Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 26

The first job we had to do the following morning was getting our false flag in position, and it was a hell of a performance, because you can imagine how big that canvas was. We carried it and put it on the ground in front of the ship's nose and then began to open it out, and it wasn't too long before we got a substantial surprise: I'd been expecting a black eagle, but the first colour we exposed was blue.

"What the hell's this?" I asked, but nobody knew, so we kept unfolding and unfolding until we found ourselves looking at a vast blue, yellow and red tricolour, in the centre of which was a pale blue shield that held a gold eagle.

"He's sent us the wrong flag!" I said.

"No, he hasn't," said Lieutenant Beeching. "Actually he's been quite clever. This is the flag of Romania. The Romanians are allied to the Russians but they're not part of the Russian Empire, and it wouldn't be too surprising to see Romanian ships above the Black Sea. And of course what you said about Georgia is even more true of Romania: if Joe and I slip up with our Russian they won't be surprised."

"Maybe not," I said. "But what happens if we meet a genuine Romanian ship? I don't suppose you speak Romanian – or do you?"

"Sorry," said Beeching. "I'd suggest that if we see a real Romanian we should have a problem with our semaphore: drop the pole down about halfway and then stop and jerk it about a bit, like it's stuck and we're trying to free it. Then we just smile and shrug at them out of the gondola window and sail happily on."

That seemed like a perfectly sensible answer to me, so I said so, and then we got back to the problem of trying to get the canvas into position over the ship's nose. It took us about an hour, and that was with the help of one of the base's crane operators, but eventually we had it perfectly positioned across Excelsior's nose. The canvas came back far enough to cover the ship's name, too: instead of Excelsior and a lion, we now had a gold, single-headed eagle above the name Vlad Ţepeş.

"Who's Verlad Teeps?" asked Sparrer.

"It's not 'Teeps'," Beeching told him. "It's pronounced 'Tsepesh'. Vlad Ţepeş was an ancient ruler of part of Romania, and he's something of a national hero. 'Ţepeş' actually means 'Impaler' – he liked to kill his enemies by impaling them on stakes, and since he was at war with the Turks for most of his reign he needed a lot of stakes. He's supposed to have executed about sixty thousand people that way."

"Vlad the Impaler," said Alex. "I've heard of him – wasn't he the original Dracula?"

Beeching looked blank. "Well, yes, his father held the title Dracul, meaning The Dragon or The Snake, and so his son was called Son of the Dragon, or Dracula. But what do you mean by 'the original Dracula'?"

"Ah. I guess you've never seen a Christopher Lee film, have you? I suppose cinema is a bit different here, if it exists at all. Well, someone wrote a book about a vampire called Dracula, and it's been turned into loads of films in my world. My world has this thing about vampires – there are loads of films, books and TV programs about them. If I ever get home I'll maybe bring a copy of Twilight back with me…"

He broke off, realising that everyone was staring at him: Beeching, for one, had no idea that he came from another world, and nobody else could understand half of what he was talking about.

"Never mind," said Alex. "Let's just get started, shall we?"

We checked that the canvas was properly anchored to the first and third upper turrets, the bridge, Engine Gondolas One and Two and the front gun port on each side, and then we notified the base that we were leaving and got aboard. The ship climbed into the sky and headed east.

"I think we should change our route," I said, calling the other officers to the navigating table. "Now that we're supposed to be Romanian it would be better if we went more or less straight towards the Crimea. I still want to stay well clear of Sevastopol – there's no point in looking for trouble – but once we're clear of there we can head straight for Feodosia. It'll save time, which is good, because we lost the best part of an hour and a half getting the canvas on."

"What do you want us to say if we get challenged by an Eagle?" asked Beeching.

I looked at the larger map. "Okay," I said. "Let's see: we're travelling on a friendship visit to… this place should do: Tsaritsyn. That's more or less in a straight line from Feodosia."

"Stalingrad," said Alex. "Tsaritsyn became Stalingrad after the revolution. Then they changed the name again after Stalin died, but I can't remember what to."

Even I had heard about what happened at Stalingrad during the Second World War.

"Okay," I said. It's a big enough place to warrant a friendship visit, anyway. And we come from… pick a Romanian town," I said to Beeching. "Preferably one with a short name."

"Iaşi?" he suggested. "Only four letters. But it's a bit far north – it would be odd to come south of the Crimea if we were going from there to Tsaritsyn. What about Constanţa? It's a longer name, but a much more logical route."

"As long as you can spell it on the semaphore it'll do," I said. "Let's hope we don't need to find out."

We cruised on, leaving Greece behind us. For about an hour we were over neutral Turkey, but there was no way to avoid that if we didn't want to trespass into Bulgarian air space, and that would have been a bad idea because Bulgaria was a very close ally of Russia. But there was no challenge from the Turks, and soon we could see the Black Sea ahead of us.

The weather was perfect for flying: what wind there was was behind us, and there were hardly any clouds in the sky. Soon we had left the coast behind and could see nothing but water. This was the first time that Alex, and later Albie, had needed to command the ship when there were no visible landmarks to refer to, but they both stuck to the bearing we had calculated before leaving Thessalonika and I saw no reason to change anything they were doing. We saw occasional surface vessels below us but no other ætherships, at least not for the first six hundred miles or so of the journey. That was the point at which I had decided that we would be far enough past Sevastopol that we could turn directly towards Feodosia, and so we changed to a bearing of zero-three-zero, which I thought ought to give us a landfall on the Kerch Peninsula, directly to the east of Feodosia, and so a nice distance away from the Russian æthership base at Alushta.

Of course it would have done that if we'd been exactly where we'd thought we were when we changed course. But the problem with changing course over the ocean is that you can't be absolutely sure of your position…

We'd slowed down a bit because I didn't want to get there too early: sunset was due at about half past six, so I certainly didn't want to get there before half past five, and six o'clock would be better.

"Land ahead," announced Sam Sullivan from the communications desk. "Forward observation post reports land off the port bow."

I got my telescope out, and sure enough there was land on the horizon. There was rather too much of it, though: soon I could see that we were flying on a converging course with a long coastline.

"We're too far west," I said, diving for the charts. "Helm, come to zero-five-zero. Maintain seven hundred and fifty feet. All engines, bring us up to cruising speed."

"Æthership to port," said Beeching, who was on the elevators and so looking out of the port side of the gondola. "It's coming straight for us."

I aimed my telescope over his shoulder.

"It's an Eagle," I said. "Mr Sullivan, call Mr Sparrow back to the bridge, because I think we'll need Chris on the semaphore. And then sound Action Stations."

The Eagle kept coming. I wondered whether our canvas had come loose. There was no way of telling from inside the ship, of course, so I just had to hope it was still in place. Lord Cardington's supplier had done an excellent job of matching the background colour of the canvas to our own blue-grey – I suppose my uncle had sent him a sample of the armour to work from – and the ropes were the same colour, so in theory you'd have to be very close to notice it, but if it was crooked, or if a guy rope had come undone, we'd be done for.

I cheered myself up by thinking about the excellent job Pasha's crew had done in transforming Suvorov into André Masséna – I hadn't been able to spot the canvas until I was fifty feet away from it. But obviously this situation was a great deal more dangerous.

By now the Eagle was turning to run parallel to us around a hundred yards off our port beam.

"Engines, drop to one quarter speed," I ordered. "Lower the semaphore."

Sparrer had taken Beeching's place at the elevators, so the militia man was free to sit at the semaphore desk. Joe was already on the bridge, even though he wasn't actually on duty, and so he was able to come and read the Russian's signals.

The Russian reduced his speed to match ours and deployed his own semaphore pole, which started to signal us.

"Identify yourself," read Joe.

"Send 'Vlad Ţepeş out of Constanţa'," I said, and Chris set to work.

"Destination?" said Joe.

"Stalingrad… no, Tsaritsyn," I corrected. "Friendship visit."

"You are too close to a restricted military area," said Joe.

"Apologise," I said to Chris. "Tell him we lost our bearings over the Sea and only realised where we were ten minutes ago."

That took a while to send even in signallers' abbreviations, but he got it done.

There was a worrying pause. Then, finally, the Russian's semaphore started moving again.

"Maintain current heading," said Joe. "Weather ahead clear. Good journey."

"Send 'Thank you'," I said. "Then get the arm up before he thinks to ask us anything else."

Chris did that, and I ordered, "All engines ahead at cruise speed. Maintain current heading and level."

The Russian turned and headed back towards the land, and I went and looked again at the charts, and then through my telescope at the coast.

"Good thing we changed course when we did," I commented. "If we'd kept going the way we were we'd have hit the coast right on top of their base at Alushta. No wonder they sent someone out to see what we were playing at. Okay, Mr Sullivan, stand the men down. Joe, Chris, thank you very much. Nice job."

We flew on. Soon I could see the coast curving out to meet us: that would be the headland close to Sudak, the last town before Feodosia, and once we were past the headland we were safely out of sight of the Russian base. Of course it didn't mean that nobody was watching us, but I hoped it meant that nobody who mattered was watching us.

"All engines, drop to half speed. Helm, come to zero-one-zero and take us up to one thousand feet – and watch where you're going, Mr Weasel: most of the mountains ahead are higher than that. Use your common sense and take us around anything that looks like it's in our way. We're looking for a suitable valley, big enough to take the ship and preferably without too much water in the bottom. Sam, pass that on to the forward spotters."

We reached the coast, but instead of going straight ahead Weasel took us along it for a short distance and then swung inland, following the course of a small river.

"Nice thinking," I congratulated him. "All right, follow this and see where it takes us. Engines, drop to one quarter."

We followed the river, which branched a couple of times. Weasel chose to follow the smaller arm each time, and soon we were following a stream that was leading us up into a narrowing valley. By now we were flying below the height of the peaks on either side of us.

This was just about perfect, because the land was rising ahead of us, which meant that all we had to do was to fly level and we'd be able to land almost without venting any gas at all. The valley we were heading into was more than wide enough to take the ship, and there was only grass along its floor, although there were trees along the top of the ridge to our left.

"Ground crew, stand by," I said. "Engines Three and Four to idle."

We moved gently forwards, the ground continued to rise gently to meet us, and it was as close to a perfect landing as I'd ever made. The ground crew were able to jump out easily, and within ten minutes the ship was properly secured. We were in a valley that ran roughly north-north-east, sheltered by ridges on either side of us, with a mountain ahead of us providing shelter from the north as well. We could have looked for hours and not found anything better.

"Okay, Alex, you're in charge from now on," I said. "I'd advise you to put some spotters up on both ridges, and keep the furnaces lit in case you need to leave in a hurry. If you need to come calling tomorrow I'd use Weasel at the helm, because he'll probably be able to remember the way back here. But give me until midday, okay? Maybe I'll be able to talk him round… Okay, Albie, can you find me an escort – preferably stokers, because at least they'll look the part, and if you can find some who can march, so much the better. I'll get a bag together."

I went to my cabin and put a change of underwear and socks into a small backpack, added my washing kit and turned to go back outside. But before I had left the officer's quarters Joe appeared from Dmitri's cabin and asked me to come in and talk to him.

"Osya says that you're going to try to persuade Pasha to take me in exchange for the Prussian," Dmitri told me. "It won't work."

"Why not? Won't he want you back?"

"I'm sure he will, but he'll want the science boy more. He won't do anything to harm Russia's interests, so he won't accept anything less than the scientist."

"I'll just have to try to persuade him, then."

"You won't be able to. Even if you start shooting bits off him it won't work – actually, that might just make him more stubborn than ever. You see, Pasha's… damaged. I don't know how he got like he is – probably it was something to do with his family – but he likes pain. He likes hurting other people – well, you saw that in Norway, and maybe that's not so unusual, but he also likes being hurt himself. It excites him. Sometimes he gets Seriozha and me to whip him, not just in play, but properly, even to drawing blood, and it gets him… you know, aroused. So it doesn't matter how much you hurt him or what you do to him, he'll never change his mind."

"Even if I threaten to cut his balls off?"

"Especially that. I think that would be the ultimate excitement for him. So what I'm saying is, please don't hurt him. There's no point, because it won't work, and I'd like him to be still all there when I see him again."

"How do I know you're not just lying to protect your friend?"

"You don't, but I'm not. If you get a chance to see him with his clothes off you'll see the scars."

"All, right, thank you. I wasn't really thinking along those lines anyway – it would be hard to get an opportunity in his own place – but at least if the opportunity arises I'll know not to waste my time. Do you have a message for him?"

"Nothing I might say will change what he's going to do. Actually you'd be better advised not to tell him I'm here, because if he knows that I am he's more likely to try to attack you."

"Don't you want to be rescued?"

"I don't want him to get killed trying."

"Okay," I said. "But I think I'll have to tell him you're here at some point if I'm really going to try to persuade him to swap you for Wolfie. Anyway, thank you for the advice. And I'll try to avoid hurting him."

"He won't try to avoid hurting you," he warned me. "You'd be a lot safer sending someone else, you know."

I shook my head. "I can't ask any of my friends to do that," I said. "It's my job. Anyway, I hope I'll see you again tomorrow."

Once Joe had translated that I headed back to the gondola, but as I reached the bottom of the ladder I was intercepted by Tim.

"I've been speaking to Dr Harries, and we've got a possible plan," he said in German. "I'm not too keen, for obvious reasons, but we think it has a chance of working. It's like I was saying before we left Culham: the deal is that you swap me for Wolfie. Well, what we do is this…"

"I don't want to know," I interrupted. "There's no way I could go along with any plan at all that involves you going to Pasha, dead or alive."

"Well, if there's no other way to get Wolfie back I'm ready to do whatever it takes," he said.

"You might be, but I'm not. Forget it."

I turned my back and went on out of the ship, thinking that there was absolutely no way I was prepared to let any of my friends sacrifice themselves in order to get Wolfie back.

Albie had found a dozen stokers and got them out of their overalls and into their proper uniforms, and when I stepped back outside Alex was equipping both my escort and the sentries who were going to take up position on the ridges with the rifles we'd bought in Parma.

"It's only about half an hour to sunset," I said to Alex, "and it'll take at least two hours to get there and back. It'll be really difficult for Joe to find his way back here after dark, so I'd suggest we want to form a human chain between the ship and the edge of the mountains, because I don't think it'll be possible for him just to stick to a single compass bearing, not in this terrain. So round up everyone except the sentries and the stokers who are going to be tending the fireboxes and we'll drop them off at hundred yard intervals. If you make yourself the last person in the chain and bring your flashlight with you, you can signal Joe if he looks like missing you. Joe, if you take a flashlight too it'll help."

Joe went back into the ship and came back a couple of minutes later with a bag, and then we were on our way.

"Albie, you're in charge until Alex gets back," I said. "I'd suggest you don't show any more light than you absolutely have to. Good luck."

I waited until Alex had managed to round up thirty or so crewmen and then we climbed up the ridge to the east. Alex stationed his sentries there while the rest of us continued down the far side following a magnetic bearing of fifty-two degrees which – according to the map – should take us all the way to Pasha's door. I didn't expect to be able to get there in a straight line, but it was fairly steadily downhill once we left the ridge, and the bearing brought us after about half a mile to the head of a broad valley, and from that vantage point we could see the sea.

"Alex, I don't think we'll need the rest of the chain after all," I said. "If you wait here Joe should be able to find you by simply reversing the bearing, providing that we mark the point where we meet the sea. I'd send the rest back to the ship – just leave three or four at intervals between here and the top of the ridge, just in case there's no moon."

"I don't think we need even do that," he replied, pointing back the way we had come. "You can hardly miss the ridge if you stick to the return bearing, and we know the ship's just beyond it. I'll keep a couple here with me, just in case I need to send a runner back to the ship, but the others can go back."

"Okay," I agreed. "And… look, Alex… don't forget what we agreed, okay?"

"Okay," he said.

"I mean it!" I added.

"I know. Go on – and good luck!"

I'd have liked to have hugged him, just in case… well, just in case, but I was a bit inhibited by having so many of the crew around us, so instead I just shook his hand, turned, and set off down the valley. Joe and the escort came with me, and somehow I managed not to look back.

By the time we reached the end of the valley the light was going: the sun was now hidden behind the mountains. We could see that our original bearing would take us over a rather unnecessary hill, and so I switched to a bearing of sixty degrees. This took us south of the hill, and eventually we reached the sea immediately before the start of a small stretch of woodland that lay maybe fifty yards above the beach.

"If you head back inland from here you should find the valley with no problem," I said. "Look, you might as well go back now – I just have to follow the coast from here, and there's obviously nobody around."

"I think we'd still better come a bit further," said Joe firmly.

I didn't argue – actually I was glad of the company.

It took about half an hour to get from there to Pasha's villa, but I sent Joe back when we were a couple of hundred yards away and walked on alone, now carrying the white flag Alex had insisted on giving me. But nobody intercepted me, though I was sure that I was being watched as I walked down the drive that led to the front door. When I reached it I straightened my hat, swallowed, took a deep breath and knocked.

I waited. Nothing seemed to be happening, so I raised my hand again, but at that moment the door swung open and I found myself looking at another red-shirted Cossack of around the same age as Dmitri.

Joe had taught me the Russian for 'His Imperial Highness, the Grand Duke Pavel Mikhailovitch Romanov, please,' and so I spouted it parrot-fashion now and handed the boy one of my own visiting cards. He took it, looked past me – presumably looking to see if I was alone – and then beckoned me in, closed the door and said, in heavily-accented but understandable English, "Wait one moment, please," before turning and heading off into the house.

I looked around. This was a lot less grand than my own place, but then this was more of a holiday home than a permanent address, and by those standards it was plenty big enough. It seemed to be mostly on one level – there was no staircase in sight, and indeed it had looked from the outside, as far as I could tell in the dark, like a single-storey building. But it was still big, and I found myself wondering how many soldiers were lurking inside it.

The Cossack came back, followed by Pasha, who was wearing a red and gold robe.

"Your Grace!" he said to me in German.

"Your Imperial Highness," I replied, bowing slightly.

He grinned at me. "How nice of you to drop by," he said. "Did you have any trouble finding us?"

"No, not really. Our intelligence service was most helpful."

"I'm surprised they bother with someone as insignificant as me," he said, grinning some more – I'd forgotten just how much he did that. "Anyway, come on through. Have you eaten? I'm afraid you've missed supper, but I'm sure we can knock something together for you."

"No, thank you," I said. "I'm not hungry."

"Tea, then?"

"Actually, a cup of tea would be nice," I said.

"Good. Come on."

He led me into a large room that looked out over the sea. There was a fire burning in the hearth. It wasn't too cold out, but the fire still made the room nice and warm.

"Take off your jacket and get comfortable," said Pasha, indicating a chair to one side of the fire. "You might as well relax."

I put my hat on a table, removed my belt and handed it, pistol holster first, to the Cossack – clearly it would be pointless to try waving a gun around here – and took off my jacket. The Cossack took it from me, picked up my hat and left the room, returning a minute or so later pushing a trolley that held a samovar. I'd never actually seen one before, but I had heard of them.

"Strong or weak?" Pasha asked me.

I had no idea of what either was likely to taste like, so I shrugged and said "Somewhere in between," which resulted in me being presented with a glass of dark liquid. Nobody offered me milk or sugar, so I supposed that it wasn't drunk that way in Russia. I took a sip and found that it wasn't bad – not quite what I was used to, but certainly drinkable.

"So," said Pasha, sipping from his own glass, "did you have a good journey?"

"Not bad. The weather was helpful, anyway."

"And where did you leave your ship?"

I smiled at him and said nothing.

"Oh, well, I expect we'll be able to find it if we need to. To be honest I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow: either you left only a day or so after I did, or you've been flying through the night."

"I don't like night flying," I said. "I like to see where I'm going."

"Likewise. How's your tea?"

"Fine, thank you. So where's the Margrave?"

"Patience!" he replied, grinning at me again. "We've got all night for business. Let's just enjoy the chance to sit and relax for a bit."

"If you like," I said. "Don't you feel just a little bit guilty, though? I mean, that was a bit of a dirty trick, especially after I kept my word to you."

"I kept mine too, don't forget," he reminded me. "You jumped to an incorrect conclusion. That wasn't my fault. Besides, we're at war, and I had to do what was in the interests of my country. So – since you insist on talking business - have you brought me young Duvallier?"

"You know I can't give him to you," I said. "I have to think about my country's future, just as you do, and we couldn't allow you to get access to someone who could make your Eagles even more dangerous than they already are."

"Really?" he said. "You mean he knows a way to actually improve our armour? I hadn't realised that. I just wanted to stop him giving you what we've already got. Now that is interesting…"

I realised I'd slipped up, but there was nothing I could do about that now.

"It hardly matters, because you can't have him," I said. "Look, Pasha, be sensible about this: if you had him you sure as hell wouldn't give him to me, so why would you think I'm going to give him to you?"

"Because I've got something you want – or don't you actually want your friend back?"

"Of course I do, but not badly enough to betray my country."

"Now that is disappointing. Maybe if I laid on a bit of a show for you, you might change your position. You see, I have this interesting collection of instruments of torture, and I thought that perhaps if you watched me trying some of them out on your friend you might change your mind…"

I tried to keep my face from showing a reaction.

"That wouldn't help," I said. "See, I don't have Duvallier with me. Actually he was the one who told me not to bring him on the trip so that I couldn't be tempted."

"Hmmm… but I bet you brought him anyway," he said. "I'm getting to know you by now, and I think you'd want all the angles covered. I'd lay you fifty to one that he's on your ship right now."

"Well, even if he was you still wouldn't get him. Remember Alex, the boy with the curly hair? Well, he's my first officer, and if I'd brought Duvallier with me I'd have made sure that Alex was under orders to shoot him rather than let him fall into your hands. And I can promise you that Alex isn't the type to be swayed from his duty by anyone, including me."

"An interesting problem, then! Of course, I now have two hostages that I could offer to swap for the scientist…"

"I'm here under a flag of truce," I reminded him. "But even so, you don't think I just walked in here without discussing the possibilities with Alex first, do you? He knows what to do if that happens, and it still doesn't involve giving you Duvallier."

"Then why did you bother coming? Did you think I would simply release the Margrave to you in exchange for nothing, just out of the goodness of my heart?"

"No, I rather hoped that you'd be prepared to exchange him for Dmitri."

He stared at me, and for once he wasn't grinning.

"You brought him with you?" he asked.

I nodded. "Look, Pasha, you've got something I want, and I've got something you want. Why don't we just forget we're on opposite sides for a minute and agree an exchange that will make us both happy?"

He was silent, and I waited, sipping at my tea, because this was the big moment and I didn't want to ruin it by talking too much. He had the facts. Would he bite?

"Is he all right?" he asked, eventually.

"Yes, he is. He's got a broken leg and some cracked bones in his wrist, but the doctors say he'll make a full recovery."

"Thank you," he said. "You didn't have to take him to hospital. Please will you make sure he's looked after in future?"

"You'll be able to do that yourself," I said.

"No, I won't. I'm sorry, Leo, but I can't accept anything other than the scientist. You'd say the same thing in my position. Look, finish your tea and I'll take you to see the Margrave."

I opened my mouth to argue but realised that this wasn't the time: if I was going to change his mind I had to leave him a little while to think about getting Dmitri back. So instead I finished my tea and stood up, and Pasha led me a little further into the house and then knocked at a door, opened it and put his head around it.

"Are you decent?" he asked in German. "Good. You have a visitor."

He stepped back and ushered me into the room. I'd more or less expected a prison cell, but this was actually quite a nice bedroom, containing an upright chair tucked under a small table, a decent-sized bookcase full of books and a bed. It also had an apparently unbarred window that looked out over a dark landscape. A fire was burning in the grate, making the room pleasantly warm, and in one of a pair of armchairs beside it sat Wolfie, who was reading a book. He looked up when I entered the room and his face lit up.

"I knew you'd come," he said, standing up. "You shouldn't have, obviously, but I'm still glad you did. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," I said, hugging him. "What about you? Has he been treating you properly?"

"I really can't complain. I'm allowed to go anywhere I want in the house, I usually eat with Pasha, and nobody has done anything nasty to me. The only drawback is that I'm not allowed any clothes except for this nightshirt – the idea of that is to dissuade me from running. As Pasha says, I'd have nowhere to go anyway, but it would be a nuisance if he had to come looking for me. It would be too cold out there to survive at night without clothes…

"So what's going to happen to me? Have they agreed to ransom me?"

"No. Uncle Gil says they won't be able to, because if the Tsar found out you were here he'd want you himself, either to park on the throne of Prussia as a puppet, or to be locked up somewhere a long way away, like Siberia. No, the only way to get you out of here is to swap you for Tim."

"But you can't do that! Come on, Leo, you know we can't let them get their hands on him!"

"I know. But he won't accept anything less. I've already asked him to exchange you for Dmitri… of course, you probably don't know about that. Remember the two Cossack boys he had with him in Norway? Well, the older one got hurt while Alex and I were grabbing Pasha, and so when Pasha flew home he had to leave Dmitri behind. And I'd hoped he'd settle for a straight swap, but he's already turned me down. So I'm going to work on him. If he won't let you go and tries to hang on to me as well, Alex has orders to fly by and shoot up the æthership hangars in the morning, but if that doesn't work… well, we haven't really planned that far yet."

"What do you mean, Alex has orders? Isn't Uncle Gil in charge?"

"No. This is my mission, not his, and we came in Excelsior, not Excalibur. In your absence Alex is First Officer, so he's in command until I get back."

"So Excelsior is finished? How does she fly?"

"Pretty well. She's faster than Excalibur, and so far she's flown perfectly, even with a team of novices crewing her. You'll see for yourself on the way home, I hope."

"Right, but you can't attack this place! There are rocket batteries around the hangars – I've seen them. And if the ship is damaged none of us will ever get out of here."

"I think the armour can handle it provided Alex doesn't hang around. But we couldn't think of anything else to do. Listen, how many people live here?"

"I'm not sure. I would guess that there are around ten actually living here, but there are others who are around quite a bit during the day, so I'd guess that there's a barracks not too far away. Why?"

"Oh, Alex was wondering about attacking this place with ground forces. We've got forty rifles, so I suppose it would be possible."

"No, it wouldn't! There are machine guns in the house, and there's an auto-cannon in one of the hangars. It would be suicide to attack without heavy guns of our own."

"Oh, well, in that case let's hope Alex has the sense not to try," I said, even though I was afraid he'd risk attacking anyway. Still, maybe I could still change Pasha's mind about letting Wolfie go…

Five minutes later there was another knock at the door and Pasha came in.

"Satisfied that I haven't been pulling his fingernails out?" he asked me. "Then come with me."

I said "See you later" to Wolfie and followed Pasha from the room and along a corridor that led towards the back of the house, and then down a stone staircase and through a heavy iron door into an underground room.

"Welcome to my playroom," he said, grinning widely. "What do you think?"

There wasn't a lot of furniture – just a couple of upright chairs and a basic table – but there were unpleasant-looking instruments hanging from hooks around the walls or lying on shelves. Most of these were metal, but there was also a row of whips rising from a small riding-crop at one end up to a huge thick thing at the other. In one corner there was an unlit brazier, and in the middle of the room was something that I recognised immediately as a rack.

"Like it?" asked Pasha, his eyes sparkling. "It's not completely authentic, but it's actually a bit more efficient than the older versions, because the metal cables on this run more smoothly than the old chains and aren't likely to break the way ropes sometimes did. I had it built specially. Would you like to try it?"

"I don't think so," I said, firmly.

"Chicken!" he said.

"Chicken? Chicken?? You think it's cowardly not to want to get my arms and legs torn off? Are you completely insane?"

"Not completely, I don't think. But I wasn't actually intending to pull you to pieces. See, there's an art to using this: the idea is to stop when it hurts like hell but just before it does any permanent damage. See, that's what so many torturers don't understand: if you can cause serious pain but without permanent injury you can do exactly the same thing again once the victim has recovered. The second time he knows how it's going to feel, and that makes it more effective – his own imagination is working against him. It's like I told you in Norway: thinking about the pain is often more effective than pain itself.

"Of course, if the person you're working on has some information you need in a hurry, then you might not have time for repeat performances, and in that case you just keep going, but very, very slowly. But if there's no time limit a repeated punishment can be highly effective: eventually the victim just can't face it any more. That doesn't mean you have to stop, of course…

"I've been discussing with Sergei how long the Margrave will last without cracking. He reckons about four days will do it, but I think he's tougher: he might even last the week. What do you think?"

I stared at him. "Why? I mean, how can you even consider doing something like this?"

"Apart from the obvious reason – that it's fun? Well, how about 'Because we're at war'?"

"But that doesn't mean you have to torture people!"

He shrugged. "War excuses most things," he said.

"Yes, but… I don't even know why we're at war, and I bet you don't either!"

"Does it matter? Wars start for all sorts of reasons, most of them pretty stupid when you think about it. It makes no difference whether we're fighting over religion, politics, land, resources, or just because the ruler of one country has a grudge against the ruler of another – wars have always existed and they always will. It's the way we are."

"But that doesn't mean we should just accept it, surely? After all, your country and mine should be no threat to each other, given how far apart they are. The only reason we're fighting is because you're occupying the German states, and there's no real excuse for you to be there. If you withdrew to your own territory there'd be no reason to fight."

"Oh, don't be so naïve! We're in the German states because that way the next time one of the Napoleons decides to attack us, it'll be the German states that get devastated and not our own territory. Anyway, it's not like we're the only country operating outside our base territory, is it? What are the French doing in the Low Countries, Italy and Illyria? Come to that, what are the British doing in Africa? The Africans don't want you there any more than the Germans want us in their countries, but tough, that's how things are and they need to get used to it. Don't you know any history? Strong countries have always occupied weak ones. Persia, Macedonia and Rome are no different to Britain, France and Russia, and after our empires collapse new ones will begin. History repeats itself over and over again, and right now you and I are just doing what everyone else has always done: trying to get the best result for our country. So don't come bleating to me with questions like 'Why are we at war?' We just are, and that's all there is to it.

"Do you doubt that I'll use this, and anything else that I feel like, on your friend?"

"No," I said.

"Do you want me to?"

"Obviously not."

"Then give me Duvallier. It's that simple: I get Duvallier, or the Margrave dies in this room, very, very slowly "

"And what if I said that if you do that, I'll do the same thing to Dmitri?"

"I wouldn't believe you, because I don't think you're tough enough. You're scared of pain, and so you're reluctant to inflict it on anyone else. For you, pain is an enemy, something to be feared, but me, I know about pain. If you've never experienced pain yourself, you can never understand it and never control it. But even if you told me your curly-haired friend was going to do it to Dmitri and I believed you, it wouldn't change anything. This is the only lever I've got, and so I have to use it, whatever the consequences."

"Don't you even care about Dmitri?"

"Yes, of course I do! More than you can imagine, probably, and if there was a way to get him back without harming my country I'd take it. But there isn't. The difference between you and me is that I am prepared to give something up if necessary."

"No, the difference between us is that you're insane," I snapped, because by now I'd had about enough of this. "You know bloody well I can't give you Duvallier, but you still refuse to accept the sensible exchange of our two prisoners that would make us both happy. If that isn't mad, I don't know what is."

"You want to see mad?"

He went to the door and shouted "Seriozha!" up the stairs, and a few seconds later the younger of the Cossacks I'd met in Norway came into the room.

"I bet you'd like to hurt me right now, wouldn't you?" Pasha said to me. "Well, you're going to get your chance."

He began to get undressed, piling his clothes on one of the chairs, and when he was naked he climbed onto the rack and lay face down. The Cossack boy attached the cables to his wrists and ankles and then operated the lever until Pasha was immobilised.

"Over to you," he said, grinning at me. "Go and choose a whip from over there and beat me as hard as you want. There'll be no penalty, so this is a chance to show me what you really think of me. And maybe if you can draw blood I'll consider your proposition."

I didn't believe that for a moment, and looking at the scars across his bottom made me feel slightly queasy. I certainly didn't feel like taking him up on his offer.

"No, thanks," I said. "Perhaps there's something wrong with me, but I'm afraid I don't like hurting people unnecessarily."

"Now there's a surprise! Seriozha," and he spoke to the Cossack in Russian. The red-shirted boy answered him, and for a few seconds they seemed to be arguing, but in the end the boy shrugged, went and took a whip from the wall and used it to whip his master three times. As far as I could tell he was holding nothing back, and Pasha cried out each time. I didn't really want to watch, but it was hard not to, and of course I found myself imagining, as Pasha had no doubt intended, that it was Wolfie lying there instead of his captor.

Sergei went and returned the whip to its place. As he passed me he gave me a look that I interpreted as a mixture of apology and regret, but then he went back to the rack and released his master from the cables. Pasha stood up and – in view of what Dmitri had told me – I wasn't too surprised to see that he had an erection. He rubbed his bottom a couple of times and then went and got dressed again.

"You should have done that yourself," he told me. "You probably won't get another chance."

"Good," I replied. "Look, Pasha, I'm tired. Can you just find me somewhere to sleep? We can talk again in the morning."

"Oh, but I'm enjoying your company so much! I tell you what – why don't you come and sleep with me? Maybe you'll crack and strangle me in the night!"

"Is that what you want?"

"Well, it would probably be an interesting experience, but I'm not quite so keen to find out what hell is like just yet, so – no, not really. But maybe you deserve the chance. Come on!"

He led me back up the stairs and along the corridor to what was clearly the master bedroom: it held one large bed and two smaller ones and also had an en-suite bathroom, which was something my room at home lacked.

"You'll find your bag in the wardrobe," Pasha told me, starting to get undressed once more. "If you forgot to bring any washing materials I'm sure we can find you some."

I opened the wardrobe and found not only my bag but my jacket, hat and belt too, and the pistol was still in the holster. The idea of using it to hold Pasha up and try to walk out of here with Wolfie came to me straight away and was dismissed almost as quickly: he'd just laugh at me, and even if I shot him I didn't have enough bullets for all of his Cossacks, and neither did I have any means of communicating with them. And if they all felt about Pasha the way Dmitri did I'd end up dead, and so would Wolfie. So I left the gun where it was, took my washing kit from my bag, removed my shirt and went through to the bathroom.

I had a wash and cleaned my teeth, and by then Pasha had come to join me. He was completely naked and didn't seem to care that I could see everything he had to offer – at any rate, he made no attempt to cover up.

Once I was done I went back to the bedroom and removed the rest of my clothes except for my underwear, but I didn't know which bed I was supposed to use, and so I sat on the end of the big one and waited.

Pasha reappeared and got straight into the big bed.

"Which one am I using?" I asked.

"This one, obviously. Come on – and get rid of those shorts first."

I removed my underwear and got in, keeping as far away from him as I could. Sergei came into the room, locked the door behind him and put the key on a chain around his neck, and then he threw his clothes off, turned off the light and got into one of the small beds, so I guessed that the empty one belonged to Dmitri. And that was enough to make me try again.

"Pasha," I said, "what happened to you? How did you get like this?"

"Ah, he wants to know how sweet little Pasha turned into this hideous monster," he said, and I could imagine the grin even if I couldn't see it. "Well, that's easy: there never was a sweet little Pasha. The moment I first drew breath I became a murderer, and it's been all downhill since."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I killed my mother. She died bringing me into the world – apparently I was the wrong way round in the womb or something. And neither my father nor my brothers ever let me forget it: my father hates the sight of me so much that he's spent his entire life either on campaign or living at the High Command headquarters in Petersburg – so I probably killed your father, too, because if it hadn't been for me keeping my father in the field, some total incompetent would have been in charge instead and we'd never have reached the Rhine. I'll give the old man that: he's a damned good soldier. And as for my brothers, they were given free rein to do what they wanted to me, and so they did. Actually I came to prefer that to being completely ignored…

"Of course kids like me are educated at home, so I couldn't even escape to school, although my tutor at least treated me no worse than the way he treated my brothers, and he was the one who suggested to my father when I was eleven that I should start spending time finding out about life on our frontiers. My father thought that was an excellent idea because it would get me out of the house, and so he bought this place for me and arranged for me to be attached to the naval base at Sevastopol.

"Actually that was interesting: I learned quite a bit while I was there. But I'd learned a few other things from my brothers, and when I started practising those on other kids in the area… well, you know the rest. I got sent on a tour of the occupied territories and given an old æthership to travel in. I think my father was hoping I'd get killed… anyway, then I ran into you, and I'm counting on getting hold of your tame scientist to get me noticed, but in a good way. If I can help my country's cause I should think they'll be only too happy to grant me a privateer's licence, and then I'll be able to do whatever the hell I like. Of course once my ship's finished its commissioning I'll probably do that anyway, but I'd prefer to do it officially…"

He rolled close to me.

"So you see, I really want Duvallier," he went on. "And that's why I'm not prepared to accept any alternative. You know, I wish you'd admit that you hate me. It can't be good for you, keeping all that rage bottled up inside you. Just let it out."

He took my hand and pressed it against his genitals.

"Go on," he said, "dig your nails in and rip it off! Crush my balls like grapes! Think how much better you'll feel afterwards!"

I could feel his penis stiffening against my hand, but if anything that made me feel even less like hurting him. I gave it a gentle squeeze and then pulled my hand away.

"Hasn't anyone ever cared about you?" I asked. "Has anyone ever, even once, said that they love you?"

"What's this – pity?" he said. "Poor, twisted little Pashka, all bitter and hateful because of his past, sad little Pashka whom nobody ever loved? Love's a joke, de Courtenay: it's just another way to use people. It might be less violent than whips and acid, but it's just another means to the same end. Real love doesn't exist."

"Dmitri loves you," I told him.

"No, Dmitri's grateful because I took him from nowhere and gave him a future. Same with Sergei. That's the sort of love you get from a puppy if you feed it and give it shelter. Dmitri and Sergei are useful to me and, yes, I enjoy their company, but that's hardly love. I've told you, love is an illusion. Now shut up and go to sleep: you'd better get some sleep while you can, because after you've spent tomorrow watching the Margrave bleeding and screaming you probably won't sleep very well tomorrow night."

He rolled over away from me. Needless to say, I found it far from easy to go to sleep: there was no way that I could let him torture Wolfie, but I could see no way of getting Wolfie away from him alive other than doing what he wanted. And clearly I couldn't give him Tim – at least, not unless I did what Tim himself had suggested and handed Pasha Tim's corpse. Either way one of my friends was going to die. But, try as I might, I couldn't think of any way out of it.

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