Alek narrowed his eyes. "Are you telling me, Count, that you met with the pope?"
"Your father did." Volger pulled a leather scroll case from a pocket of his fur coat. "The result was this dispensation, an adjustment of your parents' marriage. With one condition: that your father keep it a secret until the old emperor passed away."
Alek stared at the scroll case. The leather was beautifully worked, decorated with the crossed keys of the papal seal. But even so, it looked too small to change so much. "You've got to be joking."
"It's signed, witnessed, and sealed with lead. With the power of heaven it names you as your father's heir." Volger smiled. "A bit more impressive than a few gold bars, isn't it?"
"One document gives me an empire? I don't believe you."
"You can read it if you want. Your Latin is better than mine, after all."
Alek turned away, gripping the parapet. A sharp edge of broken stone cut into his fingers. Suddenly he could hardly breathe. "But ... all this happened two years ago? Why didn't he tell me?"
Volger snorted. "Aleksandar, you don't trust a mere boy with the greatest secret in the empire."
A mere boy ... The moonlight on the snow was suddenly too bright, and Alek squeezed his eyes shut, his whole life unwinding inside him. He'd always been an impostor in his own house, his father unable to leave him anything, his distant relatives wishing he'd never been born. Even his mother - she was the cause of it all. She'd cost him an empire, and somewhere deep down that fact had always stood between them.
How could the abyss that had defined his life disappear so suddenly?
The answer was, it hadn't. The emptiness was still there.
"It's too late," Alek said. "My parents are dead."
"Making you first in line for the throne." The wildcount shrugged. "Your granduncle may not know about this letter, but that doesn't change the law."
"No one knows about it!" Alek cried.
"I certainly wish that were true. But you saw how doggedly they've hunted us. The Germans must have found out somehow." Count Volger shook his head slowly. "Rome is filled with spies, I suppose."
Alek took the scroll case, his fist closing tight around it. "So this must be why my parents were ..." For a moment he wanted to throw it from the battlements.
"That isn't true, Alek. Your father was killed because he was a man of peace, and the Germans wanted war. You are simply a postscript."
Alek took a deep breath, trying to fit himself into this new reality. Everything that had happened in the last two years had to be rethought - all of these plans his father had made, knowing this.
Strangely, a small thing troubled him most. "All this time, Volger, you've treated me like ..."
"The son of a lady-in-waiting?" Volger smiled. "A necessary deception."
"My compliments," Alek said slowly and evenly. "Your contempt was most convincing."
"I am your servant." Volger took one of Alek's hands in both of his and bowed. "And you have proved yourself worthy of your father's name."
Alek pulled away. "So what do we do with this ... piece of paper? How do we let people know?"
"We don't," Volger said. "We keep your father's promise and say nothing until the emperor dies. He's an old man, Alek."
"But while we hide, this war goes on."
"I'm afraid so."
Alek turned away. The freezing wind still blew against his face, but he could hardly feel it. He'd spent his whole life wishing for an empire, but he'd never realized the price would be so high. Not just his parents, but the war itself.
He remembered the soldier he'd killed. Over the next years there would be thousands more dead - tens of thousands. And he could do nothing but hide here in the snow, clutching this piece of paper.
This frozen wasteland was his kingdom now.
"Alek," Volger said softly, gripping his arm. "Listen ..."
"I think I've heard enough for one night, Count."
"No, listen. Do you hear that?"
Alek glared at the man, then sighed and closed his eyes again. There was the sound of Bauer chopping wood, the moan of the wind, the ticking of the Stormwalker's metal parts still cooling. And somewhere out on the edge of his awareness ... the rumble of engines.
His eyes sprang open. "Aeroplanes?"
Volger shook his head. "Not at this altitude." He leaned out over the parapets and scanned the valley floor, muttering, "They can't have followed us. They can't have."
But Alek was sure the sound came from the air. He squinted into the icy wind, until finally he saw a shape forming in the moonlit sky. But what he saw made no sense at all.
It was huge, like a dreadnought flying through the air.
"It's a zeppelin!" Alek shouted. "They've found us!"
The wildcount looked up. "An airship, certainly. But that doesn't sound like a zeppelin."
Alek frowned, listening hard. Other noises, tremulous and nonsensical, trickled over the distant hum of engines - squawks, whistles, and squeaks, like a menagerie let loose.
The airship lacked the symmetry of a zeppelin: The front end was larger than the stern, the surface mottled and uneven. Clouds of tiny winged forms fluttered around it, and an unearthly green glow clung to its skin.
Then Alek saw the huge eyes... .
"God's wounds," he swore. This wasn't a machine at all, but a Darwinist creation!
He'd seen monsters before, of course - talking lizards in the fashionable parlors of Prague, a draft animal displayed in a traveling circus - but nothing as gigantic as this. It was like one of his war toys come to life, a thousand times larger and more incredible.
"What are Darwinists doing here?" he said softly.
Volger pointed. "Running from danger, it would seem."
Alek's eyes followed the gesture, and he saw the jagged trails of bullet holes down the creature's flank, flickering with green light. Men swarmed in the rigging that hung from its sides, some wounded, some making repairs. And alongside them climbed things that weren't men.
As the airship passed, almost overhead, Alek half ducked behind the parapets. But the crew seemed too busy to notice anything below them. The ship slowly turned as it settled into the valley, dropping below the level of the mountains on either side.
"Is that godless thing coming down?" Alek asked.
"They seem to have no choice."
The vast creature glided away toward the white expanse of glacier - the only place in sight large enough for it to land. Even wounded, it fell as slowly as a feather. Alek held his breath for the long seconds that it remained poised above the snow.
The crash unfolded slowly. White clouds rose up in the skidding airship's wake, its skin rippling like a flag in the wind. Alek saw men thrown from their perches on its back, but it was too far away for their cries to reach him, even through the cold, clear air. The ship kept sliding away, farther and farther, until its dark outline disappeared behind a shroud of white.
"The highest mountains in Europe, and the war reaches us so quickly." Count Volger shook his head. "What an age we live in."
"Do you think they saw us?"
"In all that chaos? I'd think not. And this ruin won't look like much from a distance, even when the sun comes up." The wildcount sighed. "But no cooking fires for a while. And we'll have to set a watch until they leave."
"What if they don't leave?" Alek said. "What if they can't?"
"Then they won't last long," Volger said flatly. "There's nothing to eat on the glacier, no shelter, no fuel for a fire. Just ice."
Alek turned to stare at Volger. "But we can't leave shipwrecked men to die!"
"May I remind you that they're the enemy, Alek? Just because the Germans are hunting us doesn't make Darwinists our friends. There could be a hundred men aboard that ship! Perhaps enough to take this castle." Volger's voice softened as he peered into the sky. "Let's just hope no rescue comes for them. Aircraft overhead in daylight would be a disaster."
Alek looked out across the glacier again. The snow thrown up by the crash was settling around the airship, revealing that it lay half on one side, like a beached fish. He wondered if Darwinist creations died from the cold as quickly as natural beasts. Or men.
A hundred of them out there ...
He looked down at the stables below - food enough for a small army. And medicine for the wounded, and furs and firewood to keep them warm.
"We can't sit here and watch them die, Count. Enemies or not."
"Haven't you been listening?" Volger cried. "You're heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Your duty is to the empire, not those men out there."
Alek shook his head. "At the moment there isn't much I can do for the empire."
"Not yet. But if you keep yourself alive, soon enough you'll gain the power to stop this madness. Don't forget: The emperor is eighty-three, and war is unkind to old men."
With those last words Volger's voice broke, and suddenly he looked ancient himself, as if the last five weeks had finally caught up with him. Alek swallowed his answer, remembering what Volger had sacrificed - his home, his rank - to be hunted and hounded, to go sleepless listening to wireless chatter. And with safety finally at hand, this obscene creature had fallen from the sky, threatening to wreck years of planning.
No wonder he wanted to ignore the airbeast dying on the snows a few kilometers away.
"Of course, Volger." Alek took his arm and led him down from the cold and windy parapet. "We'll watch and wait."
"They'll probably repair that godless beast," Volger said on the stairs. "And leave us behind without a second glance."
Halfway across the courtyard, Volger brought Alek to a sudden halt, his expression pained. "We'd help them if we could. But this war could leave the whole continent in ruins. You see that, don't you?"
Alek nodded and led the count into the great hall of the castle, where Bauer was piling wood into the fireplace. Seeing the food laid out and ready to cook, Volger let out a tired sigh and told the other men about the crashed airship - another week without fires, and long, cold watches every night.
But eating in a castle, even a cold one, was still a pleasure after all those meals huddled in the Stormwalker's iron belly. The storerooms held luxuries that none of them had enjoyed for weeks: smoked fish for dinner, dried fruit and canned peaches for dessert. The wine was excellent, and when Alek offered to take the first watch, the others drank to him deeply.
No one talked about rescuing the airmen. Perhaps the other three assumed that the monstrous creature would fly away again. They hadn't seen the bullet holes in its flanks, or the men hanging wounded and lifeless in the rigging. Instead they talked like soldiers, discussing how to defend the castle against an aerial attack. Bauer and Klopp argued about whether the Stormwalker's cannon could elevate high enough to hit an airship.
Alek listened and watched. He'd slept most of the day, taking the controls only after sunset, when Klopp's old eyes always gave out. It was barely midnight now, and it would be dawn before he needed sleep. But the others were worn down by the day's journey and the freezing cold.
When they had fallen asleep, Alek made his way quietly up to the parapets.
The airship lay in a dark lump on the glacier's featureless white. It looked smaller now, as if slowly deflating. No fires or lamps were visible, just the strange glow he'd noticed earlier. Tiny pinpricks of light moved in the wreckage, like green fireflies buzzing about the giant creature's wounds.
Alek shivered. He'd heard awful stories about the Darwinists' creations: half-breeds of tigers and wolves, mythological monsters brought to life, animals that spoke and even reasoned like humans, but had no souls. He'd been told that when godless beasts were created, the spirits of demons occupied them - pure evil given flesh.
Of course, he'd also been taught that the emperor was wise and kind, that the Austrian people loved him, and that the Germans were his allies.
Alek descended the tower stairs and crept past the sleeping men into the storerooms. The medicine kits were easy to find, eight satchels marked with red crosses. He took three, but didn't weigh himself down with any food. That could come later, if the airship really was grounded for good.
Changing into his commoner disguise, Alek ignored the furs, choosing the most ragged leather coat he could find. From the weapons room he took a Steyr automatic pistol and two eight-round clips. Hardly the sort of weapon a Swiss villager would carry, but Volger was right about one thing - this was still a war, and these Darwinists were the enemy.
Finally he chose a pair of snowshoes. Alek wasn't sure how the contraptions were supposed to help him walk, but Klopp had exalted upon seeing them - something about his mountain campaigns back in the Balkan Wars.
The iron bolt of the castle gate slid silently aside, and the huge door swung open with an easy push. It was so simple to walk out, throwing his hard-won safety to the cold wind. Certainly it felt nobler than hiding here, waiting to inherit an empire.
Half a kilometer out onto the snows Alek realized that he had finally snuck past his old fencing master.
The snowshoes looked absurd, like tennis rackets strapped to his boots. But they worked, keeping his feet from breaking through the brittle surface into the powdery snow beneath. His long, sliding steps carried him quickly back along the Stormwalker's footprints, until he was far enough away that his tracks weren't visible from the castle walls.
The smooth, almost featureless glacier was easy going, and in an hour he drew close enough to hear the Darwinists' shouts as they worked on their wounded airship. He climbed up the valley's side, until he reached a ledge overlooking the vast shape.
Alek stood at the edge, astonished by what he saw below.
The wreck looked like a corner of hell bubbling up through the snow. Flocks of winged creatures coiled around hollows in the wilting gasbag. Crewmen moved across the great beast's skin, accompanied by bizarre double-snouted, six-legged dogs that sniffed and pawed at every bullet hole. The green lights he'd seen from the castle covered the creature. They were crawling, like glowing maggots on dead meat.
And the stench! Rotten eggs and cabbage, and a salty smell disturbingly close to the fish he'd had for dinner. Alek wondered for a moment if the Germans were right after all. These godless beasts were an insult to nature itself. Perhaps a war was worth ridding the world of them.
"A VAST FORM STRETCHES OUT."
And yet he couldn't take his eyes from the creature. Even lying wounded it looked so powerful, more like something from legend than the work of men.
Four searchlights flared to life, illuminating one flank of the creature. Alek could see now why the beast had rolled sideways during the crash: The gondolas hanging from its underside had escaped being flattened against the snow.
Steeling himself, he climbed down to the glacier, heading toward the unlit side of the creature. Only a few men worked there, though the damage looked just as bad. Drawing nearer, Alek stepped lightly, his snowshoes shushing in the darkness.
As he stole down the length of the airship, the green glow seemed to be bleeding out onto the ice. Surely the beast was dying.
He'd been a fool to think he could help. Perhaps he should just leave the medicines somewhere and slip away... .
A soft moan came from the shadows.
Alek stole closer to the sound, the air growing warm around him. His stomach twisted. This was living heat from the creature's body! Fighting nausea, he went a few steps nearer, trying not to look at the green lights crawling beneath the creature's skin.
A young airman lay in the darkness, curled against the beast's flank. His eyes were closed and his nose bloody.
Alek crouched beside him.
The airman was just a boy, with fine features and sandy hair. The collar of his flight suit was caked with blood, and his face looked deathly pale in the soft green light. He had to have been slumped here on the ice for the hours since the crash, the giant creature's warmth keeping him alive.
Alek opened one of the medical satchels, fishing through the bottles for smelling salts and rubbing alcohol.
He waved the salts under the boy's nose.
"Barking spiders!" the boy croaked in a high voice, his eyes fluttering open.
Alek frowned, wondering if he'd heard the words right.
"Are you well?" he ventured in English.
"A bit scrambled in the attic," the boy said, rubbing his head. He sat up slowly, taking in the scene around them, and his glassy eyes widened. "Blisters! We came down hard, didn't we? The poor beastie looks a bloody wreck."
"You're rather bloody yourself," Alek said, twisting open the bottle of rubbing alcohol. He dampened a bandage and held it against the boy's face.
"Ow! Stop that!" The boy pushed the bandage away and sat up straight, his gaze becoming clearer. He looked suspiciously at Alek's snowshoes. "Who are you, anyway?"
"I'm here to help. I live nearby."
"Up here? In all this barking snow?"
"Yes." Alek cleared his throat, wondering what to say. He'd always been hopeless at any sort of lying. "In a village, of sorts."
The boy narrowed his eyes. "Wait a wee minute - you talk like a Clanker!"
"Well ... I suppose I do. We speak a dialect of German in this part of Switzerland."
The boy stared at him another moment, then sighed and rubbed his head. "Right, you're Swiss. The crash must've knocked me silly. For a squick there I thought you were one of those bum-rags who shot us down."
Alek raised an eyebrow. "And then landed here so I could tend to your bloody nose?"
"I said it was a wee bit daft," the boy said, yanking the alcohol-soaked bandage from Alek's hand. He pressed it against his nose and winced. "But thanks for your trouble. It's lucky you came along, or my bum would've been frostbit to blazes!"
Alek raised an eyebrow, wondering if the boy always talked this way, or if he was still groggy from the crash. Even bloody and bruised, he had an odd sort of swagger, as if he crash-landed in giant airships every day.
"Yes," Alek said. "A frostbitten bum would've been unfortunate."
The boy smiled. "Give us a lift, would you?"
They grasped hands and pulled each other up, the other boy still unsteady. But when he gained his feet, he bowed triumphantly, pulled off a glove and held out his hand.
"Midshipman Dylan Sharp, at your service."
Deryn waited for the strange Swiss boy to shake her hand. After a moment's hesitation he finally reached out.
"My name's Alek," he said. "Pleased to meet you."
Deryn smiled, though her head was aching. The boy was about her age, with reddish-brown hair and sharp, handsome features. His leather coat had once been posh, but it was threadbare now. A twitchiness animated the boy's dark green eyes, as if he were ready to bound away on his ridiculous shoes.
All very odd, Deryn thought.
"Are you sure you're quite all right?" Alek asked. His English was dead proper, even with the Clanker accent.
"Right enough," Deryn said. She stamped feeling back into her feet, wondering when the dizziness was going to go away. Her attic had been scrambled, that was certain. She couldn't recall the exact moment of the crash, only the descent - the snow rising up, the airship rolling over, threatening to crush her if she didn't climb fast enough ...
Deryn glanced down at her safety line; it was stretched and frayed but still attached to the ratlines. She must have been dragged alongside as the airbeast skidded across the snow. If the ship had rolled over any farther, she'd have wound up a greasy squick beneath the whale.
"A wee bit dizzy, is all," she added, looking up at the bullet-holed membrane. The bitter-almond smell of leaking hydrogen filled her muzzy head. "Not half as bad as this beastie here."
"Yes, your ship looks terrible," Alek said. His eyes were wide, like he'd never seen a fabricated creature before. Maybe that explained his twitchiness. "Do you think you can fix it?"
Deryn stepped back for a better view of the wreck. Hardly anyone was working here on the starboard flank. But up on the spine men were silhouetted against searchlight beams reaching into the sky. The gondolas must have wound up on the other side of the wreck, so the repair work had started over there.
Deryn knew she should be helping them, and finding out what had happened to Newkirk and Mr. Rigby, but her hands felt too weak to climb. The cold had seeped into her bones while she'd lain unconscious.
"Eventually." Her eyes scanned the bleak terrain. "But I wouldn't fancy staying here very long! Maybe your people could help us?"
The boy's eyes widened a bit. "My village is quite far from here. And we don't know anything about airships."
"No, of course not. But this looks like a big job. We'll need lots of rope, maybe machine parts. The engines on this side must be smashed to blazes. You Swiss are good with gears, aren't you?"
"I'm afraid we can't help." Alek pulled a bunch of leather satchels from his shoulder. "But I can give you these. For your wounded men."
He handed the satchels to Deryn. She opened one and peered inside: bandages, scissors, a thermometer in a leather case, and a dozen tiny bottles. Whoever Alek's people were, they knew how to get proper supplies up the mountain.
"Thank you," she said. "But where did you get these?"
"I'm afraid I have to go." The boy took a step backward. "I'm expected home soon."
"Wait, Alek!" she cried, making him jump. Living up here, he probably wasn't used to strangers. But she couldn't let him wriggle away like this. "Just tell me where your village is."
"The other side of the glacier." He made a gesture toward the horizon, in no particular direction. "Quite far away."
Deryn wondered if he was hiding something. Of course, to live in a shivery wasteland like this, you'd have to be a bit cracked in the attic. Or were his people outlaws of some kind?
"Seems like an odd place to have a village," she said carefully.
"Well, it's not what you'd call a large village. Just me and ... my extended family."
Deryn nodded slowly, still smiling. So Alek was changing his story now. Was there a village or wasn't there?
He took another step backward. "Listen, I'm not really supposed to be this far from home. I just happened to be out hiking when I saw your ship come down."
"Out hiking?" Deryn said. "In all this barking snow? At night?"
"Yes. I often hike on the glacier at night."