TW04 The Zenda Vendetta NEW (9 page)

Sapt chuckled. “You’ll do. Fritz, you look white as a sheet. Drain your flask, for God’s sake, and put some color in your cheeks.”

As the train pulled up to the platform, Sapt glanced outside and nodded to himself. “Things look well,” he said. “We are early and no one expects us on this train. No one’s here to meet us yet. We’ll send word of Your Majesty’s arrival, meanwhile—”

“Meanwhile, His Majesty is starving,” Finn said, “and he’ll be hanged if he doesn’t have some breakfast.”

Von Tarlenheim hiccoughed and Sapt grinned. “You’re an Elphberg, all right,” he said. “Every inch of you. Well, with God’s help, we’ll all still be alive when this is over.”

“Amen,” said Fritz.

You can say that again, thought Finn.

The train came to a stop and Sapt and von Tarlenheim went out first. Finn put on his helmet and stepped out onto the platform, trying to walk with the same sauntering strut as Rudolf. He was recognized in no time at all and the entire area around the train station became a flurry of activity, a helter-skelter in which he was the center of attention. Sapt and von Tarlenheim stayed close by him every second, running interference for him as they took him through the quickly gathering crowd to breakfast.

Finn ate with a hearty appetite, Sapt ate sparingly and drank lots of coffee, while Fritz von Tarlenheim merely sat there looking ill and chewing on his fingernails. As Finn finished his breakfast of shirred eggs and sausage with biscuits and gravy, the bells of the city began to ring in a cacophony of clanging and people in the street outside were shouting, “God save the king!” Sapt smiled. “God save ‘em both,” he said. “Courage, lad.”

“Lad,” thought Finn, I’m old enough to be your father. Here’s hoping I live to be a little older. He raised his coffee cup to Sapt in a silent toast and drained it. If you think this is bad, he wanted to tell him, wait’ll you see what’s coming next.

Von Tarlenheim and Sapt never left Finn’s side as the dignitaries arrived and paid their respects prior to forming the procession. Whispered promptings from Sapt identified to Finn people who had already been described to him during the train ride or, in the event of an omission in the hurried briefing, the old man would give quick thumbnail sketches, such as, “Marshal Strakencz, Ruritania’s most famous veteran, a trusted ally, but not an intimate friend.” Then, a quick bit of stage direction to guide Finn’s manner.

“Warmly, but speak loudly. Strakencz is hard of hearing.”

Things flowed smoothly and the procession formed, with Finn, Sapt, and von Tarlenheim taking up position in the center of the parade that wound through the streets of Strelsau’s New Town and into the old quarter, where the avenues narrowed and the three- and four-story houses showed signs of age.

Many of these houses also showed signs of Ruritania’s political polarity, differing from those around them in the conspicuous lack of red flags or red bunting being displayed. Some of them were not decorated at all, while others showed a touch of black. Others still, more boldly, displayed Black Michael’s portrait in their windows. Invariably, the people who stood upon the balconies of these houses did not wave or cheer, but stared sullenly and silently at Finn as he rode by on his horse with Sapt and von Tarlenheim flanking him on theirs.

Sapt kept his eyes on Finn, like a coach critically watching the performance of a favored athlete, while von Tarlenheim all but shook with nervousness, sweating rivers in his white regimental uniform and darting glances all around as if expecting at any moment someone to call out, like the young boy who cried that the emperor wore no clothes, “That’s not the king!” But no such cry came and Finn played his part by waving to the crowd and removing his helmet to display “the Elphberg red” whenever they passed a group of houses adorned with Michael’s raven-headed likeness. Finn found himself rather enjoying the whole thing, catching bouquets of red roses and then tossing them back into the crowd, smiling at the flirtatious glances of young women who leaned down from their balconies to watch him pass, and returning the salutes of old men who stiffened to arthritic attention as he rode by. Then, when the procession approached the palatial Grand Hotel on the Grand Boulevard of Strelsau, the grim reality of his situation was driven home to him. As they rode up to the balcony of the Grand Hotel, Finn spotted one woman who neither waved nor cheered, standing out from those who surrounded her by virtue of the daring dress she wore, scandalous by the standards of the time, jet black and form-fitting with a deeply plunging neckline. Long and lovely ash-blond hair framed her striking face. His stomach muscles tensed as their eyes met and she gave him a small half-smile.

After that, the approach to the cathedral, the greeting of the archbishop, the shocked and furious stare of Black Michael, and the ceremony itself were all anticlimactic. Finn went through it all like an automaton, kneeling before the altar and being anointed, accepting the crown, swearing the oath, receiving the Holy Sacrament, and being proclaimed Rudolf the Fifth of Ruritania, all the while seeing her standing there upon the balcony as if to mock him, remembering that moment when their eyes met. She knew that he knew her. There had been no effort at pretense, no surreptitiousness, no subtlety. She simply stood there in plain sight, gazing at him as if he were her next meal. In that one instant, Finn had understood the fatal attraction that she had for Mongoose. The woman projected an aura of carnal hunger, as though the blueprint for her design had been drawn by Grigori Rasputin and the Marquis de Sade. She had a savage beauty that somehow managed to both attract and repel at the same time. It was a presence that was instantly recognizable to anyone who had come across that particularly rare and deadly species before.

Few people had it and those who did always seemed to stare at you with little crosshairs in their eyes. Finn could not imagine her and Forrester together. For Mongoose, the pairing would have been completely natural, like the mating of two werewolves. Falcon had played the first move and she at once controlled the board. The woman had thoroughly unnerved him.

It was with an effort that he finally managed to wrench his concentration back to the matters at hand.

With some dismay, he greeted his future queen, the Princess Flavia, for in their eagerness to prepare him for the ceremony and for every official he was bound to meet, Sapt and von Tarlenheim had neglected to tell him—or had forgotten—that he would be riding in a coach alone with her to the palace.

They greeted each other in a warm yet formal manner and Finn noticed right away that she was distant. Not quite aloof, but very cautious and reserved. They took their place together in the coach that was to take them to the banquet at the palace, and Finn caught von Tarlenheim’s look of total panic.

Sapt was trying to give him little signals, a slow nodding of the head and languid palm down gestures as if to say, “You’re doing fine, keep playing it the same way. Formal. Polite. Regally detached.” However, his furrowed brow clearly spoke of his concern.

Finn felt a little ill at ease, not quite knowing what to say to her, so he occupied himself instead with looking out the window and waving to the crowd. He was aware of her gaze upon him and, after a little while, it began to feel uncomfortable. He turned to look at her and smiled, waiting for her to say something. What she said was not encouraging.

“Somehow, Rudolf, you look a little different today.”

“Oh?” said Finn, hoping she would respond with something that would give him a bit more to work with.

“You appear somehow more sober, more sedate,” she said. She smiled, disarmingly. “Almost as if you actually had serious matters on your mind.”

Tell me about it, Finn thought. “Is that so unlike me, then?” he said, still smiling.

“If it is not, it is a side of you I have not seen before,” she said. Then, changing tack abruptly, she pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. “Did you see Michael’s face?”

“That must have been what sobered me,” said Finn.

“I think you take him far too lightly, Rudolf. Did you see how he looked at you?”

“He didn’t seem to be enjoying himself,” said Finn.

“You should be more careful of him,” Flavia said. “You don’t know— You don’t keep enough watch on him. You know how he feels.”

“I know he wants what I’ve got,” said Finn. “But then, can you really blame him?”

“If you cannot, I can,” she said. “You should see the way he watches me when you are not looking.” Finn grinned. “No doubt, the way that any other man would—when I was not looking.” She drew her lips together tightly and shook her head. “No, not that way at all,” she said. “It makes me think of a wicked little boy watching someone playing with a toy that he regards as being his.”

“Somehow I’ve never thought of you as being a toy,” said Finn. “Nor of Michael as being very playful.”

“Oh, you’re insufferable!” she said, looking away from him. “I thought perhaps the coronation would make you realize your responsibilities, but I see that nothing’s changed!” And with any luck, thought Finn, things will remain that way. They finished out the remainder of the ride in silence, with frozen smiles on their faces as they waved to the crowd.

Finn was exhausted by the time he reached Rudolf’s rooms inside the palace. He took off his helmet and threw it on the bed, unbuckled his sword, and simply let it drop onto the floor, then collapsed into a chair. He unfastened the high collar of his uniform blouse and gave a great sigh of relief.

“What a day for you to remember!” said von Tarlenheim, ebullient now that it was over. “King for a day, what? Imagine what your friends in London would make of it, though of course, you must never tell them! Did you see Michael? He looked positively green! We’ve done it! We’ve actually done it! You were magnificent!”

“We haven’t done it yet,” said Sapt, puffing on his ever-present pipe. “Don’t get too comfortable, Cousin Rudolf.” He handed Finn a flask. “Here, have some brandy. Rest a moment, but rest briefly. We have a hard ride ahead of us.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a gold watch and consulted it. “It is now five o’clock. By twelve, if all goes well, you should be Rudolf Rassendyll once more and safely on your way to England. I’ve brought a change of clothing for you. The fit may not be exact, but it should do. I’ve stolen it from my orderly, who is about your size. The quicker you can change, the sooner we can be on our way and the more secure my old head will feel on these weary shoulders.” Finn got up and started changing. Sapt turned to Fritz von Tarlenheim.

“Once more, Fritz,” he said, “the king is weary and has retired for the night. He has given you strict orders that no one is to disturb his rest till nine o’clock tomorrow morning. Michael may come and demand an audience. You are to refuse him. Say anything, tell him that only princes of the blood are entitled to it.”

“I say,” said von Tarlenheim, “that’s pushing it a bit, don’t you think? If I goad him in that manner, he’s liable to draw steel on me!”

“Even if he does, you are to remain unmoved,” said Sapt. “You are acting on orders of the king. That should be clear enough, even to Black Michael. If this door is opened while we are away, you’re not to be alive to tell us about it. You understand?”

“You can rely on me,” said Fritz.

Sapt then led Finn through a secret panel and into a passage that he said the old king had had cause to use upon occasion to slip in and out of the palace unobserved. It led to a quiet street behind the palace gardens, where Sapt had two horses waiting. He dismissed the man who held them, then beckoned Finn forward, and they mounted and rode through back streets at full gallop, scattering those whom they encountered. Finn was wrapped in a long riding cloak and he wore a hat pulled low over his eyes, so that no one could get a clear glimpse of his face. He crouched low like a jockey and kept his head down until they were well out of the city.

They had ridden hard for twenty-five miles when they stopped to rest their horses and wash some of the dust out of their throats with whiskey. Finn felt totally exposed. They rested by the side of the road for a few minutes, then were about to proceed when Sapt grabbed Finn’s arm and said, “Listen!” Finn had already heard it. “Horses,” he said.

Sapt swung up into the saddle. “It could be a pursuit,” he said. “It sounds like they’re riding hard.

Quickly, man, set spur!”

The growing dark and the curving road sheltered them from their pursuers as they worked their horses to a lather once again. After a half an hour’s ride, they came to a division in the road and Sapt reined in.

“Our way is to the right,” he said. “The left road leads to Zenda Castle. Get down and muzzle your horse. I want to see who rides behind us and which way they are headed.” They took their horses into the trees at the side of the road and held them on short rein with their hands covering their muzzles. They had a clear view of the road. Before very long, two horsemen rode into view, one leading the other by about three lengths. The first rider reached the division of the road and reined in.

“Which way?” he said.

Sapt said softly.

“To the castle,” said the other loudly, having pulled even with Hentzau. “We’ll learn the truth of the matter there. I’ll know why Detchard sends word that all is well when they have bungled it! They’ll have much to answer for!”

As he watched them ride off at full gallop down the road to Zenda Castle, Sapt swore. “Hentzau and Black Michael! This bodes ill, indeed!”

“Who’s Hentzau?” Finn said. Though it was a name he knew from his mission programming, Rassendyll would not have heard it.

“Rupert Hentzau,” Sapt said. “A young gamecock soldier of fortune Michael found somewhere. Of the six throat-cutters he has retained of late, Hentzau is the worst. He’ll be at Michael’s own throat if Michael doesn’t watch him. I don’t like the looks of this at all. Come, full speed to the lodge!” Sapt leaped into the saddle with a spryness that belied his years and took off down the road leading to the lodge. Finn had to ride hard to stay with the old man and both horses were about done in. When they reached the hunting lodge, there was no sign of life anywhere about. The horses were still out in the paddock when they should have long since been taken back into their stalls. Although it was dark and the night was chill, there were no lights burning in the lodge; there was no smoke curling from the chimney.

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