TW04 The Zenda Vendetta NEW (7 page)

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Captain,” Finn said, “but how old are you?”

“Twenty-nine,” said Derringer. “You’re wondering how a baby like me managed to get through RCS?”

“Well... frankly, yes,” said Finn.

Derringer grinned. “I cut my teeth on temporal physics,” he said. “Albrecht Mensinger was my grandfather.”

“I’ll be damned,” said Finn. “Small wonder they assigned you to this mission.”

“That may have had something to do with it,” said Derringer. “On the other hand, perhaps it’s another one of these coincidences we’re swimming in. Maybe it’s karma. Do you believe in karma, Sergeant?”

“Only when it’s bad,” said Finn.

Derringer chuckled. “An answer worthy of Lenny Bruce.”

“I’m afraid I miss the reference,” said Finn.

“Ah. Well, he was a sort of 20th-century philosopher who refined bad karma to an art. Sorry, I tend to be a bit obscure at times. I understand my work well enough to realize that I really don’t understand it at all. To paraphrase, there is more to heaven and earth than is dreamed of in our philosophy.”

“Well, that one, at least, I know,” said Finn. “William Shakespeare, right?” Derringer raised his eyebrows. “Really? I thought it was Albert Einstein. It’s the sort of thing he would have said, at any rate. Oh, and speaking of bad karma, there’s yet another piece of unpleasant news I have for you. The coronation has been moved up to the day after tomorrow.” Lucas stared at Derringer. “How can that be? According to history, we’re supposed to have five days!”

“Yes, I know. It’s our first evident historical anomaly. I estimate that we have at most until tomorrow before Michael executes his plan. That’s always assuming that things haven’t become completely skewed.”

“Then what the hell are we doing jawing like this?” Finn said.

“Relax, Sergeant,” said Derringer. “I may have only been here a few days, but I’ve been very, very busy. I know what I’m doing. At this very moment, the king is not two miles away from here, in Michael’s hunting lodge. Sapt and von Tarlenheim are both with him. Michael is conspicuously absent. I don’t think he’d risk having Rudolf drugged before tomorrow night. That gives you all day tomorrow.

I’ve been keeping them under close surveillance. Rudolf has picked himself a hunting stand from which he has a good view of the stream down in that little valley there, where the deer come to drink. I’ve picked out a spot where you are certain to encounter them. The king has been staying up quite late, getting plastered every night. He goes out to his stand just before sundown. So far, he hasn’t killed anything and I don’t think he’s likely to. Even when he’s sober, he’s a miserable shot. If it wasn’t for Sapt, they’d have nothing to eat. And speaking of food, since it’s been several hundred years since you folks have eaten, I suggest that we make our way down to the village and grab ourselves a bite of supper. The inn has very nice accommodations and the food is really quite good. I can recommend either the venison or the trout. The wine stinks, but their beer is first rate. Besides, one should never save the future of the world on an empty stomach.”

The timing worked out just right. Not five minutes after Finn had taken up position beneath a large oak tree on the wooded trail, he heard men approaching, coming up the rise toward him. He leaned his head back against the tree and pretended to be dozing. A couple of minutes more passed by and then he heard them stop in front of him.

“Why, the devil’s in it!” he heard a young man’s voice exclaim. “Shave him and he’d be the king!” He opened his eyes and saw two men standing on the trail several feet in front of him, staring in astonishment. Both men carried guns and both were dressed in shooting costumes. One of them was short and heavily built. He had a large head crowned with thick gray-white hair; a huge cavalry moustache; muttonchops and bloodshot eyes. He was smoking a very large-bowled pipe with a deep curve to it, a Turkish meerschaum that had colored unevenly due to his apparent lack of concern in handling it. He appeared to be in his sixties or early seventies, but he was fit and straight-backed with a manner that clearly labeled him a military man. The other man was tall and slender, dark-haired with a small, neatly trimmed moustache and rounded, delicate features that gave his face an insouciant air. He looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties. He was the one who had spoken. As they came closer and Delaney stood up, the older man backed off a pace and raised his bushy eyebrows.

“He’s the same height, too!” he said. “My word! May I ask your name, sir?”

“The name is Rassendyll,” Finn said. “Rudolf Rassendyll. Am I unintentionally trespassing? I’m a traveler from England, you see, and I have come here on a holiday. If I’ve ignorantly strayed onto your land, I offer my apologies, gentlemen.”

“No, no, you are welcome, sir,” said the younger man. “It was merely your appearance that took us by surprise. Allow me to introduce ourselves. This is Colonel Sapt, and my name is Fritz von Tarlenheim.

We are in the service of the King of Ruritania.”

Finn took their hands in turn and while he was shaking the old man’s hand, Sapt exclaimed,

By heaven, you’re of the Burlesdons?”

“Why, yes,” said Finn. “My brother Robert is now Lord Burlesdon.”

“By God,” said Sapt, “your hair and features betray you, sir.” He chuckled. “Remarkable! You know the story, Fritz?”

From the look on von Tarlenheim’s face, it was clear that he knew the story of Countess Amelia’s indiscretion, but was loath to admit to it for fear of bringing up an awkward subject. Finn took him off the hook.

“It seems the story of Countess Amelia and Prince Rudolf is as well known here as it is in London,” he said, smiling.

“Not only is the story well known,” said Sapt, “but if you stay here, sir, not a man or woman in all of Ruritania will doubt it!”

At that moment, another voice cried out from lower on the trail, “Fritz! Sapt! Where the devil have you two disappeared to?”

“It’s the king!” said von Tarlenheim.

“He’s in for a bit of a surprise,” said Sapt.

As Rudolf Elphberg came into view, Finn could not help staring at him. Though he had seen the hologram, it was still a shock. It was like looking in a mirror. Elphberg was his exact double down to the last dimple, save for the absence of a beard. He saw Finn and froze, staring at him open-mouthed. Finn had been prepared to feign a look of surprise, but found that in spite of being prepared, he didn’t have to fake it. After a moment, it occurred to him that protocol demanded a respectful bow.

“Good Lord!” said Elphberg. “Colonel, Fritz, who
this gentleman?” Finn was about to answer when Colonel Sapt moved over to speak softly to the king. As Sapt whispered to him, Elphberg’s eyes grew even wider, then he burst out laughing.

“Strike me dead!” he said, still laughing as he came up to take Finn’s hand and slap him on the back.

“Well met, cousin! For a moment, I thought that the effects of last night’s merriment had not quite worn off and I was seeing visions! Hah! Fritz, I’ll give a thousand crowns for a sight of Michael’s face when he sees the pair of us! You
come to Strelsau with me, Cousin Rudolf! Seeing one of me upsets my brother’s stomach, but seeing two would give him a stroke, for certain!”

“With all due respect to both Your Majesty and Mr. Rassendyll,” said Fritz von Tarlenheim, cautiously, “I question the wisdom in your cousin visiting Strelsau at the moment.”

“Oh, balderdash,” the king said. “Where’s the harm?”

“No, Fritz is right, Your Majesty,” said Sapt. “He mustn’t go.”

“I wish to cause no one embarrassment,” Finn said, feeling that he had to say it and hoping like hell they wouldn’t take him up on it. “I’ll leave Ruritania at once.”

“By thunder, you will do no such thing!” the king said. “Pay no mind to these two old women. At any rate, I insist that you dine with me tonight, happen what will afterward. Come, man, you don’t meet a new relation every day!”

“We dine sparingly tonight, Your Majesty,” Fritz said, a bit awkwardly.

“Not we!” the king said. “Not with our new cousin as our guest! Don’t look so alarmed, Fritz, you old stick in the mud. I’ll remember our early start tomorrow.”

“So shall I,” said Sapt, puffing out clouds of heavy Latakia smoke and frowning.

“Well then, I can count on you to roust my royal carcass out of bed, then,” said the king. “Come, Cousin Rudolf, the devil with the shooting for tonight. The deer avoid me like the plague. Besides, the two of us have much to talk about. I’ve no house of my own here, but my brother Michael lends us a place of his and we’ll make shift to entertain you there.”

They started back down the hill and walked for half an hour down the trail until they came to a wooden hunting lodge, a large, one-story building with a steep roof and a small, railed porch. Elphberg peppered Finn with countless questions about himself and his family, to which Finn responded cautiously, drawing on the subknowledge of his implant programming. Fortunately, Finn didn’t have to do much talking, as Rudolf practically never shut up. He was having a high old time while Sapt and von Tarlenheim walked behind them, clearly apprehensive about this sudden turn of events. For his part, Finn found the king to be a pleasant enough fellow, but completely wrapped up in himself. No sooner would he ask Finn a question than he would interrupt his answer to provide some anecdote about himself, his ancestors or somebody at court. He was not rude, exactly, just uncontrollably ebullient and lacking in any sort of concentration. His voice even sounded similar to Finn’s, although it had a pomposity to it and a slightly higher pitch.

There were only two servants at the lodge, an old man and an old woman, both as rustic as the cabin. They evinced considerable surprise at seeing two of their king, but they knew their place well enough not to question this amazing occurrence and to speak only when spoken to; Rudolf spoke to them only to give orders.

Dinner, apparently, was already being prepared, giving the impression that during his stay at the hunting lodge, the king had been as impatient a hunter as he was a conversationalist. They did not have to wait too long until it was ready, and then they sat down to a sumptuous feast of venison steak which had been smoked, potatoes roasted in an open fire, fresh baked bread and blackberry jam, baked beans, and Yorkshire pudding. Finn laid to with a hearty appetite, to the king’s obvious approval.

“We’re all good trenchermen, we Elphbergs, what? But wait, we’re eating dry! Wine, Josef! Wine, man! Are we beasts to eat without drinking? Break into that blackguard Michael’s cellar and bring us forth some bottles before I die of thirst!”

“Remember tomorrow, Your Majesty,” said Fritz. “The coronation.”

“Damn it, Fritz, you remember tomorrow,” the king said, irately. “You start before I do, you must be more sparing by two hours than I. And I’ll have Cousin Rudolf to attend me.”

“We really cannot afford to overindulge tonight,” said Fritz to Finn, as if seeking his aid in calming down the king’s boisterous spirit. “The colonel and I leave here sharply at six tomorrow. We must ride down to Zenda and return with the guard of honor to fetch the king at eight, and then we all ride together to the station, where we take the train to Strelsau.”

“Hang that guard,” said Sapt, sourly.

“Now, now, it’s very civil of my brother to ask the honor for his regiment, wherever their sympathies may lie. I’ll not discuss politics tonight, Sapt. At any rate, Cousin Rudolf, you have no need of starting early, so you can join me while these two temperate chaps abstain. What, only two bottles, Josef? Out with you, fetch us two bottles more. Michael can’t drink all of it, you know.” It was late when the king pushed back from the table with a belch to announce that he had drunk enough. The wine had been excellent, indeed, a welcome change from the poor claret at the inn. Finn had matched Rudolf glass for glass, so that he now felt relaxed, full, and pleasantly diverted. While the old woman, whose name Finn never learned, cleared away the table, Josef brought in a wicker-covered bottle that looked as though it had been aging in Michael’s cellar for quite some time.

“His Highness, the Duke of Strelsau, bade me to set this wine before the king when the king was weary of all other wines,” he said, as though he had rehearsed the speech, which undoubtedly he had.

“He asked that you drink for the love that he bears his brother.”

“Well done, Black Michael!” said the king. “Hang him, he thinks to save the best for last, when my thirst has been abated. Well, out with the cork, Josef, my man.” As Finn watched with disbelief, the king took the bottle, put it to his mouth and drained it without pausing for breath. Then he flung it into a corner of the room, winked at them, put his head down on the table and was snoring within seconds.

As easy as that, thought Finn. All through the meal and well into the night, he had wondered nervously which bottle or which dish had contained the drug that Michael was supposed to dope his brother with, never dreaming that it would be done in so obvious a manner. Obvious to someone who expected it, at any rate. He sighed with relief, grateful for the fact that now he would not have to inject himself with the adrenergen that would have kept him up all night, clawing at the ceiling, regardless of which drug Michael had used or how potent a dose he had selected. He could now enjoy his buzz and get a good night’s sleep without having to worry about that frightful nitro hammering through his brain or terrorists sneaking up on him in the middle of the night. The others were keeping watch outside with night scopes. It really wasn’t fair. He’d had a great meal and fine wine to drink and he’d be sleeping soundly in a warm bed while they shivered in the cold night air outside, staying awake to protect him.

Ah, well, life’s a bitch, he thought. He sincerely hoped it wouldn’t rain.

So much time spent in the bowels of Zenda Castle had made Drakov accustomed to darkness, so he was easily able to make out the shape of the Observer. He was so intent upon watching the hunting lodge that he was completely ignorant of Drakov’s presence a mere several yards away. Death stood right behind him, Drakov thought, almost within reach, and he didn’t even know it. He didn’t sense a thing. No subconscious realization made the hairs prickle on the back of his neck, no sensation as though someone had walked across his grave made him apprehensive, no sudden intuition made him spin around to face the danger.

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