TW04 The Zenda Vendetta NEW (8 page)

They were all wrong, thought Drakov, all the poets and the storytellers who ever dwelt upon the darker side of human nature in their art. Death is not a melodrama. If anything, it is a pathetic one-act comedy that had been poorly written. The audience never laughs and by the time they realize that the play simply isn’t funny, it is already over.

Drakov felt a touch of sadness as he saw that the Observer was little more than a boy. The miracle drug treatments of Falcon’s time made physical appearances deceptive, as in his own case, but there were other indicators of the fellow’s youthfulness—the tension in his bearing, the restlessness which made him shift position constantly, the subtle yet telling sounds he made despite his efforts at not making any noise. He was like a small boy out on his first hunting trip with an old veteran, spending his first night in a hunting stand. The old hunter, experienced and calm, knew to blend in with the silence of the forest; he knew how to relax into complete motionlessness. The small boy was too excited, too inexperienced to appreciate such subtleties. Despite all his best efforts, he moved too much, unable to synchronize his heartbeat with the gentle sighing of the wind. He would think that he was being quiet, but the tiny sounds he made, almost inaudible to him, would be like claps of thunder to the forest animals. The old hunter, of course, would know this, but he would say nothing. He would know that there would be no game on such a night, with such a green companion. The object of the lesson would be to give the boy an opportunity to learn to wait. In time, the boy would learn. But this boy would never have the time.

Drakov, the old hunter, wondered why it was that artists always attempted to poeticize death and violence. Death was merely final, finality in itself, and real violence was sudden, terrible, and often totally incomprehensible. It wasn’t death that was poetic, he thought as he watched his young victim with a mournful gaze, it was survival. That was something few artists ever understood. The Russians understood it. Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, especially Tolstoy. The Russian loves to suffer, Drakov thought, because he has never known another state, and so he has embraced the only state he knows.

Wistfully, he thought that the soul of a Russian peasant was a lovely thing, simple and innocent and pure.

“It is from the soil of Russia,” his mother had once told him in Siberia, “watered by the tears of all of those who’ve suffered, that the flower of the new world will one day spring.”

“And what if that flower turns out to be a weed?” he had asked her, already a cynic at the age of fourteen, never imagining just how prophetic his words would turn out to be.

“Then that weed will be watered by those self-same tears of suffering,” his mother said. “One must suffer before one can know redemption.”

If that was true, thought Drakov, then his mother had been redeemed many times over. But he was not certain it was true. He was not certain that one could be redeemed. Another writer, an American—who else?—had written that Byronic melancholy was the opium of the intellectuals and the last refuge of little minds. No doubt Falcon would agree. She never had the time to grieve, as she had so simply and mercilessly put it, for all the souls who fell by the wayside. Reluctantly, he took out his laser and aimed it at his victim’s head. He hesitated.

The beam flash would undoubtedly alert the others, who were neither as young nor as inexperienced as this one. He transferred the laser to his left hand and moved forward slowly, silently, closing the distance between them. He raised his right arm and brought the edge of his right hand down hard on the back of the young man’s neck, just below the point at which the spine met the base of the skull.

He heard a voice cry out as he struck and he spun instinctively, firing blindly with his left hand and hitting the chronoplate remote with his right. Even as he fired, he felt a searing pain lance along his side and the next thing he knew, he was back in the turret atop the keep of Zenda Castle, collapsing to the floor and grimacing with pain. He had not been the only hunter on the stalk. Just before he had clocked out, he had caught a brief glimpse of a dark shape silhouetted against the moonlight. And, irrationally, in that brief instant he had known exactly who it was.


A bucketful of stinging cold water brought Finn sputtering to his feet, ready to commit murder. “God
it!” he shouted, but Sapt pushed him back down onto the bed, ducking under his wild punch easily.

“Stay yourself, man,” the old officer said, sharply. “I tried every other means of waking you and you would not budge. It’s five o’clock.”

Five o’clock!”
said Finn, still not fully cognizant.

“Rassendyll,” said Fritz von Tarlenheim, taking him by the arm. “Look here.” Rudolf Elphberg was stretched out full length upon the floor, completely drenched. It appeared that they had thrown at least four times as much water on him as they had on Finn and still he slept. Sapt moved over to him and gave him a sharp slap in the face, hard enough to make Finn wince.

“Wake up, Your damned useless Majesty!” he said. “Hang him, he drank three times what either of you did,” Sapt said, eyeing both Finn and von Tarlenheim with fury. “And damn me all to hell for sitting there and letting him! This is a fine muddle!”

“We’ve spent half an hour on him,” von Tarlenheim said with exasperation.

Finn knelt down and felt the king’s pulse. It was quite slow.

“What, Rassendyll, are you a doctor?” von Tarlenheim said, hopefully.

“I’ve studied medicine,” Finn said, improvising. “However, a thousand doctors wouldn’t do him any good right now.”

“What!” cried Sapt, with a look of horror on his face. “What are you saying? He’s not dead!”

“No, he’s not dead,” said Finn, “but he has every appearance of having been drugged.”

“Drugged!” said Fritz. Understanding dawned on him. “
Michael! Damn the bastard!
It was that last bottle, for a fact! Sapt, we have been taken for a pair of mighty fools! How on earth will we get him to the coronation now?”

“He won’t be crowned today,” said Finn. “My guess is that he won’t come around for at least eight or ten hours.”

Von Tarlenheim licked his lips. “This is a disaster,” he said. “We shall have to send word that he’s ill.”

“We are ruined,” said Sapt. “If he’s not crowned today, I’ll lay a crown he’s never crowned.” “But why?” said Finn. “Surely, it can’t be so serious?” “Serious?” said Sapt. “The whole nation will be there to meet him and half the army with Black Michael at its head. Shall we send word that the king is drunk?”

“That he’s ill,” said Finn.

“Ill!” said Sapt. “His ‘illnesses’ are only too well known. Rudolf’s been ‘Ill’ before.”

“There’s nothing to be done,” said von Tarlenheim. “We shall simply have to put on a sober face and make the best of it. I say,” he paused, “that was a poor choice of words, under the circumstances.”

“I should have known,” said Sapt. “I should have known that he would try something of this sort, but I did not give him enough credit. He’s let Rudolf be hoist with his own petard!” He slapped the king again. “The drunken dog! Still, I’ll rot in hell before I see Black Michael sit on the throne in his place!” Sapt chewed furiously on one end of his moustache, his brow deeply furrowed.

“Surely, something can be done!” said von Tarlenheim, though his tone of voice did not hold forth much hope. Suddenly, Sapt looked up, staring at Delaney. Finn played dumb and simply stood there, looking bewildered, as did von Tarlenheim for a moment or two, until he realized what Sapt was thinking.

“No!” he whispered softly, looking from Sapt to Finn and back again.

“Yes, by God!” said Sapt. “It just might work!”

Finn gauged the moment right to “realize” what they intended, but he had to play it well. “Oh, no,” he said, stepping back from them and snaking his head.

“Rassendyll, do you believe in Fate?” said Sapt.

You don’t want to know, thought Finn.

“It was Fate that sent you here, man, and now it’s Fate that beckons you to Strelsau.”

“It would never work,” said Finn. “They’d know that I was not the king!”

“If you shave?” said Sapt. “Who would ever expect it? You’d be his spitting image.”

“I’d be bound to make some blunder,” Finn said.

“We shall be beside you every moment,” Sapt said. “Granted, it’s a risk. Are you afraid, lad?”

said Finn, in mock outrage at the suggestion.

“Don’t take offense,” said Sapt, “it’s your life that will be on the line, and ours as well if we are caught. But if we do not make the attempt, it is a certain thing that Black Michael will be the one sitting on the throne tonight and the king in prison or even in his grave. You do not know Black Michael. Fritz will bear me out that I do not overstate the danger.”

“But what will the king say when he finds out?” said Finn.

“Who cares what he says?” said Sapt. “It’s his own worthless hide that we’ll be saving. I daresay that he might even learn from this, though I hold out no great hope. What do you say, man? In truth, you owe us nothing and not a man on earth could blame you if you were to refuse, but you’re the one chance that we have; you see that, don’t you?”

Finn decided that he made enough protestations for the sake of appearances. He looked down at the unconscious form of Rudolf Elphberg, wondering if perhaps Ruritania would not be better served by having his brother on the throne.

“Yes, of course, I see,” he said.

“You’ll do it, then?” said Sapt, eagerly. Finn took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “It’s insane,” he said, “but yes, I’ll do it.”

“Good man!” said Sapt, relieved. “Listen, then, this is how we must bring it off. Fritz and I will prepare you to the best of our abilities. The ceremony itself is simple enough; an idiot could get through it.

We’ll hide the king here. We shall be staying in the palace at Strelsau tonight. The very moment we are left alone after the coronation, you and I will mount and ride here at the gallop. Fritz will stay behind at the palace to make certain that no one enters the royal bedchambers. When the king awakens here, Josef will tell him what has transpired. We may depend on him, he has served the king since boyhood. The king will then ride back with me to Strelsau and you must make all speed to the frontier.”

“There’s a chance,” said Fritz, nodding. “Yes, it could work!” Sapt went to the door and called for Josef, who paled when he saw the king lying on the floor. As quickly as he could, Sapt filled the old man in and sent him for a razor. Josef moved quickly and returned in moments with hot water, soap, and several razors. Finn was not encouraged when he saw how badly the old man’s hand was shaking, but he sat down in a chair and submitted to the barbering.

“Christ!” von Tarlenheim said, jumping to his feet. “We forgot about the guard!”

“We won’t wait for the guard,” said Sapt. “We shall take the train from Hofban. We’ll be long gone by the time they come.”

“But what of the king?” said Fritz.

“I’ll carry him down to the wine cellar. Josef will stay with him.”

“But suppose they find him?”

“They won’t. Why should they bother looking? They don’t know about Cousin Rudolf, here. I’ll take His Drunken Majesty down there right now.”

Sapt bent down and picked the king up easily, throwing his body over his shoulders as if it were a sack of flour. He moved quickly to the door and opened it, revealing the old woman who had served them the previous night standing in the doorway. She immediately spun around and went off without a word.

“You think she heard?” said Fritz. “Heaven help us if she did; she’s Michael’s servant.”

“Leave her to me,” said Sapt. He went out with the king, shutting the door behind him. Fritz von Tarlenheim watched as Delaney’s beard was shaved. When Josef was done, having managed to avoid shedding any of Finn’s blood, Fritz stood back and examined the results.

“I really do believe we’ll pull it off!” he said. “I don’t think I’d know you from the king myself!” Sapt returned in a short while, having taken the king down to the cellar. He told them that he had taken the old woman there as well and left her bound and gagged beside the king, where Josef could watch them both.

“By the time she tells anything she heard to Michael,” Sapt said, “the coronation will be over, the king will be in the palace, and Cousin Rudolf will be on his way to London. Let Black Michael try to prove that anything untoward happened. He will have been beaten. When the old woman tells him about Cousin Rudolf here, he’ll know just how we did it. He can stew till hell freezes over and be powerless to change a thing!”

They brought the king’s uniform and helped Finn put it on; then they dressed in their own. Finn was given the king’s helmet and sword and with two hours to spare before the guard was due, they mounted up and rode at a breakneck pace to the village of Hofban, where they took the first train to Strelsau. On the way, both Sapt and von Tarlenheim briefed Finn as to what he could expect, what to look out for, whom to know and how, and what the proper etiquette was for all that he could be expected to go through.

From the time that they had left the lodge to the time they boarded the train, Finn had seen no sign of Andre, Derringer, or Lucas. He hoped that they were keeping on top of things. Sapt and von Tarlenheim both drilled him ceaselessly, making him mimic the king’s voice until he had the pitch and intonation down. Both men seemed as delighted with his performance as two schoolboys in the midst of planning a great prank. However, as the train drew closer to Strelsau, they both began to show their nervousness.

Finn was nervous, too, but not so much because of his impersonation as because he did not know where the others were and he had no idea what he could expect from Falcon. Soon, the towers of the palace were visible from the windows of the train and then the city of Strelsau came into view.

“Your capital, my liege,” said Sapt. He looked at Finn intently. “How do you feel?”

“Positively regal,” Finn said.

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