TW04 The Zenda Vendetta NEW (20 page)

“You fool,” she said. “You acted like a child in there! That was the most pathetic display of—” Michael struck her hard across the face.

“I had turned a deaf ear to the gossip,” he said, “and it has brought me humiliation! I’ve been made a fool of by that bastard in front of the entire court! He will pay dearly for that. But as for you, you trollop, I have reached the limits of my tolerance. I do not know what sort of morals they have where you came from, but from now on, you will act as befits a proper lady. You will speak only when spoken to, you will dress more demurely, you will take care of your manners, and you will go nowhere without a proper chaperone. And if I ever catch you alone with any other man, I will have you whipped like a common slut!”

He turned and got into the coach. She climbed in after him, assisted by a liveried footman who had witnessed it all. She waited until the coach got rolling.

The servant who opened the door of the coach when they arrived at home staggered back with a cry at the sight of her blood-spattered gown. He ran when she told him to get Hentzau. Rupert came quickly.

His eyes grew wide when he saw her.

“Sophia! Sophia, what—”

“Shut up and help me with him,” she said.

Hentzau looked into the coach. He sucked in a sharp breath. “Good God!” he said.

Michael was sprawled senseless on the seat with a handkerchief stuffed into his mouth. His face was covered with blood. One eye was swollen shut. His lip was badly cut, his nose was broken, and several teeth were missing. Hentzau turned to her.

What happened?
Are you all right? How did—” he had taken both her hands in his and now he stared down at her cut knuckles. He looked up at her with an expression of disbelief.

She jerked her hands away. “Bring him inside,” she said, then turned and went into the house.

Forrester handed the night scope to Lucas and pointed. “The keep,” he said. “Use maximum magnification. Zero in on that small turret sticking out from the tower at about eleven o’clock.” Lucas held the scope to his eyes. “I don’t see anything,” he said. “What am I looking for?”

“The embrasures,” Forrester said.

“I still don’t see . . . wait.”

“What is it?” Andre said.

Lucas handed her the scope. “It’s hard to spot. You can barely make it out. They’ve got a laser tracking system set up in that turret. It sweeps across the entire compound.”

“I can’t see anything.”

“Keep watching. Look for a slight hint of movement.” “Got it.” She grunted. “Looks like floater-paks
out, then.” She put down the scope. “What’s next?”

“An evening swim,” said Forrester.

“Shit,” said Lucas.

“Come on, it’s not that cold,” said Andre, turning the scope toward the moat.

“That isn’t what bothers me,” Lucas said. “I must have been hanging around Finn too long. I think his paranoia is starting to rub off.”

“What do you mean?” said Forrester.

“If they were careful enough to guard against a floater-pak assault, they might have taken precautions about the moat, as well. How do we know they haven’t doped it with nasty little microorganisms?” Andre shivered. “God. What makes you think of these things?”

“Your standard, basic-issue cowardice,” said Lucas. “Okay, so we don’t swim the moat,” said Forrester. “We bridge it.”

“Nysteel line?” said Andre. Forrester nodded.

“Moon’s full,” Lucas pointed out. “Nice night for silhouettes.” Forrester glanced at him irately. “Did you just come along for moral support, or what?”

“I’m just doing my job, Colonel. You want to give the orders, go ahead.”

“Not me, son. I’m not going to pass up a chance to see my executive officer perform his duties in the field. This is your command. You make the decision. Hand-over-hand and get shot, or the Australian crawl and have your balls fall off or something.”

“Some choice.”

“Come up with another alternative.”

“I’m working on it.”

“What time is it?” said Andre.

Forrester glanced at his watch. “2130 hours,” he said. “I feel nervous about Finn,” she said.

“He can take care of himself,” said Lucas.

“He doesn’t even know the colonel’s joined us,” Andre said. “He’s not going to like not being informed.”

“If there was a chance to tell him, I would have,” Lucas said. “But Finn’s right. Our best chance is to leave him to play it out while we concentrate on the Timekeepers. He’ll have enough trouble with Black Michael and his mercenaries without having to worry about Falcon.”

“We’re wasting time,” said Forrester. “Priest, have you come up with a workable approach yet or are you worrying about microbes being released into the air now?”

“The hell with it,” said Lucas. “I’ll swim the moat and take my chances.”

“Suit yourself,” said Andre. “If it was up to me, I’d use the boat.”

boat?” both men said, simultaneously.

“The little one pulled up by the bank there and tied to the shore,” said Andre.

“Give me that,” said Lucas, taking the scope and training it on the spot she indicated. “A boat,” he said, grimacing. “Who the hell goes rowing in a moat?”

“Children?” she said. “Rat catchers? Microorganism fishermen?”

“All right, all right,” said Lucas, irately. He glanced at Forrester. “Did you see that boat?” Forrester shrugged.

“You didn’t see it, either, did you?” Lucas said.

“Cheer up, Priest,” said Forrester. “Maybe it’ll sink half way across.” They picked up their packs and made their way down to the bank of the moat on the west side of the chateau. The boat Andre had spotted was tied up to a small bush and two oars were stowed beneath the seats. It was an old wooden double-ender, far too small for more than one adult. The size of the oars also confirmed Andre’s guess that it was intended for use by children, probably those of the chateau’s serving staff. There was a tiny fishing net in it, along with some line wound around a stick, a rusty old hook embedded in the wound-up line.

“A toy,” said Lucas, miserably. There was some water pooled in the bottom of the boat. “It’s only big enough for one of us, if it doesn’t sink.”

“I’ll go,” said Andre. “I’m the lightest. Give me the remote.” Forrester handed it to her. “We’ll cover you from the bank,” he said. “Don’t take any chances. We can’t afford to lose the remote unit.”

She grinned. “Thanks for your concern, sir.”

Forrester glanced up at the sky. A large bank of clouds scudded across the moon. “Now,” he said.

“Move it.” She climbed down into the boat, unshipped the oars, and pushed off. Taking care not to make any splashing sounds, she rowed carefully and slowly, putting her back into it in an effort to get as much momentum as possible from the short oars. She kept rowing in a straight line across the moat, making the most of the cloud cover. It didn’t take long before the prow of the small boat touched softly against the moss-covered stone of the castle.

She stowed one of the oars inside the boat, using the other one to slowly propel herself alongside the castle wall, taking care to keep the boat from making too much noise as it scraped softly against the lichen-covered stone. Little by little, she circled round toward the front of the castle. She rounded a corner and the back of the chateau became visible, its whiteness looking ghostly in the moonlight. The drawbridge was raised. Between her and the drawbridge, jutting out over the moat, was the most recent addition to the castle, the only part of it that appeared to be inhabited. She could see lights burning in several of the windows above her. She touched her larynx, activating the throat mike, then thought better of it and turned it off again. No point in alerting them if they were scanning for communications. They probably weren’t, but this was no time for taking chances.

As she propelled herself forward in the boat, she kept a close watch on the lighted windows above her and almost missed seeing the dark shape in the water that suddenly loomed before her.

She nearly hit it. At first, she could not tell what it was, but then she saw that it was a large length of pipe, about four feet in diameter. Moving with extreme caution, she brought the boat up alongside it.

There was some rust upon the pipe, but it could not have been in place for very long. One end of it went into the water and, feeling with her oar, she could tell that it ended perhaps two or three feet below the surface of the moat. The other end of it was butted up against a small window in the wall just above her, level with the top of her head. It covered the window entirely, but it was not quite flush and as she examined it, a faint line of light appeared around it.

She drew back, instinctively, then balancing carefully, she stood up in the boat, steadying herself with one hand on the iron pipe. She heard voices, but she could not make out what was being said. Shielding her laser with her body, she carefully burned a small hole into the iron pipe, dipped her hand into the water, sprinkled it, then put her ear up against it.

“—should eat more, Sire. You haven’t touched your food.”

“I am not hungry, Detchard. Tell my brother to have done with it and kill me. I am dying by inches here.”

“The duke does not desire your death, Your Majesty,” Detchard said. “At least, not yet. When he does, behold your path to heaven.”

A moment later, Andre heard the scraping sound of metal hinges, quite close by, followed by two taps upon the inside of the pipe. The sounds rang in her ear and she pulled her head away, briefly. When she put her ear back up against the pipe, she heard part of what Detchard was saying.

“—restful at the bottom of the moat, Your Majesty. Your grave and our escape route, should they be so foolhardy as to attempt a rescue. However, rest assured. We shall not leave you to drown.

Drowning is an unpleasant death, I’m told. We shall be sure to kill you first before we place your weighted body in the pipe. We would not wish for you to suffer greatly.”

“How very kind of you,” the king said, flatly.

“I’m sorry,” said Detchard. “I, for one, have nothing against you. You’re not a bad sort of fellow.

I’ve tried not to treat you ill, insofar as Michael would allow. I give you my word that when the time comes, your end shall be swift and as painless as possible.”

“Most considerate of you,” the king said. “When do you think that will be? I grow weary of waiting.”

“Not too much longer, I should think,” Detchard said. “I would not dwell on it, if I were you. You need your rest.”

“For what?” said Rudolf.

“Yes, well, I see your point. Good night, Your Majesty.” She heard the sound of a heavy door opening and closing and the faint crack of light around the pipe disappeared. A moment later, she heard the sounds of the king sobbing softly. Bastards, she thought. Prisoner or not, it was no way to treat a man. Why torture him with explanations of how they would dispose of him? She sat down in the boat.

From Michael’s point of view, she had to admit that it was a simple and effective plan. If anyone tried to take the castle, they would kill the king, weight his corpse, then lift it up and slide it into the pipe. It would sink to the bottom of the moat in some twenty feet of water and be buried in the mud. if necessary, they could then slide down the pipe themselves and swim the moat to safety. Otherwise, they could release the pipe, it would sink into the moat, then they could close the iron grate over the window and who would ever know that the king had been held prisoner there?

She examined the pipe to see how it was fastened over the window. She could not tell. She tried a gentle shove at it, then she tried again, more firmly. It would not move. It had to be attached somehow from inside. It would be a simple matter to cut through it with her laser. The grate across the window could be taken care of in the same way. She licked her lips anxiously. The thought of that poor man sobbing in the darkness made her want to do it at once, but she steeled herself against the temptation.

Now was not the time and she was not the one to do it. Besides, getting the king out of the castle would be the very least of their problems. At any rate, now Finn would know where Rudolf was being held.

She looked all around her carefully, noting every detail of her surroundings. Immediately on the other side of the pipe, there was a section of protruding stone wall. Beyond it, an expanse of moat and the drawbridge. There was a lighted window some fifteen to twenty feet above her. She looked still higher.

The wall was straight and smooth all the way up to the tower until, near the top, a small turret stuck out from it. No, not a turret, but a balcony of sorts, shaped like a turret, but open on the front and sides. She breathed in sharply as she saw that someone was standing on the balcony, looking down at her.

She heard a soft, coughing sound and in the next instant, felt a tremendous blow to her left shoulder.

It knocked her to her knees and almost over the side of the small boat. She dropped the oar. She clapped a hand to her shoulder and felt the flow of blood. She also felt the blunt end of a nysteel dart, the tip of which had penetrated through her skin and deep into the bone. There was a line attached to it.

She cried out as she was yanked out of the boat to rise quickly through the air as the nysteel line retracted with a soft
sound. She was being reeled in like a fish. The moat seemed to drop away beneath her and in the next moment, she felt a strong arm encircling her neck, dragging her over the side of the balcony. She lost consciousness.

Forrester shook Lucas hard. “Take it easy! Lucas, damn it, relax!”

“I can’t believe it! I just can’t fucking believe it! They got her and I just stood here and

“I was here, too, remember? There was nothing we could do. We didn’t even have a shot. She went up so fast that if we tried to burn the line, we might’ve burned her, instead.” Lucas gritted his teeth. “
They just harpooned her! What if she’s dead? What if that rappelling dart severed an artery?”

“Then she’s dead,” said Forrester. “Stop blaming yourself. There was nothing you could do.” Lucas clenched his fists. “She must have broken a beam or something. I was a fool not to consider that. Dammit!
what do we do?”

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