning mist, Rudolf Rassendyll sat in the dining car over a light breakfast, trying to recall where he had seen the scar-faced man before. The object of his ruminations sat several tables away from him, drinking coffee. They had exchanged several glances and Rassendyll found the situation somewhat embarrassing. Clearly, the man remembered him from somewhere and was awaiting some sign of recognition. With none forthcoming, he must have thought that Rassendyll was slighting him. To stall for time while he racked his brain for some clue as to the man’s identity, Rassendyll hid behind his copy of
The Strand Magazine,
pretending to read while he kept glancing furtively at the scar-faced man, hoping to jog his memory into remembering where they had met.

He was an unusually large man with the broad shoulders of a laborer and big, muscular arms.

However, he was quite obviously not of the working class. The large ruby ring he wore on his left hand indicated that he was a gentleman of some means, as did the diamond stickpin, the gold watch chain, and the elegant, gold-headed ebony walking stick he carried. His suit was the height of Parisian fashion, but the man did not look French. His dark complexion and curly black hair gave him a Slavic aspect that was further borne out by the high forehead, the strong nose, the prominent jawline, and the square chin. His eyes, which one might have expected to be dark, were a surprisingly brilliant shade of emerald green.

Their bright hue, combined with his dark complexion, gave his gaze a piercing, magnetic quality. His striking good looks were marred only by the scar that ran from beneath his left eye, across the high cheekbone to just above the corner of his mouth. It was arrow-straight, quite likely a dueling scar. Hardly anyone dueled anymore, especially with sabres, except for the young Prussians and the Central Europeans, who were known to drop a glove at the slightest provocation.

The man’s posture, the quality of his dress, and his impeccable grooming all spoke of wealth and breeding. Taking into account his Slavic features, the dueling scar, the expensive clothing and the man’s carriage, Rassendyll deduced that he was probably a Balkan, a nobleman from one of the small mountain principalities perhaps. This deduction was facilitated by the fact that they were aboard a train that was heading for the Balkan frontier, but Rassendyll decided that not even Sherlock Holmes himself could have done better under the circumstances. Unfortunately, he was still no closer to recalling the man’s name, although he seemed to remember now that they had met in London fairly recently, at some sort of function. In another moment, surely, he would have him placed.

The scar-faced man glanced up and saw Rassendyll staring at him intently. Immediately, Rassendyll averted his gaze, but he was too late. The scar-faced man stood up and approached his table.

“I beg your pardon,” he said in a startlingly deep and resonant voice. “Forgive me for intruding, but I seem to have the strongest feeling that we have met somewhere before.”

“You’re English?” Rassendyll said with surprise. The man spoke in English, without a trace of an accent, which made Rassendyll disappointed at having guessed so far off the mark regarding his nationality.

“I have spent a great deal of time in England,” the man said, “but I am not a native. Permit me to introduce myself.

The name is Drakov. Nikolai Drakov.”

“Rudolf Rassendyll, at your service.” They shook hands and Rassendyll felt slightly vindicated.

“Rassendyll?” said Drakov, frowning slightly. “By any chance, would you be a relation of Lord Burlesdon’s?”

“Robert is my brother,” said Rassendyll. Suddenly, it came to him and he struck his forehead with the palm of his hand. “But of course! I saw you at a party hosted by my brother several weeks ago in London, in honor of the new Serbian ambassador. You were the chap escorting that dazzling Countess Sophia! Forgive me, my dear fellow, for having such an abominable memory. Won’t you join me?” They sat down opposite each other at the table. “No need for apologies,” said Drakov. “As I recall now, we were never formally introduced.”

“Yes, well, Robert’s parties do tend to be somewhat informal, despite their size,” said Rassendyll.

“Still, I can hardly blame you for having failed to place me at once,” said Drakov, with a smile. “Next to the countess, I must have been quite invisible.”

Rassendyll laughed. “Hardly, old chap! It would take quite a bit of doing to render a man of your formidable dimensions invisible! How is the lovely countess?”

“As lovely as ever,” Drakov said. “As it happens, I am just now on my way to join her in Strelsau.”

“What a coincidence!” said Rassendyll. “I, too, am traveling to Strelsau! Doubtless, you are going there to attend the coronation of Rudolf Elphberg?”

“I am to escort the countess to the coronation,” Drakov said.

“Perhaps, then, you will introduce me,” Rassendyll said. “I did not have the opportunity to meet the countess in London. I could not seem to break through the throng of admirers she was surrounded by.

To tell the truth, I felt myself at a bit of a disadvantage in that witty crowd. Though I’m ordinarily a garrulous fellow, I tend to stammer like a schoolboy in the presence of a beautiful woman.” Drakov smiled. “I doubt you would have had that problem with the countess. She has quite a way about her. You should have asked Lady Burlesdon to introduce you. The two of them seemed quite taken with each other.”

“Yes, that’s just like Rose,” said Rassendyll. “Lady Burlesdon takes her position in society quite seriously. She has a knack for insinuating herself into the center of attention, or as close to it as possible.” Drakov raised his eyebrows. “I seem to sense a note of disapproval.” Rassendyll grimaced. “The disapproval is more Lady Burlesdon’s than mine. Rose considers me the bane of her existence. Not only does she find my lack of industry appalling, but it is a source of constant irritation to her that my features bring to mind the family scandal.”

“Scandal?”

“You mean you haven’t heard the story? I would have thought that someone would have brought it up that night, at least once.”

Drakov frowned. “No, I must confess to ignorance. If it is an awkward topic, perhaps we should—”

“No, no, dear fellow, not a bit of it,” said Rassendyll with a wave of his hand. “Frankly, I’m surprised that you’ve been spared. The so-called skeleton in our family closet sees such frequent display in London society that it is something of an open secret. Since Lady Burlesdon blushes so prettily, some wag always brings it up whenever someone comments on the difference in the coloring between my brother Robert and myself. Though it’s something of an embarrassment to the sensitivities of my sister-in-law, I find it somewhat amusing. My father did, as well. He gave me the name of Rudolf because it is an old and common Elphberg name and I was born with what my family refers to as the ‘Elphberg Curse’—I mean this rather aristocratic nose of mine and my red hair. I suppose I should explain. As you are on your way to Rudolf Elphberg’s coronation, you might find it diverting to hear the story.”

“I must admit to being intrigued,” said Drakov.

Rassendyll leaned back in his chair and tucked his thumbs into his waistcoat. An inveterate gossip, he delighted in telling the tale afresh to a new listener.

“It happened in 1733,” he said, “when George II was sitting on the throne of England. A prince who was later known to history as King Rudolf the Third of Ruritania came on a visit to the English court. He was a tall and handsome fellow marked by a somewhat unusually straight and sharp nose and a mass of dark red hair—in fact, the same nose and hair that have stamped the Elphbergs time out of mind. The prince stayed some months in England, where he was most courteously received, but in the end, he left rather under a cloud. He fought a duel with an English nobleman well known in the society of his day not only for his own merits, but as the husband of an exceedingly beautiful wife.”

“Ah,” said Drakov, with a knowing grin.

“Yes, quite,” said Rassendyll. “In that duel, Prince Rudolf was severely wounded and, recovering therefrom, was adroitly smuggled off by the Ruritanian ambassador, who found him a pretty handful by all accounts. The nobleman in question was not wounded in the duel, but the morning being raw and damp on the occasion of the meeting, he contracted a severe chill. Failing to throw it off, he died some six months after the departure of Prince Rudolf. I should add that he passed on without having found the leisure to adjust his relations with his wife, who after another two months bore an heir to the title and estates of the family of Burlesdon. This lady was the Countess Amelia and her husband was James, fifth Earl of Burlesdon and twenty-second Baron Rassendyll, in both the peerages of England and a Knight of the Garter.

“As for Rudolf, he went back to Ruritania, married and ascended to the throne, whereon his progeny in the direct line have sat from then till this very hour. The results of this episode can be seen today if one were to walk through the picture galleries at Burlesdon. Among the fifty or so portraits of the last century and half, you would find five or six, including that of the sixth earl, distinguished by sharp noses and a quantity of dark red hair. These five or six also have blue eyes, whereas among the Rassendylls, dark eyes are the commoner. So now, the occasional appearance among the dark-haired Rassendylls of a red head such as mine brings to mind Countess Amelia’s indiscretion. Some might consider it Fate’s way of smirking at my cuckolded ancestor, but I see it as a romantic reminder of a refreshing episode in an otherwise crashingly dull family history. I fear that Lady Burlesdon does not share my view of it, however, which would account for her having neglected to introduce me to the charming countess and yourself. Actually, it would please her no end if I were to make my residence in Ireland or someplace equally far removed from her social circle.”

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