Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 23

It was still only early afternoon, and that left us plenty of time to kill. We played chess for a couple of hours, and then to stretch our legs a bit I showed Alex around the rest of the passage system. He was impressed to discover how many passages and staircases there were, because, like me, he'd never seen anything from the 'normal' part of the house to suggest that these passages existed.

"If you know the second-floor passage exists and you look closely in the west wing, you can tell where it goes," I said. "But if you weren't looking for it, you'd never know."

We only went out into the house once, and that was at around six o'clock, when we swapped the empty coal-scuttle in the secret room for the full one in our third-floor HQ. On that occasion I did stick my head out into the corridor. There was no sound, but when I looked out of the window I could see that there were still soldiers outside the house, and they showed no signs of leaving any time soon.

"If I was the Russian boss I wouldn't leave just yet," said Alex when I pointed this out. "I'd give it until Saturday morning at least, and probably Saturday afternoon, because if he thinks Tim is working away from home, he'll expect him back by Saturday night at the latest. Since obviously nobody works on Sunday, that would seem logical."

"Of course, that's assuming it's Tim they're looking for," I said, as we went back into the passage. "If it's me you'd expect them to give up sooner – after all, if I'm not here I must be in London, and who knows how long I might stay there? In fact, I'd expect Allchorn to have told them that already in an attempt to get them to leave."

"It depends how good their spies are, I suppose," said Alex.

"You really think there are Russian spies around here?"

"Perhaps. We know we have spies in Russia, because you said that's how we found out about the meteors, remember? So if we have spies there I think we have to assume they have some here."

I wasn't convinced that a Russian spy would bother keeping track of a boy like me, but I supposed that if Pasha was paying him it was possible. I didn't like the idea of there being spies in this area, because the whole point of Tim staying with me was that he was supposed to be safer here than he would have been in France. I supposed it depended on whether or not Pasha had managed to identify him…

There was no point in speculating. Maybe if we succeeded in grabbing their officer we'd be able to ask him – if he spoke English, of course…If he didn't we were going to have a problem communicating with him at all. I'd just have to hope that the militia commander would be able to find an interpreter to send with the troops I'd summoned for the following morning.

"You've gone all quiet," said Alex (by now we were back in the secret room). "There's no point in worrying – let's just take it as it comes. Besides, you said earlier that you weren't worrying about grabbing their boss, and nothing's changed as far as that's concerned, has it?"

"I suppose not," I agreed.

"Good. Then let's have some fun. Get the cards out."

I'd learned by now that when Alex says 'Get the cards out' he only has one thing in mind, and at that moment I could think of no better way of taking my mind off what was going on elsewhere in the house. So I got the cards out of my bag.

"Pontoon," he suggested. "Cut for deal."

We did that and Alex won, so he started to shuffle the cards.

"Did you and Wolfie ever play cards in here?" he asked.

"No. We played a lot out in our room on the third floor, and sometimes that involved forfeits, stuff like going out onto the roof in our undies and stuff. We were too young then to think up the sort of forfeits we might now."

"Forfeits? You want to play for forfeits?" he said, grinning at me. "Oh, you're going to be sorry… I'm going to think up something special for you!"

"Can I just point out that you haven't won yet?" I said, picking up my first two cards and finding myself face to face with two kings.

"Stick!" I added. "Alex, you're in trouble – this time I won't have to hold back so as not to embarrass you in front of Billy."

"Like you've ever done that," he said, turning over a seven and an eight. "Twist. Damn, bust."

"How do you know? Oh, and don't forget to take something off before you deal again."

The game was fun, and it was almost like being back in Alex's world, in that we were free to insult each other without having to worry about what anyone else thought. Actually it was better, because apart from that one occasion in the tent just before we'd switched worlds we'd never played strip games with just the two of us, and we'd never played for forfeits at all. So as the game went on we went on insulting each other happily, and since the game was very even we were able to go on doing it for quite a while.

Finally I lost my underwear. This worried me a lot less than it had the first time this had happened, and even getting an erection as I removed my shorts didn't fluster me too much.

"Aha!" commented Alex. "Definite signs of progress there – you've got some proper hair at last. Not a lot, but some. If I was feeling nasty, my first forfeit for you would be making you shave it all off, but I suppose that since it took you so long to grow it, maybe that would be a bit unkind. And there's more of you, too. How long is it now?"

"About four and a half inches," I said. "It's still pretty pathetic for fifteen, but it's an inch longer than it was six months ago, so I suppose I shouldn't complain too much."

Alex lost the next two hands, and that cost him his underwear. He was definitely growing, too.

"I've reached the magic six inches," he told me when I asked. "Billy was suitably impressed, so I hope you are, too. Mind you, I think Billy will end up bigger than me, because he's already up to around five and a quarter, and he was only fourteen last month. And he still hasn't got any proper hair, either, so he's barely into puberty. He's going to be seriously big, I think. Okay, so now we're playing for forfeits…"

I lost the next hand.

"Actually, I think we might start with some Truth or Dare," he said. "Except you don't get to choose. So, truth: are you really happy here, or would you rather be back in Palmers Green?"

"Well, right at this moment that's a difficult question. But, assuming we get rid of our visitors, I'd have to say here, because here I've got money and a really good place to live, and I've still got my closest friend from when I lived there. And I've got my own æthership, too. I miss Auntie Megan and Uncle Jim, but otherwise it's no contest."

"Don't you miss the internet and being able to chat to people whenever you want?"

"Not really. Yes, it was fun sometimes, but it did waste a lot of time. It would be nice if we had telephones here, but I can probably survive without Messenger or Facebook. What about you?"

"Hey, you don't get to ask me until I lose a hand… but, okay, I don't mind answering. It's probably harder for me because I've got a family, and I really miss them. And I had other friends as well, and of course I'm not mega-rich here, the way you are. But then I wasn't mega-rich there either…"

"You will be rich here eventually," I pointed out. "Your name is on the patents we took out along with mine, so when electricity takes off you'll probably be rich enough to build your own æthership if you want."

"I thought that money was supposed to go into orphanages and homeless shelters?"

"My part of it is. I can't see why you shouldn't get something out of it, though."

"To be honest, I'm happy the way I am," he said. "I might turn weird if I suddenly had a load of money."

"What do you mean, 'turn' weird?"

He grinned at me and dealt once more, and this time he dealt me a royal pontoon.

"I've already asked my question," I said. "Deal again."

"No, that didn't really count," he said. "If we're still on truth, you can ask me something else."

I put my cards down and looked at him.

"Okay, then: truth," I said. "Do you hate Wolfie?"

"Why would you think I might?"

"It's what you said this morning, about how you'd have liked it if it could have been you and me. Well, if Wolfie wasn't around it might be – actually, it probably would be. So you've got reason enough to hate him, haven't you?"

He put the cards on the table, got up and walked over to the cushions.

"Come and lie down," he said. "If we're going to have this conversation, we might as well be comfortable."

So I went and joined him, and he pulled a blanket over us and rolled onto his side facing me.

"I liked you almost as soon as I met you," he began. "Obviously back then it was nothing to do with sex – I didn't even understand sex when I was eleven. It was just that I liked your personality, the way you never gave up on stuff, the way you always stuck with me – like that time when I broke that window in the cloakroom and you insisted on coming with me to the head's office to tell him that you pushed me into the window, even though nobody saw you do it – and the way you were always there if I needed someone to talk to.

"Then about eighteen months ago I started looking at you and thinking that you weren't just a good mate, but you were cute too. And then, a bit later, I started fantasising about you – you know what I mean…"

"Why didn't you tell me?" I interrupted.

"Why do you think? You'd never shown any sign of wanting to do anything physical with me, so I had no reason to think you were gay. And there was absolutely no way I was going to risk saying anything, not when the likelihood was that you'd be disgusted by it and would tell me to fuck off and never speak to you again. I'm sure I'm not the first gay boy to fall in love with his best friend, but I sure as hell knew I could never tell you. The most I ever dared do was to make the odd jokey comment about how cute you were and hope that you might just respond positively. It was only when we were in the tent last summer that I decided to risk trying it on a bit…"

"Why then?" I asked. "If not before, then why then? What changed?"

"Because I'd just done something incredibly stupid, but instead of leaving me to stew you stuck by me, and even offered to come and keep me company when I ran. And I thought that if you were prepared to go that far for me, then maybe you might even be prepared to forgive me if I made a pass at you and you didn't want that sort of relationship. Besides, we were on our own, a long way from home, and I thought that even if you took it badly I might still have a chance to put it right before you went back to London.

"And when you didn't take it badly at all, I really thought that maybe I was going to get my wish. Of course it would have served me right if I'd been dragged off to prison straight afterwards, but even if that had happened I thought you'd still stand by me and wait for me…"

"Obviously I would have," I said.

"I know. Then we fell through the hole, and you know how freaked I was about that to start with. The one thing that kept me going was having you with me and knowing that we'd be able to do stuff together in the future. And then I saw Wolfie and the way he reacted to you, and I knew straight away that it wasn't going to work out after all. So – do I hate him? I wanted to, particularly at the beginning. I'd just had a dream come true, and then, only a day later, suddenly this German aristocrat had snatched it away from me.

"But I understood where he was coming from – after all, if you'd suddenly disappeared from my life I'd have been as miserable as sin for months afterwards, and he'd had to put up with you being gone for four years. And it was obvious from his whole behaviour that he really cared about you. Plus, of course, you and he had been friends far longer than you and me. So, no, I don't hate him. Actually, I like him, and he obviously makes you happy – and anything that makes you happy is fine by me. Obviously if something happened to him I'd hope to be able to pick up the pieces with you, but equally obviously you'd be shattered if he wasn't around. Yes, I suppose I'm a bit jealous, but I can live with it. Like I said this morning, the important thing is that we're still mates."

"I love him," I said. "But that doesn't mean I can't love you too. In your world there seems to be this stupid idea that you can only love one person at a time, like love is a gold ring that you can only give to one person. But it's not like that at all - love isn't a piddly little thing like a ring: it's more like a great big bucket of liquid gold, which you can give to loads of people at the same time. I told you that first day when we were on our way to Devizes that I loved you, and it's never stopped being true, even after I found out about Wolfie, or after I remembered who he was. I still love you, Alex."

He hugged me, and I hugged him back, and for several minutes we just lay quietly.

"What do you think about sex?" he asked.

"You're asking the wrong person," I said. "Talk to Albie – he's our resident sex expert!"

"No, I mean do you think it's okay to have sex with more than one person?"

"Well, I'm not really in favour of sex for money," I said. "Although maybe if I'd been in Albie's position… no, I don't think I could have done that even then. I think sex is supposed to be a part of loving someone – it's meant to be a way of sharing yourself with someone you really like a lot and making them feel good. But, like I said, I'm no expert: the only people I've ever done anything with are you, Wolfie and Sparrer – oh, and Albie, I suppose, but that was just when he came to teach me and Wolfie how to do oral sex. And I haven't done anything with Sparrer since Joe got here, so these days it's just you and Wolfie."

"You haven't done anything with me for quite a long time either," he pointed out.

"Well, that's just because we haven't really had an opportunity."

"But what if we did - I mean, would Wolfie mind?"

"I don't think so. I've already told him that you and I have done stuff in the past, and he knows about Sparrer, too. I don't think it's a big issue for him."

"Well, then… we've still got quite a lot of time to kill…"

"So we have," I agreed, smiling at him.

We took it very slowly and gently, stopping every now and again to rest or to have something to eat and drink. Eventually we put Albie's lesson into practice, although we decided to do it in turn rather than simultaneously. I discovered that Alex had developed a brilliant technique, because it felt as good to me as it had when Albie had done it to me, except that this was better because Alex actually finished me off.

"You're definitely growing," he assured me afterwards. "There was quite a lot there – certainly enough to taste."

"Bet you've got more, though," I said. "Let's find out."

"You can wait for a bit if you want," he assured me.

"No, I want to do it now, while you're still properly in the mood," I said, and I set to work. He was too big for me to be able to get all of it in my mouth, but I did my best, and it didn't take long before he got there, either. And, yes, I'm sure he had more than me – a lot more, in fact, although I did manage to deal with it without choking. I wriggled up to lie alongside him, and he kissed me gently.

"Thanks," he said. "At least if everything goes wrong tonight and I get killed I've had an amazing last evening."

"You don't really think that could happen, do you?"

"Well, it is going to be dangerous. Suppose he sleeps with a pistol under his pillow, for instance. If you have to shoot him, Leo, do you think you'll be able to?"

I thought about it. Obviously I'd never killed anyone – at least, not face to face: I suppose I'd been responsible for the deaths of some of the Russians whose ship we had shot down over Stonehenge. But then they'd attacked us – and, anyway, it might have been the French ship that fired the fatal rocket. But face to face?

"I don't know," I admitted. "But if it comes down to him or me – or him or you – then I'm fairly sure I can. And it's not just you and me, but everyone else in the house, so yes, I can do this."

"Okay. We probably ought to be all right anyway – he'll be asleep, and he won't be expecting us to suddenly pop up right in the room… I think we can do this."

"Yes, we can," I agreed. "We're a team, remember?"

Just before sunset we went back to the third floor room and checked that there were still guards outside the house, and there were, so it looked as if our speculation was correct, and the Russians were going to wait until Saturday morning at least. We didn't take the risk of going outside the room: instead we went back down to the secret room and played some more chess. By now we had some empty bottles to pee in, so we didn't need to leave the room again.

At around ten Alex set his wrist alarm for five o'clock and we settled down to sleep. It took me a while to go to sleep – it was hard not to keep thinking about everything that might go wrong the following morning – but eventually I was able to let it go.

When the alarm went off we got up and put our clothes on, tidied the room a bit and put everything we weren't going to need in our bags. I took nothing with me except for my pistol, which I put into the pocket of my jacket, my flashlight and the skewer, while Alex brought only his knife. I used the lever to open the lower exit, the one that led to the first-floor passage, and we left the room, closed the panel behind us, and walked quietly along to the panel that led into the ducal bedroom. I opened it with the skewer, took my pistol from my pocket and stepped out into the wardrobe, which was completely empty apart from a number of hangers.

"Ready?" I whispered, and Alex nodded.

I put my hand over the end of the torch to prevent it from shining too brightly, opened the wardrobe door and stepped silently out into the bedroom. I tiptoed over to the bed…

…and found it unoccupied: there was nothing over it except for a dust-sheet, and the room still smelled dusty, musty and abandoned, as it had when I saw it on the day of our arrival back in the summer.

"He's not here," whispered Alex. "Now what?"

"Maybe he decided against it when he found out it was dusty and unaired," I whispered back. "So it's just a question of which room he chose instead. If we're lucky, he picked my room. If not, he's in the room my uncle used to use, and if he's in that one, we're screwed, because there's no passage into it. We'd have to go along the corridor, and I bet he's got patrols or guards outside his room. Let's have a look at my room. Maybe we'll be lucky."

I led him back through the wardrobe and up the stairs to the second floor, opening the panel that led back into my own room and creeping out through the wardrobe. And this time the muffled light from my torch revealed a hummock in my bed. I tiptoed across the floor until I was right next to the bed, and then I drew my gun and shone the torch full onto the face of the sleeper.

"Well, well," I said aloud, adding in German, "who's been sleeping in my bed?"

He stirred and opened his eyes, squinting against the light, which I obligingly shone away from his face.

"Leo de Courtenay!" he said, staring at me.

"Pavel Mikhailovich Romanov," I replied. "Hi, Pasha – how have you been?"

"Not bad," he replied. "It would seem that I've underestimated you yet again, though – how did you get past the guards?"

"Why did you come yourself?" I countered. "I don't care how confident you were - surely it's a hell of …"

There was a noise from near the door and I saw something move. Alex saw it too and ran around to the far side of the bed, where he found the older of the two Cossack boys I'd met in Norway, who had been asleep on a mattress in front of the door and who was now waking up fast. I rammed the gun into Pasha's armpit.

"Keep still," I said. "If my man wins you've got nothing to worry about, but if yours does, you might lose an arm here. That's sneaky, though, parking a servant across the door. I once threatened my own personal attendant with making him do that, but then I told him that nobody actually does it any more. Clearly I was wrong."

The Cossack boy hadn't managed to disentangle himself from his blanket and stand up yet, so Alex had a big advantage and he didn't waste it, punching the boy's jaw as hard as he could. The boy amazingly didn't go down, so Alex hit him again, and this time the boy went over, his head striking the floorboards. Alex nudged him with his toe, but the boy didn't move.

"Come on," I said to Pasha, dragging him out of bed.

"Come on where?" he asked. "You don't think you can just walk out of here, surely? Why don't you just surrender now?"

"I don't think so. Come on."

"Can't I get dressed first?" He was only wearing a nightshirt.

"No, I don't think I really want to wait while someone comes to investigate the noise. Move."

"You won't shoot me," he said, confidently. "You don't have the balls."

"Maybe not," I agreed. "But Alex will."

I handed the gun to Alex, and he pressed the barrel back into Pasha's armpit and shoved him towards the wardrobe.

"Oh, now who's being sneaky?" commented Pasha when he saw the open panel in the back of the wardrobe.

"Serves you right for not being prepared to sleep with your men," I replied. "Go on, move."

With some difficulty Alex got Pasha through into the passage and I followed and started to push the panel closed once more. But before I got it all the way back it hit something, and then it was pushed back towards me, and I could see the Cossack boy glaring at me through the widening gap.

"You didn't hit him hard enough," I said to Alex. "Get him down the stairs, but pass me the gun first."

He managed to hand the weapon over to me and I passed him the flashlight in exchange and then waved the gun at the Cossack, but he made no attempt to stop pushing.

"He knows the shot would rouse the house," Pasha pointed out.

"So what? Once he's dead we'll be away before they find the passage."

"Not if he's blocking the door," said Pasha, and he added something else in Russian, at which the Cossack boy pushed the panel open and then lay down, half in and half out of the passage. And I thought Pasha was right: the Cossack was bigger and heavier than I was, and it would take time to shift his dead weight away from the door. And by then the guards from outside the room would have heard the shot and would be on top of me.

"Keep going," I said to Alex. "The moment he's clear of the door I can shoot him and close it, so he can't risk moving while I'm standing here with the gun. Besides, I can find my way through the passages in the dark. He won't be able to."

Alex forced Pasha down the stairs, but of course now I had another problem: as the light of the torch faded I couldn't see properly any longer, and once the light had gone completely the Cossack might be able to jump me in the dark. So I abandoned the panel and began to back away down the stairs. I couldn't hear anyone following me, so I turned and groped my way down until I caught up with Alex and Pasha just as they reached the foot of the stairs.

I used the skewer to open the passage into the escape tunnel, but now there was a flickering light further up the stairs: the Cossack had apparently improvised a torch out of something and was coming after us again, and once again he caught up with us before I could close the panel. This time I was inclined to shoot him, but I could hear shouting in the distance, which suggested that there were more Russians on the way – I supposed he'd opened the bedroom door and yelled for help before making his torch and following us. Once again he lay down in the doorway, and once again I decided that it would take too long to shoot him, move the body and close the panel again, because the shouts were getting louder.

Alex had frog-marched Pasha into the tunnel, and so I backed away after them. Once again the Cossack didn't dare leave the doorway, but I couldn't just stand there and wait for the rest of the Russians to arrive, and so I turned and followed Alex and then helped him to hustle Pasha along the tunnel.

We'd managed to get a hundred yards or so when the Cossack appeared at the point where the tunnel straightened out, and he was calling to someone over his shoulder. There were flickering lights behind him, so he wasn't bluffing. We dragged Pasha a bit further, and then the Cossack started to run towards us. I didn't really want to kill him, but I couldn't see any other way of discouraging him, so I fired in his general direction, but the shot missed and he simply kept coming. And now I could see other figures entering the tunnel behind him.

"Pull the lever," suggested Alex, who had just reached the alcove.

"But we still don't know what it does!" I protested.

"So what? Even if you kill that kid, all the others are on the way and you don't have enough bullets. They'll be all over us in a minute. And if half of what you told us about this one is true, he won't order them to stop either, no matter how much we threaten him. And if we do shoot him, we're fucked, and everyone else in the house will be, too. I reckon it'll drop a door between us and them, so pull the fucking lever!"

It made sense. I grabbed the lever, squeezed the handle and pulled it towards me. For a moment it didn't move, and then it came free with a jerk. There was a muffled bang, and then the tunnel behind us simply collapsed.

When the ground finally stopped shaking there was quiet for a moment, and then a shriek of pain. We couldn't see too much because of the dust in the air, but suddenly Pasha broke free from Alex's grip and ran in the direction of the rock-fall.

I was fairly sure that the tunnel was completely blocked, but we ran after him all the same, and caught up with him at the point where the rubble started.

The Cossack boy had almost made it: his top half was clear of the debris, but his legs were buried. Pasha was on his knees scrabbling away at the earth and stones, trying to dig the boy out. The boy was still conscious but he wasn't moving much.

I hesitated. There was clearly no way for the rest of the pursuers to get near us now, and even if they found some digging equipment it would take ages to dig their way down to us from the surface. So I dropped to my knees beside Pasha and started to help him.

"Leo, what are you doing?" demanded Alex. "We've got to get out of here!"

"We can't just leave him," I said.

"Yes, we bloody well can!"

"No, we can't. He's seriously brave – three or four times he risked me shooting him, but he still kept coming. He doesn't deserve to die alone in the dark."

Alex swore in Greek, but he dropped to his knees and started to help us. It didn't take too long to clear the debris above the boy's knees, but below there was a great slab of stone across his legs, and at first we couldn't shift it. By now I was starting to think we ought to go – after all, whoever was in charge back at the house might start thinking and if he did that he'd realise that the best thing to do would be to try to find the other end of the tunnel. But then I thought we should at least give it a couple more minutes – if we could move the stone the boy might survive.

"Pasha," I said, "Alex and I will try moving the stone. You try pulling him out from under it. And don't think about running off – there's a locked door at the end of the tunnel."

"You think I would run in these circumstances?"

"Maybe not. Grab his arms."

We'd managed to clear one end of the stone, and so Alex and I grabbed a corner each and heaved. It moved a little, so we dug it out a little more and heaved again, and this time it moved.

"Now, Pasha!" I shouted, and he pulled. The Cossack screamed, but Pasha kept pulling until his feet were out from under the rock and we were able to drop it. I picked up the torch and shone it at the boy's legs. The right one appeared to be intact, but the left was a mess, with a clear break and blood on the leg of his trousers.

"We need a splint," I said, looking around. The only thing I could see was the remains of the Cossack's improvised torch, which appeared to be a wooden coat-hanger from my wardrobe with a shirt or something wrapped around one end. It wasn't really big enough or thick enough, but there was nothing else.

I got rid of the burnt cloth and placed the hanger against the boy's leg.

"We need something to tie it on with," I said.

"Cut a bit off his night-shirt," suggested Alex, jerking his head towards Pasha and drawing his knife.

I nodded and explained to Pasha what we needed, and he didn't argue, even though it was the only thing he had on. Alex cut some wide swathes of material off and we used them, first to tie the splint to the boy's left leg, and then to tie his legs together.

"Pasha, I need you to carry his feet," I said. "Don't touch his left foot – just support his right one. Alex will take his shoulders."

I picked up the torch and led the way, drawing my revolver again when we reached the ice-house, just in case there were Russians waiting. But the ice-house was empty, and so – as far as I could tell – were the surrounding woods. I didn't know how long they would stay that way, but for now it seemed safe enough. We carried the Cossack to the boathouse – by now I was walking immediately behind Pasha with my pistol pointing at him, and I'd threatened to shoot him in the arse if he tried anything – and once we got there we carried the boy onto Lady Renée Ocuto and set him down on the deck next to the oak cupboard we'd bought the previous afternoon.

My original plan had been to walk out, because I was fairly sure that if we'd been able to get the enemy officer out of the house unseen we'd also be able to get around the edge of the Long Meadow before the sun rose. But the delay in the tunnel had scuppered that idea, because it was already getting lighter, and also because by now the house and the area around it would be like a hornets' nest.

"Question," I said to Pasha. "Have you still got guards on the railway bridge?"

"No."

"I'd love to believe you… let's put it this way: if there are guards there and they challenge us, you'll talk our way past them. If you don't, your Cossack goes overboard and I'll shoot your balls off, understand? I'd like you alive and intact, but alive and bollock-less would do."

"There are no guards," he said again.

"Good. Alex, tie him up."

We used some more of his night-shirt to tie his hands and feet, and for good measure we also tied him to the bench in the wheelhouse.

"Get the fire going," I said to Alex. "This time I am going to risk making a start without the engine, because I'd be surprised if they aren't scouring the woods in a lot less than half an hour. But we'll need it before too long."

He disappeared below deck, and I opened the river door, untied the lines and pulled the ramp aboard. Alex reappeared three or four minutes later to say that the boiler was lit, and then between us we used a pair of boathooks to pull and push the boat out into the river, using the landing-stage, the Lady Caroline and finally the doorway, until the current took us. Alex went back below to tend the boiler, and I went and sat in the wheelhouse with Pasha, because there wasn't a lot else I could do until we had steam.

"Where are we going?" he asked.

"I've arranged for some militia to meet us," I said. "They'll look after him," and I indicated the Cossack boy. "What's his name?"

"Dmitri Igorovich Krasnov," he told me.

"Okay. We'll make sure he gets to hospital straight away. As for you… you're going to come with us back to the house, where you're going to persuade your comrades to surrender."

"I don't think so! They've got a house full of hostages – why should they surrender?"

"Because we've got you, and I imagine that if they go home without you they'd be in deep, deep shit."

"So they've got nothing to lose. They might just as well kill the hostages and then shoot it out with you."

"Good point," I said. Of course, I'd already realised this, but it was worth making him feel he'd scored a point. "Then maybe we could tell them that if they come quietly we'll send you back home."

"Would you? Because I don't think they'd believe that."

I looked at him. "Why are you here?" I asked.

"You know why I'm here."

"Indulge me."

He sighed. "I know who you are," he said. "I know who the Margrave is. And I know who the other kid was, too. I'm not interested in you or the Margrave, but Duvallier is another matter. If he's carrying on with his father's work – and we think he is – we can't leave him here. We want him helping us. We can make it worth his while, or if he's stupid and comes over all noble, we can force him. He knows that: he's already seen me in action, remember? We're here to take him back with us."

"You won't get him," I said. "I warned him yesterday not to come home. He's in militia HQ in Oxford, and he's staying there until you've gone home."

"Ah. Apparently we slipped up somewhere, then."

"Not really. I just managed to hide in the secret passages before you could grab me. Look, Pasha… actually I suppose I ought to call you Pavel Mikhailovitch, since we're not really friends…"

"No, Pasha is fine," he said. "We might not be friends, but boys of our age would generally use diminutives with each other. And we'll be here all day if you keep having to say 'Pavel Mikhailovitch', won't we?"

"Okay. Look, the point is that the only thing that interests me at the moment is getting my household back unharmed. So here's the deal: you agree to take your men and fly back home, and as long as nobody in the house has been hurt, we won't stop you. Does that sound fair?"

He stared at me. "Do you know what sort of a ransom you could get for me?" he asked.

"I don't care about a ransom. I care about my people. So, deal?"

"Well… there is a problem with that. When we took over yesterday morning, one of your servants tried to run. We couldn't afford to have the alarm raised, and so one of my men shot him. I'm sorry, but we didn't have any choice. But if you'll settle for everyone else, then I suppose we have the basis for an agreement."

I thought about that. I was sorry to hear that someone had died, but being awkward now wouldn't bring him back, and really all I wanted was to make sure none of my other people got hurt.

"Well, I suppose you're going to have to leave Dmitri behind," I said. "True, he won't be dead, but you'll have to manage in future without him anyway. I'd be prepared to call that quits."

"I'd be sorry to lose him… but you're right, he does need a hospital. So how are we going to play this?"

"We'll meet up with my militia, we'll get Dmitri to hospital, and then you'll come back with us. We'll wait outside, probably in one of the bushier bits of the garden, just in case your colleagues have any clever ideas about snipers. You call out your Number Two, explain the deal, and then your guys lay down their arms and come on out. We'll be checking to make sure that you don't try to sneak out any of the hostages in Russian uniforms, too. We'll escort you to your ship, you and I will shake hands and you'll fly away."

"I don't like the bit about my people having to come out of the house with no weapons and no hostages," he said. "How do I know you won't just shoot them, or take them all prisoner?"

"Because I'm giving you my word."

He looked at me. "All right," he said, "let's say I accept that. How do I know your militia commander won't do what he thinks is right?"

"For the same reason that no Russian militia commander, not even if he were four times your age, would disobey you. The only people in this country who have the power to countermand my orders are about a dozen dukes who are before me in the order of precedence, and the royal family. Everyone else will do what I tell them to."

"I still don't like it;"

"Pasha, it's the best you're going to get. You don't get Duvallier, but you do get to go home, with all your people. The alternative is going to be a shoot-out which will leave me with no household and you with no troops. And I promise you this: if any more members of my household get hurt, you really will be going home with no balls."

His nightshirt had been severely shortened by the need for ties of one sort or another, and it was now barely a third of the way down his thighs, and so I emphasised my point by lifting the front of it with the barrel of my gun.

"You cheeky bastard!" I commented. "How did you have the gall to make fun of my development when you look like that?"

"You're a year and a half older than me," he retorted. "I'm not fourteen yet, and a lot of thirteen-year-olds haven't reached puberty. I bet you hadn't when you were thirteen."

"That's true," I admitted, letting his shirt drop once more. "Actually I think I was smaller than you are now. But it was still a bit of a cheek."

"Sorry," he said. "But maybe next time I've got hold of you I really will burn your pubes off, and then we'll see who laughs at whom."

"You're not going to get the chance," I said. "Once you've gone this time I really hope we never meet again. So, back to the deal: what do you say?"

"We go up to the house with your soldiers, I order my men to put down their guns and come out of the house, you check that there aren't any hostages among them, you escort us to our ship and you let us fly away. Is that it?"

"That's it."

"Then… you have a deal," he said. "I'm trusting you here, de Courtenay."

"I never break my word," I told him. "You do your part and I'll stick to my end of the deal. And if I'm going to call you Pasha, I think you can call me Leo."

By now the current had turned us around so that we were drifting down the river sideways on. I wasn't too worried: we were still in the centre of the river, well away from the banks, and I thought it unlikely that there would be any traffic heading up river quite this early. But the railway bridge was looming up, and so I lifted Pasha's nightshirt once more and put the barrel of the gun against his small testicles. I was a little surprised to see that the only thing that happened was that he started to get an erection. Otherwise he never even flinched, and nor did he say anything.

"Remember what I said," I reminded him. "If there are any guards here, you tell them that Dmitri had an accident and we're taking him to get treatment. They'll be able to see him on the deck, so maybe they'll believe it."

"I told you, there aren't any guards," he said. "And would you mind taking your finger off the trigger? It would be a pity if you spoiled the moment by shooting prematurely."

I was amazed that he could make jokes – especially that kind of joke – in this position, but didn't want an accident, so I moved my finger outside the trigger guard.

We drifted under the bridge unchallenged.

"Believe me now?" he asked.

"All right, don't get cocky," I said. "I wonder if I fired a bullet right across the base of your penis if the scarring would prevent you growing any hair there?"

"I don't think you'd do that. You're neither cruel enough nor ruthless enough."

"You're probably right – I wouldn't do it. But only because I don't want to fire the gun and wake everyone up."

There was a ping from the telegraph, which had swung over to Engine Ready, so I stood up, pushed the telegraph to Half Speed and spun the wheel to get us facing downstream once more. Then I set it to Full Speed, and we started to make some proper progress. I turned us into our private cut, taking us past the swimming point and on to the far end of the cut, where I turned downstream once more. When we reached the wharf in Culham Village we moored the boat, knocked on the first door we came to and sent the person who answered it to tell the village squire that there was an injured boy on our boat, and that I would be grateful if he could arrange for the boy to be taken to hospital in Oxford. Then we walked on to the school where I found my militia ready and waiting.

The next part of the operation went smoothly: we borrowed a jacket for Pasha – it wasn't particularly warm out this early and he was shivering a bit, though he hadn't complained – and then we all went up to the house, flying a flag of truce..

"Have you got a Russian speaker?" I asked the militia captain, and I was pleased to find that they had found someone: a bespectacled lieutenant came to our side.

"Give them a shout," I said to Pasha, and he called out for someone called Captain Markov. This individual emerged from the house and Pasha told him what we had agreed. Not surprisingly the captain was unenthusiastic, but Pasha insisted, sending him back into the house to make the arrangements. I sent a couple of soldiers round to the back of the house to make sure they didn't try anything, and then we waited.

"How many soldiers are there in there?" I asked.

"Forty," Pasha told me. "And there are ten more back at the ship, as well as the normal crew. Look, can I send a runner to warn them to get the boilers alight? The sooner we have steam, the sooner we can leave you in peace."

I wasn't sure about that.

"Yes, there are weapons on the ship," he admitted, when I hesitated. "But when we get there you'll be the ones with hostages, so the crew won't try anything."

That made sense, so when the first soldier emerged from the house I allowed Pasha to send him straight to the ship to get the boilers lit. Our lieutenant confirmed that Pasha had told him not to do anything except light the boilers, so it looked as if he was playing it straight.

The rest of the soldiers came out, and we counted them and I personally checked that there were none of my people among them. And when I had forty I sent ten of my militia into the house to look for explosives – I thought that anything was possible – while the rest of us escorted the Russians across the Upper Field, over the fence onto Lord Brookhampton's land and finally down to a meadow close to the river, in the centre of which was what appeared to be a French æthership. It looked absolutely genuine, from the bees and eagles on its nose to the tricolour and the name André Masséna below it, although when you got close enough you could see that it was a well-fitted canvas.

"I take it that's actually Alexander Suvorov?" I asked, and Pasha nodded.

"Nice job," I congratulated him. "I take it too that you worked out that your gondolas are a bit of a give-away?"

He nodded again. "Hence a First Marshal class French ship," he said. "Those mostly have waist gondolas. Of course, I'll have my new ship ready soon, and then we won't need to fanny about pretending to be French."

We stood to one side and watched as his men went on board, though I made sure that Pasha himself was going nowhere just yet, because of course now we were the ones in the open, and it was entirely possible that the Russian soldiers were currently rearming themselves. Finally one of the bridge crew stepped out of the door and called something to Pasha.

"We have steam," translated our interpreter.

"Now you have to trust me," said Pasha. "You kept your word by letting my men get here unharmed. Now you have to trust me to keep mine and fly away without attacking you."

I looked at him and he offered me his hand, and after a moment I took it.

"Remember, I did exactly what you told me to," he said, and turned and walked briskly to the bridge. When he got there he shouted, "Could you please release the nose cable?"

His men had now released the other mooring cables and were scrambling aboard, so I sent Alex to the tree to which the remaining cable was tethered and asked him to untie it. He gave it a tug and the cable came free, and the ship began to rise. I watched it, wondering what exactly Pasha's parting remark had been about: I knew he'd done what I told him to, so why mention it?

We watched the ship rise almost vertically and I wondered why the engines were still barely turning the propellers. Perhaps he didn't have enough steam yet? But then I shrugged: we'd come out of it unharmed – or almost: I turned to head back towards the house to find out who the unfortunate victim of the shooting had been.

I'd gone about twenty paces when one of the militiamen shouted "Look!" and pointed at the ship, which had finally turned and was starting to move away. I didn't see it at first, but then a jumpshade opened and a figure began to float down towards us.

"What the hell?" said Alex. "Is it a defector?"

"I don't think they have defectors in this war," I said. "Besides, if someone wanted to swap sides he could just have stayed behind at the house when the others left."

"He doesn't look very big," commented the militiaman who had first spotted the jumper.

He was right, and the jumper seemed to be having trouble controlling the shade, too, because the breeze was carrying him away from us, further into Lord Brookhampton's fields. We followed, catching up shortly after he landed. Two of the militiamen got there first and helped to remove the shade and assist the figure to its feet, and as I got there myself he turned to face me and I saw that it was Roger the stable lad.

"I'm really, really sorry, Your Grace," he said. "He said as how I should give you this," and he handed me a folded piece of parchment.

'Leo,' I read, and it continued in German. 'I want to remind you again that I kept my word to the letter, but I'm afraid I have the Margrave. He and his companion rode straight into us on Thursday evening, and it was easier to keep them here at the ship. So here's the deal: you bring me Duvallier, and I'll exchange him for the Margrave. I'll give you a week. After that… well, I understand that Wolfgang-Christian is an orphan, and you know exactly what that means. So don't keep me waiting, or I'll start amusing myself with him.

'We'll be at my place on the Black Sea, near Feodosia. Ask for me there – anyone will show you the way. Just don't be late!

'Pavel Mikhailovitch Romanov.

'PS Thank you for looking after Dmitri. Originally I'd intended pushing this one out of the ship without wasting a shade on him, but one good turn… Consider us quits!

'Pasha.'

I stared at Alex. "He's beaten us," I said. "The bastard's got Wolfie."

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