Count Volger sighed. "Whenever Princess Sophie could participate in affairs of state, your father was happy."
Alek shut his eyes. It always pained Father when Sophie wasn't allowed to stand beside him at official receptions. More punishment for loving a woman who wasn't royal.
The thought of his parents dead was absurd. "This is a trick to keep me quiet. You're all lying!"
No one answered. The cabin resonated with the growl of Daimler engines and the scrape of branches against camouflage netting. Volger stood silent, his face thoughtful. The leather hand straps hanging from the ceiling swung in time with the walker's gait. Strangely, part of Alek's mind could focus only on Klopp's hands on the controls, marveling at his mastery of the machine.
"The Serbs wouldn't dare kill my parents," Alek said softly.
"I have other suspects in mind," Volger said flatly. "Those who want war among the great powers. But we have no time to theorize now, Aleksandar. Our first task is to get you to safety."
Alek stared out the walker's viewport again. Volger had addressed him as simply Aleksandar, without any title, as if he were a commoner. But somehow the insult had lost its power.
"Assassins struck twice in the morning," Volger said. "Serb schoolboys hardly older than you, first with bombs and then with pistols. Both times they failed. Then last night a feast was given in your father's honor, and he was toasted for his bravery. But poison took your parents in the night."
Alek imagined them lying dead beside each other, and the hollowness inside him grew. But the story didn't make sense at all. The assassins would have come for Alek himself - the half royal, the lady-in-waiting's son. Not his father, whose blood was pure.
"If they're really dead, why does anyone still care about me? I'm nothing now."
"Some might think differently." Count Volger crouched next to the command chair. He stared out the window alongside Alek, his voice dropping to a whisper. "Emperor Franz Joseph is eighty-three years old. If he dies soon, some might turn to you in these anxious times."
"He hated my mother more than any of them." Alek closed his eyes again. The red-tinged forest outside was too bleak to stare at anymore. A patch of uneven ground set the cabin shuddering, as if the world were unsteady in its path around the sun. "I just want to go home."
"Not until we can be sure it's safe, young master," said Otto Klopp. "We promised your father."
"What do promises matter if he's - "
"Silence!" Volger cried.
Aleksandar looked up at him in shock. He opened his mouth to protest, but the wildcount's hand clenched his shoulder.
"Cut the engines!"
Master Klopp wrenched the Stormwalker to a halt, cycling the Daimlers down to a low rumble. The hiss of pneumatics settled around them.
Alek's ears rang in the sudden quiet, his body shuddering with echoes of the walker's motion. Through the viewport the leaves were motionless, the air without a breath of wind. No birds sang, as if the forest had been startled into silence by the walker's abrupt halt.
Volger's eyes closed.
Then Alek felt it. The slightest shudder passed through the metal frame of the Stormwalker - the tread of something larger, heavier. Something that shook the earth.
Count Volger stood, opening the hatchway overhead. Dawn light spilled in as he pulled himself halfway out.
The shudder came again. Through the viewport Alek saw the tremor passing through the forest, leaves shivering in its wake. It unsettled the pit of his stomach, like an angry look from his father.
"Your Highness," Volger called, "if you would join me."
Alek stood and balanced on the commander's chair, hoisting himself up through the hatch.
Outside, his eyes squinted against the half-risen sun; dawn had turned the sky a deep orange around them. The Stormwalker stood a little taller than the young hornbeam trees, and the horizon seemed enormous after hours of peering through the viewport.
Volger pointed back the way they had come. "There are your enemies, Prince Aleksandar."
Alek squinted against the rising sun. The other machine was kilometers away, towering twice as tall as the trees. Her six huge legs moved unhurriedly, but men scurried like ants across the gun deck, raising signal flags and manning the turrets. Along her flank stretched the letters of her name: S.M.S. Beowulf.
Alek watched a massive foot plant itself upon the forest floor. Long seconds later another tremor arrived, rippling across the trees around them and up through the Stormwalker's metal frame. As the next step fell, a distant treetop flailed and then vanished, torn down by the giant walker's stride.
The red and black stripes of the Kaiser's Landforce Jack flew from her spar deck, whipping in the breeze.
"A German land dreadnought," Alek said softly. "But aren't we still in Austria-Hungary?"
"Yes," Volger said, "but all those who want chaos and war are hunting us, Your Highness. Or do you still doubt me?"
But what if it's a rescue mission? Alek thought. Maybe his kidnappers had been lying after all, and Father and Mother were still alive. A vast search for Alek had been launched, with the German land navy helping! Why else would this monstrosity be allowed on Austrian soil?
Then Alek saw that the machine was changing direction, slowly turning sideways across the sunrise... .
He held up his hand and waved. "Here! Over here!"
"They already see us, Your Highness," Count Volger said quietly.
Alek was still waving when the first broadside erupted, bright flashes rippling along the dreadnought's flank, puffs of cannon smoke swelling into a hazy veil around her. The sound followed moments later - a rolling thunder that broke into sharp, tearing bursts from every direction. The treetops churned around them, concussions shaking the Stormwalker and throwing clouds of leaves into the sky.
Then Volger was dragging him back down into the cabin, the engines roaring back to life.
"Load the cannon!" Master Klopp cried to the men below.
"THE S.M.S. BEOWULF."
Alek found himself deposited into the commander's chair as the machine began to move. He struggled with the seat straps, but a terrible thought took hold of his mind, freezing his fingers.
If they're trying to kill me ... it's all true.
Count Volger crouched beside him, yelling over the rumble of engines and gunfire. "Take heart at this impoliteness, Alek. It proves that you are still a threat to the throne."
The second broadside of cannon shells fell closer, a spray of gravel and wooden splinters rattling against the viewport's grill, the smaller pieces spilling through.
Alek spat dirt from his mouth.
"Vision to half!" Master Klopp cried, then cursed. The two crewmen were below, and Volger was halfway up through the hatch again, his legs dangling from the ceiling.
Klopp glanced apologetically at Alek. "If you please, Your Highness."
"Certainly, Master Klopp," Alek said. He unbuckled and pulled himself up from the commander's chair. The cabin rocked and swayed, and he grasped the straps overhead to keep his footing.
He tried to turn the viewport's crank, but it wouldn't budge. Taking it with both hands, Alek strained harder, until the massive armored visor grudgingly closed a few centimeters.
Another broadside shook the earth beneath them, and the walker staggered forward. Count Volger's riding boots flailed, kicking Alek in the back of the head.
"They can still see us!" Volger shouted from above. "We're too tall!"
Master Klopp twisted at the saunters, hunkering the Stormwalker lower. The hornbeam trees rose up in the viewport, the walker's clumsy gait sending Volger's boots swinging again. For an astonished moment Alek watched Klopp's hands on the controls - he'd never seen a walker shuffle along in a crouch like this.
Of course, he'd never imagined a Cyklop Stormwalker having to hide from anything. But against a dreadnought this walker was practically a toy.
Grunting and heaving, Alek managed to close the right viewport to half. He reached for the other crank.
"Young master, the antenna!" Klopp cried out.
"Yes, of course!" The Stormwalker's wireless antenna stretched up above the trees, the archducal flag snapping in the breeze. But Alek had no idea how to lower it. He looked around the cabin, wishing he'd paid more attention to the crewmen when learning how to pilot.
Finally he spotted a windlass beside the wireless set. As he darted for it, Volger's dangling boots delivered another blow to his shoulder. The windlass spun wildly the moment Alek unlocked it, the antenna telescoping closed a few centimeters from his ear.
He started back for the commander's seat, then saw that the left viewport was still open. He reached across the lurching cabin and began to crank it tighter.
Volger dropped back into the cabin, closing the hatch above him against a sudden rain of dirt and pebbles. "We're out of sight now."
Another broadside rumbled in the distance, followed by more explosions flickering among the trees ahead. Debris struck the Stormwalker, but the viewport's grills were squeezed as tight as a comb's teeth now; only the fine dust of pulverized forest floor filtered through.
Alek felt a moment of satisfaction - he'd done something useful. This was his first real battle, when only hours before, he'd been playing with tin soldiers. The rumble of explosions and the shriek of engines somehow filled the hollowness inside him.
The Stormwalker was thrashing through dense forest now. Of course - any cleared path would be clearly visible from the Beowulf's lookout towers.
Alek's heart was beating fast as he slipped back into the commander's chair and watched Klopp's hands on the saunters. His long hours of piloting practice seemed suddenly trifling. All that time in runabouts had been pretend-play, and this was real.
Volger crouched between the chairs to peer forward, his face blackened with dirt and sweat. Blood flowed from a scratch above one eye, shining bright red in the gloom of the shuttered cabin.
"I believe I suggested a smaller landship, Master Klopp."
Klopp barked a laugh, still struggling to keep the Stormwalker low to the ground. "Don't appreciate the extra armor, Volger? A runabout would've been blown off her feet by that last broadside."
The forest rumbled again, but the explosions came from well behind and off to the right. The dreadnought had lost sight of them for now.
"The sun was rising behind the Beowulf. So we're headed west," Alek said. "We should turn left. The pines and firs down in the south are much taller than these hornbeams."
"Well remembered, Your Highness," Master Klopp said, adjusting his course.
Alek clapped him on the shoulder. "You were right to choose a Stormwalker, Klopp. We'd be dead now, otherwise."
"We'd be halfway to Switzerland, you mean," Volger said, managing to sound as if this were some fencing lesson that Alek was failing to comprehend. "In a runabout half this size, or on horses, they wouldn't have spotted us in the first place."
Alek glared up at the wildcount, but before he could open his mouth, the intercom popped.
"Loaded and ready, sir."
Alek dropped his gaze toward the cabin floor. "Those two would have been more use up here. There's not much they can do with that peashooter against a dreadnought."
"True, Your Highness," Klopp said. "But she'll have escorts - smaller, faster ships moving below tree height. We may get a whiff of them sooner than you think."
"Ah, quite right." Alek closed his mouth and swallowed. The rush of battle was beginning to fade, and his hands were shaking.
All he'd done was turn a few cranks; the others had handled everything important. The bruises left by Volger's swinging boots still throbbed, reminders of how Alek had mostly managed to get in the way.
He leaned back into the commander's chair. As the simple, overwhelming fear of being shot at faded, the emptiness was rushing back... .
Alek wished that it were him bleeding instead of Volger - anything to distract himself from the truth welling up in his mind.
"She's lost our range," Klopp said. "No big guns for a count of thirty."
"They've turned to give chase," Volger said. "But wait till their scouts spot us. She'll swing around for another broadside soon enough."
Alek cast about for something to say, but found himself in the grip of a silent panic, his vision blurring with tears. The attack had swept away his last doubts.
His father was dead; his mother too. Both gone forever.
His Serene Highness, Prince Aleksandar of Hohen-berg, was alone now. He might never see his home again. The armed forces of two empires were hunting him, set against one walker and four men.
Volger and Klopp fell silent, and when Alek turned, he saw his despair reflected in their faces. He clenched the hand rests of the commander's chair, fighting to breathe.
His father would've known what to say in this situation: a short and forceful speech, praising the men for their efforts, urging them to carry on. But Alek could only stare into the forest, blinking away tears.
If he didn't say something, the emptiness would swallow him.
A burst of gunfire broke out in the trees ahead, cutting through the grind of the engines. The walker twisted to a new heading, and Count Volger jumped to his feet again.
"Horse scouts, I reckon!" Master Klopp said. "They have stables on the Beowulf."
A shower of bullets rattled against the Stormwalker's visor, louder than any spray of dirt and pebbles. Alek imagined metal projectiles ripping through the armor and cutting into him, and his heart began to race again.
The awful emptiness lifted a little... .
A huge boom shook the walker in its track, and a billow of smoke rose across the viewport, its choking stench spilling into the cabin. For a moment Alek thought they'd been hit, but then an explosion answered from the distance, followed by the crack of trees and the awful cries of horses.
"That was us!" he murmured. The men below had fired the Stormwalker's cannon.