Excelsior

by David Clarke

Chapter 33

I thought briefly about running and dismissed the idea immediately: there was absolutely no cover until we reached the foot of the slope, and we'd be shot long before we could get there. Wolfie couldn't move fast on a slope like this, and Simon and Danny were too far away – by the time they reached us the Cossacks would be on top of us. So we just climbed up the last few steps until we were standing on the top of the mountain and then we just waited for the Cossacks to reach us.

Using Joe as an interpreter they asked where we had come from – apparently they'd been keeping an eye on a proper footpath on the far side of the spur we were on, just in case anyone came up out of the forest along the path. But they'd heard our voices and come to investigate.

"Oh, we came up from the lake," I said, waving vaguely in the direction of the Feldsee, which I knew was some way south of the hole.

"That must have been quite a climb," said the squad leader, with some respect. "It's nearly vertical in places. Well, come on – I'm sure the captain will want to see you."

I thought he would too. I didn't recognise any of these four from my visit to Feodosia, but I had absolutely no doubt who their captain was. But there wasn't any real choice: the squad leader knew his business and had made sure that he and his colleagues stayed too far away from us for us to be able to jump them. So I turned and walked slowly towards the ship.

"How the bloody hell did the bastard find us?" Wolfie asked me. "Because I'm sure there's absolutely no chance that that ship is parked there by coincidence."

"God knows," I replied. "I expect he'll tell us, though, particularly if it demonstrates how clever he's been."

"What's the problem?" asked Simon – by now he and Danny had rejoined us. "Isn't that your ship?"

"No, it isn't. Didn't you hear me say that this place was behind enemy lines?"

"Well, yes, but… isn't it the Germans we're fighting? And aren't the Russians on our side?"

"No. In this war it's the other way around. Didn't you tell these two anything, Joe?"

"Not about the war," Joe replied. "I was trying to avoid mentioning it at all, because I was pretty sure that if my father heard the word 'war' before he met you he'd be off back to England on the next train."

"I see. Well, Simon, in this war it's us and the French against the Russians. Germany is occupied by Russia. And unless I'm wrong, that ship is commanded by the one Russian I hoped I'd never have to meet again."

"He isn't wrong," said Alex. "Nobody but 'The Black Flash'," (and he did the little inverted comma thing with his fingers – I know I've said before that I hate it, but here it was clear that he was aiming it scornfully at our opponent) "would give his ship a name like that. And no captain older than about fifteen would paint it that colour, either."

"Hey, I'm fifteen," I pointed out. "And I wouldn't paint my ship black."

"Fourteen, then. It's typical teenage rebellion thing. If he lived in my world he'd be a Goth."

"No, he wouldn't," said Danny. "I know... knew a couple of Goths, and they were alright. It's true they wear black a lot, but it's not really a rebellion thing, it's more…"

"Well, it doesn't matter," I interrupted. "Either way, we're in trouble here. If we end up on board that thing it'll be straight back to Feodosia and Pasha's basement, and that's one place I've been trying hard to forget."

"That goes for us both," said Wolfie, with feeling.

We walked the rest of the way to the ship. I was expecting Pasha to pop out and grin at us when we got there, but instead it was a boy in his late teens who emerged from the gondola. He was wearing a white military jacket, grey trousers and riding boots.

"Is he the captain?" I asked Wolfie.

"I don't think so. The rank badges make him a lieutenant."

"Then he's probably Pasha's Number One. Ask him where Pasha is, Joe."

I was expecting to hear something like the long, convoluted sentence Joe had taught me in the Crimea, giving Pasha's full name and rank. Instead he simply said "Gdyeh Romanov?", and the Russian officer glared at him and pulled a revolver from its holster.

"Nyet!" came a voice, and Dmitri hobbled out of the bridge gondola, supporting himself on crutches.

The officer turned to look at him and they spoke for a few seconds, but it was obvious that Dmitri was giving the orders, even though he wasn't wearing an officer's uniform. The white-jacketed Russian shrugged, put his pistol away and stood aside.

Next Dmitri spoke to Joe.

"What's he saying?" I asked Simon.

"Basically he's telling him not to be so stupid," said Simon. "Apparently not showing the captain respect is a really bad idea…. Leo, it sounds as if they know each other. How come? You just said we're enemies, didn't you?"

"It's a long story," I said. "The short version is that we captured Dmitri – the Cossack boy – a little while back. He was seriously injured, your brother looked after him and they became sort of friends."

"Oh. Anyway, he says the captain is away but should be back soon, so we have to wait here for him. And Joe says we don't seem to have a lot of choice… oh, he wants me. I'll be right back."

I watched as Joe introduced his brother to Dmitri, and then Simon spoke to Dmitri for a few seconds.

"He seems nice," he said, once he got back to my side. "He's going to call me Senya, which is the diminutive of Semyon, which is the Russian version of Simon. I hope the captain turns out to be as nice."

"The captain's insane," I told him. "He tortures people for fun. And he doesn't like us very much, either: we shot down his last ship. We'll be very lucky indeed if we get out of this situation alive."

We only had about ten minutes to wait before we saw Pasha, accompanied by Sergei, heading towards the ship. He was wearing a similar uniform to that of the lieutenant, but this one had rather more braid, and there was a row of decorations on his left breast. He didn't seem to be in a very good mood at all, but when he saw us his face lit up.

"It's my favourite English Lord!" he exclaimed in German. "And my favourite Prussian prince, too. What a nice surprise! I really didn't think it would be this easy… How wonderful!"

He turned to the white-jacketed officer and spoke to him briefly.

"He's telling him to recall everyone to the ship," Joe told me, at which Pasha turned and looked at us.

"What's this?" he asked. "You mean you've got another Russian speaker apart from Four-eyes? Oh, but… this is the Jew who likes Cossacks, isn't it?"

He said something to Dmitri, who nodded.

"Do you speak German?" he said to Joe.

"No, he doesn't," I replied for him. "But his Russian should be good enough."

"Good," said Pasha, and he began to talk to Joe in that language.

"He's saying thank you for looking after Dima – that's the short form of…"

I know," I cut in. "Does he mean it, or is he being sarcastic, do you think?"

"No, he definitely means it. He seems genuinely grateful. Are you sure he's insane, Leo? He really doesn't sound it."

"Just wait a bit," I said, gloomily.

"Oh, and you've brought Curly as well," said Pasha to me. "Wonderful! I've wanted to meet him ever since Feodosia. Does he speak Russian?"

"No," I told him. "Or German, either. But I can translate for you."

"If you would. What's his name?"

"Alex. Or we could do it properly: Your Imperial Highness, may I present Lieutenant Alexandros Demetriou. Alex, this is his Imperial Highness, the Grand Duke Pavel Mikhailovitch Romanov."

"We've met," said Alex, sourly.

"Ah, so you're Greek," said Pasha. "They always had a reputation for being wily. I was really impressed by that stunt you pulled with the French boy. The way you fronted that was terrific."

"It was mostly the French boy's idea," Alex told him.

"Even so. You were completely believable, you know. Hell, you didn't just fool me; you fooled your own captain, too. I hope he didn't hit you too hard."

"It was hard enough," said Alex. "But it was worth it."

"Yes, I believe it was." He looked around. "I don't see Mr Duvallier here. I wonder where he is..."

"By now he's probably at the French armour research laboratory," I told him. "Once the Froggies grabbed the stash at Friedrichshafen they took him back to lead their work on it."

"I'd like to believe you… well, no, actually I'd prefer not to believe you, because if that is true we'll have the devil's own problem getting hold of him again. I'd prefer to think he's still with your ship on that airfield in Basel… oh, yes, you can believe I've been following your progress over the last two or three days.

"Still, perhaps we can talk about that later. So, I've met you and the Margrave before, and now I've met Curly and the Jew – so who are the other three? Let's start with mini-four-eyes."

"Hello," said Simon, before I could say anything. The rest of what he said was in Russian, but I didn't really need Joe to tell me that Simon was introducing himself and offering his hand, not realising that this was akin to putting your willy in a pool of piranhas.

Pasha replied to him, shook his hand and then grinned at me, looking positively piranha-like.

"What a charming boy!" he exclaimed. "Haven't you told him I'm a fiend from hell?"

"Yes, but he doesn't seem to believe me."

Pasha burst out laughing. "God, I really enjoy talking to you," he said. "Come on – let's go and have a chat in my cabin."

"Not a bloody chance!" I told him. "I'd sooner be shot right now than be flown back to Feodosia."

"We're going nowhere," said Pasha. "My word on it: the ship stays on the ground. And you know perfectly well that I wouldn't have to shoot you: we could get all seven of you on the ship with no trouble if we wanted to. I'm a little hurt to think that you don't want to have a go on my rack, though… anyway, just tell me who Blondie and Mousy are, and then we'll go and relax on the ship."

I think he was referring to Danny's demeanour rather than his hair colour, which was actually a sort of red-brown.

"The blond one is Billy Rodgers – he's one of my helmsmen, but he's here because we were using horses earlier, and he's also one of my stable-lads; and the other one is a friend of Simon's. His name is Danny Carmody."

"Thank you."

He spoke to the officer, telling them that my friends could stay where they were, and then gestured for me to precede him into the command gondola, so I stepped aboard. The layout was a bit different, but it had the same basic stations as Excelsior. Without waiting to be told I climbed the ladder and then followed Pasha to a nicely furnished cabin a short distance away. Sergei followed us in and took up a position by the door.

"Nice," I said, sinking into a comfortable chair. "Isn't this stuff a bit heavy, though?"

"Not really. A couple of crewmen, a few shells, a bit of coal. I had quite enough of basic quarters on Suvorov, so now I have my own ship – thanks to you – I thought a little comfort would be nice. You'll like the bed, too: it's big enough for three."

"I wasn't intending sleeping in it," I pointed out. "And if it's really thanks to me that you've got a nice new ship, how about saying thank you by letting my friends go?"

"Just your friends? Aren't you going to ask me to let you go too?"

"Priorities," I replied. "Put it this way: if you let the others go, I'll go back to Feodosia with you without arguing."

He stared at me. "You're not much good at chess, are you?" he commented.

"Well, no, not really."

"Thought not. That's one hell of a big gambit to open with: normally I'd expect you to work up to something like that."

"Pasha, you're not stupid, and neither am I," I told him. "I know there's no way you're going to let me go. This time around I don't think you'd let me go even if I could deliver Duvallier to you – which I can't. So instead of pussyfooting around, let's just get down to business: my life for my friends'."

"The problem is," he pointed out, "that you're in no position to bargain. Assuming you're telling the truth about Duvallier – and on balance it would make sense for the French to want him back – you've got nothing to trade. What are you going to offer me – money? Power? A box at the Royal Opera? You might think that you can escape between here and Feodosia, or you might even have some thoughts about jumping without a jumpshade, since you'd expect that to be a better death than the rack. But all I have to do is keep you and your friends chained up all the way back and you'd all be mine to play with."

"Well, what do you want, then?"

"What I want is something you can't give me."

"Try me."

He looked at me. "What I really want is for someone to go and kill the morons on my uncle's General Staff, because the stupid bastards have lost us the war. But even if you could do that, it's too late now."

"Lost the war? What do you mean? Last I heard your army north of the Vosges was doing amazingly – in fact I'd been wondering if the French had lost by now."

"They should have done, if the clowns in generals' uniforms weren't stuck in the seventeenth century. I've just been over to the semaphore station on the north-west arm. It's part of the weather station, but it gets all the news… anyway, come and look at the map and I'll tell you what happened."

He spread out a map of the north-eastern part of the French Empire on his desk.

"We expected to get held up in the mountains," he said, indicating the Vosges. "And the north-easterly part of the French frontier is too far from Paris to matter. That leaves two corridors, one through the Belfort Gap and one north of the Vosges and south of the Ardennes. The Gap is too well-defended, and Belfort itself is well-nigh impregnable, but the northern corridor was a lot easier. The plan was to send the ships on ahead to destroy the French air force – on the ground, if possible – and then rush the infantry and autocannons along the corridor before the French could recover.

"And to start with it worked perfectly: the Eagles bombed ten bells out of the bases at Metz and Nancy, and the infantry columns and the autocannon units bypassed Strasbourg and headed down the corridor. And then some stupid anus of a Marshal got cold feet and started whimpering about supply lines and reinforcements and nonsense like that, so the advance was ordered to stop at Nancy and consolidate. Have you ever heard anything so pathetic?"

"What would you have done, then?"

"Isn't it obvious? We press on, as fast as we can. Nancy is nothing – the goal has to be Paris. I'd have collected as many Eagles as I could lay my hands on and bombed Versailles to the devil and back. Odds are Napoleon would have crawled out of the rubble waving a white flag. Meanwhile, the auto-cannons, together with as many steam trucks as we can find or steal from the French, are rushing our infantry along the corridor to the gates of Paris. At the same time, troop-carrying Eagles are landing masses of infantry right outside the city. We could have got there by Wednesday morning, while most of the French army was still pulling its trousers on and while the English milords were lying on their fat arses dreaming of roast goose.

"But, no, the rattling antiques that pass for military leaders decree that we have to stop at Nancy and 'consolidate', and of course that gives the Froggies time to round up some soldiers and counter-attack, and it also gives the bloody English time to overrule their normal caution and send a fleet of coastal defence ætherships to plug the gap we'd torn in the French air defence.

"We're still holding the ground we've taken, but we won't be going any further forward, so it's over: every day we sit bogged down in Nancy your friend Duvallier is churning out more and more fully armoured ships. It's just a matter of time before we're driven back, and this time the French won't stop at the Rhine. Oh, it'll take years, but in the long run this is a war we can't win any more."

I looked at him.

"Thank you for telling me," I said. "I won't lie and say that I'm sorry, because obviously I'm not, but… maybe you won't want to hear this, but you're absolutely right: if the High Command had followed your plan it would have worked, and almost certainly the French would have been forced to surrender."

"You think so?"

"I'm sure of it. After all, that's almost exactly what happened in 1940."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

Suddenly I realised that I'd allowed myself to become so caught up in the situation that I'd forgotten who I was talking to.

"Oh," I said, thinking frantically, "It's a series of war games and planning scenarios the British military drew up to try to predict what might happen if Russia made certain moves. My father told me about some of them shortly before he died. And one of them was exactly what you're talking about now, a sort of lightning strike into France."

Of course we were speaking German, so I actually used the word Blitzkrieg.

"Blitzkrieg," he said. "That's a really good description, and perfect if it was applied to a plan I'd put forward… except that by the time I'm old enough for anyone to take any notice of me, the French will be at the gates of Petersburg."

"I doubt it," I said. "That scenario has been played through too – twice, in fact. And each time the Russians retreated slowly and then just waited for winter. Those scenarios are numbers 1812 and 1941, and the Russians won them both. I should think your worst case scenario would be losing the German territories, and perhaps Poland."

"Where?"

"Sorry, I mean the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. And there, unless they are completely stupid, the French will stop. I can't foresee any serious attempt to invade Russia proper."

"I hope you're right."

"So do I, because when the scenarios were played through, the result of trying to capture Petersburg and Moscow was a complete disaster for the Western Powers both times. I'll certainly be doing my level best to talk the High Command out of it."

"That gives me another reason to kill you, then," he said, grinning once more.

"Wouldn't you rather that I try to talk the High Command out of advancing too far east?" I said. "The sooner they stop, the more territory you get to keep, and the fewer soldiers on both sides have to die."

"I'm not too bothered about soldiers dying. It's what they're paid to do, after all. But I would prefer to avoid taking my ship up against too many of Duvallier's inventions. That damned ship of yours was a real bastard to shoot down."

"You came close, though: you destroyed one of our engines, damaged our rudder and weakened our armour so badly that when we were fighting at Regensburg our hull was holed twice. It's sheer luck that we survived."

"I'm glad to hear that it can be holed," he said. "I really was starting to wonder back at Feodosia."

"Why did you keep attacking after we took out your engine?"

"Because I was bloody annoyed, that's why. Dmitri had just told me about Duvallier's breastplate, and you can imagine that I wasn't very happy about it. So I just couldn't stop trying to shoot you down."

"You know that was bad captaincy, don't you?" I said. "It must have been obvious by then that we had the better armour. If you'd broken off your attack I'd have let you go."

"Would you? I thought you'd be so mad about the Margrave and the rack that you'd never stop trying to kill me."

"Well, I was, obviously, but it would have been stupid to risk the ship and my crew just because I was angry."

"Is that a rebuke, de Courtenay?"

"Well, sort of. Anyway, what are you going to do? Kill me twice?"

"Well, I could keep you alive on the rack for a lot longer than you would want me to. But in this case, I suppose you're right – although, as I said before, losing the ship actually did me a favour, because when my uncle heard that I'd been shot down over Russian territory he was so furious that when I asked him for a privateer's licence he gave me one on the spot. I didn't actually tell him that I already had a ship that was ready for its proving flights, of course… Still, maybe you are a better captain than me. After all, you've been at it a lot longer."

"I'm not sure that I am. I've made loads of mistakes… look, Pasha, can we get back to my friends? Obviously I can't assassinate your High Command, but is there anything I could offer you in exchange for their lives?"

"Not really. I'm half-inclined to let Curly the Greek go because I respect him, and I know Dmitri doesn't want me to kill Joseph the Jew, but I can't really see any reason to let any of the others go, can you?"

"You could just do it to be merciful."

He laughed. "Merciful? Me? Pasha the Merciful? I don't think so. I'd get a reputation for being soft, and that would never do. No, I think we'll just have to kill them. Still, maybe I can be a bit merciful and just shoot them here, rather than taking them back to my playroom with you. What do you think?"

I didn't think anything I could say would make any difference, so I kept quiet.

"Now you look angry again," he told me. "Would you like to whip me? You said no last time, but maybe this time around… yes?"

"No," I said.

"And now you just look sort of defeated," he told me. "You realise getting angry won't help, and you're scared of giving into to your inner rage by beating me… come on, Leo, let the rage out! Stop holding back – you'll definitely be able to whip me bloody if you give in to the fury I can see growing behind your eyes again – come on… you know you want to…"

And I did want to – I wanted to hurt him and go on hurting him, worse and worse, for a very long time…but somehow I reined it back in. I took a few deep breaths.

"Wow, that was close, wasn't it?" he said, grinning at me. "I'm sure that next time I'll be able to push you that little bit further… I have got some acid on board, you know. I wonder which of your friends would be the best lever?"

"Why?" I asked. "Why do you want to be hurt all the time?"

"Because it reminds me that I'm alive," he said. "The pain, the feeling of wetness, the body being pushed further and further… it's like sex, I suppose, although probably sex is nothing like as exciting. I've never really felt the urge to try, to be honest, which I suppose is because I'm still not sexually mature yet - although I do find the idea of being taken roughly rather exciting. I'd get Dmitri to do it, but he's not really in a position to do very much at all at the moment, and Sergei isn't really big enough… Hey, Leo – how would you like to rape me? That might be almost as much fun as whipping me!"

"No, thank you," I said. "I probably am big enough now, but rape isn't my idea of sex. Sex is about loving someone and cuddling and being gentle with each other and trying to make your partner feel as good as you possibly can. It's the complete opposite of rape."

"Pity. Perhaps I can talk Curly or Joe into it, then? Or the Margrave?"

"I think you'll find that they feel the same way about it as I do. It's just a pity we didn't meet each other a few years ago, before your brothers and your father completely messed you up. Maybe then we could have showed you what real sex – and real love - is about."

He looked at me, and once again there was just a flicker of something sad and lonely behind his eyes. But once again it only lasted a moment.

"Too late," he said, grinning again. "I'm already fucked. So, is there anything else you want to tell me, or shall we go and start shooting your friends?" And he stood up.

"Like what?" I asked him.

"Well, there was one thing that I was wondering about," he said, sitting down again. "See, after our little run-in last year I had your photos added to the security list – that's foreign agents that we want to keep track of, especially if they enter our territory. All the border posts have lists and photos. Of course when things are quiet nobody bothers looking at them very much, but when we went onto a full war footing at the weekend the watch was stepped up.

"So when you and the Margrave drove over the border on Tuesday morning your presence was noted and a report was sent to the local police headquarters, and because I'd added a note to the file ordering the police to notify me if there was any sighting of you, a semaphore report was put out and it eventually reached me.

"I hadn't actually expected you to pop up again so soon – in fact I thought it had to be a mistake, because you'd only just got out of our territory and I couldn't for one moment believe you'd risk coming back in again without a very good reason. Still, you can imagine that I wanted to speak to you. Fortunately I'd already moved the ship into Bavaria, because if there was going to be a war it would give us a chance to see what we could do, and so I was able to get the ship down to Lörrach yesterday…"

"Hang on," I said. "It's only two weeks since we shot down Alexander Suvorov. Do you mean to say that you finished the new ship, got your licence from the Tsar and managed to fly to Bavaria in that time? I though your bureaucracy was even worse than ours."

"The ship was already finished, and the licence took almost no time because the Tsar flew into Kiev to find out for himself what had happened at Alushta," he said. "Like I said, he gave it to me on the spot.

"Anyway, when we got to Lörrach I interviewed the border guards myself, and I identified the carriage driver as your Russian speaker and confirmed with the guards that the vehicle had not yet returned. Of course you might not have come back the same way, but I'd notified the other border posts along the Swiss frontier that you were to be held if you tried to cross. And since you were driving a Swiss vehicle it seemed likely that you would come back the same way eventually.

"So I left a couple of my Cossacks at the crossing and just waited. You'd told the guards you were going to Todtnau, but that didn't make any real sense to me – it's a small place of no importance. So I thought it was possible that you'd lied and had actually gone somewhere else, although it also seemed sensible to concentrate on that area, just in case you hadn't been lying.

"Anyway, at a little after half-past one this afternoon the car crossed the border and went back into Switzerland. The people in it obviously weren't you, so we let it go because the driver told the guards that he'd be coming back for the rest of the party shortly. We flew up here, because this gives us an excellent view of the whole region, deployed our troops all around the hill, especially in Todtnau, and waited. And then you very kindly went and walked straight into our welcoming arms.

"One of our own vehicles will have been shadowing your driver as soon as he crossed the border again – just in case he was going in a completely different direction – and that means we'll be able to pick him up too. In fact by now we probably have. So the big question is: what on earth was so important that you deliberately re-entered our territory? And who were the people in the carriage? There was a little girl with them, so obviously they weren't military - in fact, it sounds like they were a family group, or possibly two. So what, then – spies? Surely not: spies don't leave their posts just when the fighting starts, because that's when they're at their most useful.

"Some of them could speak Russian, apparently, but nobody in the carriage could speak German. And that's particularly odd if they'd been living in Baden. So – can you throw any light on this?"

"Not really," I said.

He gave me a grin that was, if anything, even wider than usual.

"Oh, Leo," he said, shaking his head. "Why do you keep doing this? You did it in Norway, you did it at Feodosia, and now you're doing it again. You know perfectly well that you're going to tell me what I want to know the moment I physically threaten one of your friends, and yet you still refuse to do the sensible thing before we reach that stage. Well, come on, then – we'll do it your way, if you insist."

He stood up and gestured to me to leave the cabin, and when I took my time about standing up Sergei stepped forward and clouted my shoulder with the butt of his revolver. It hurt like hell, and if I'd needed a reminder of the situation I was in – despite the fairly friendly conversation we'd just been having – it did that job perfectly. I stood up, rubbing my shoulder, and allowed them to shepherd me back out onto the grass.

"Right," said Pasha. "Now let's start again: who were the people in the carriage, and why couldn't any of them speak German?"

I hesitated, and Pasha gave a sharp order to two of his Cossacks, who grabbed the nearest of my friends – it happened to be Danny – and dragged him forward. Pasha pulled his revolver from its holster and aimed it at Danny's balls. Simon tried to intervene, but was grabbed by the lieutenant.

"Happy now?" Pasha asked me. "Why we have to go through this nonsense every time is beyond me, but what the hell… so, who were they?"

Well, they were safely in Switzerland by now, so I supposed it wouldn't do too much harm to answer.

"Alex's and Joe's parents, and Alex's sister," I told him.

"And what were they doing in Baden?"

That was a much harder question, of course.

"Well… they were on holiday," I tried.

Pasha stared at me.

"That," he declared "is complete bullcrap, and it's going to cost your friend here a bollock."

He wrenched Danny's belt open, undid the button at the top of his jeans, stared for a long moment at his zip – which of course was something that hadn't yet been invented in this world – and then shrugged, ripped it down and pulled Danny's jeans and underwear down to his knees.

"Those people are English – well, maybe Greek and maybe even Russian, but they live in England. They surely must, because your friends aren't old enough to live apart from their parents. So the last place they would go on holiday would be in our territory, and especially if none of them can speak the local language."

He placed the barrel of his revolver against Danny's left ball. When I'd done this to Pasha when we were on the Lady Renée it had given him an erection and apparently amused him so much that he had made a joke about it, but Danny wasn't amused at all – in fact he was so scared that he urinated involuntarily. Luckily for him it missed Pasha, who was standing to one side.

"Last chance," said Pasha, ignoring the flow. "Five, four…"

At that point Danny's wallet slipped from his trouser pocket.

"Ah, yes: that might be interesting," said Pasha, passing his gun to one of the Cossacks who was holding Danny. He bent down, retrieved the wallet and opened it.

"Now, let's see what we can learn from…"

He pulled a ten Euro note from the wallet and stared at it.

"What the bloody hell is this?" he asked.

Next he dug out an English five pound note, and if anything this confused him even more, because of course it carried a portrait of Elizabeth II instead of James V. Pasha positively gaped at it.

"What the fuck?" he exclaimed.

"It's toy money!" I said. "I've got some, too – we use it for playing card games and stuff."

"I seriously doubt that – they're better made – much better made – than real money. And in any case there's no way a pretend note would carry a picture of a different monarch at all, let alone one as convincing as this. But Britain hasn't had a queen since Anne, and that must have been nearly three hundred years ago…"

He stared at me again, glanced back at Danny long enough to gesture to him to get dressed again, took his revolver back from the Cossack and then looked at me once more.

"There was a rumour," he said. "When you told me about getting lost for four years it seemed to be a hell of a long time for a member of an important noble house to disappear from view. So I got our agents to ask around. Nobody knew anything for sure, but there was some vague story about you having fallen into a different world, or something like that. Of course we all thought that was bollocks – obviously there's no such thing as a different world. And yet, and yet… it would explain why every policeman in England failed to find you for four years.

"Could it actually be true? Is there really another world where there's a woman on the British throne? And that metal thing on the front of his trousers – I've never seen anything like that before. Or those weird shoes he's wearing, either… and maybe in the other world Baden isn't under Russian occupation – in fact, maybe there isn't a war at all, and English people could live there safely, or go on holiday there…

"Is that it, Leo? And don't bother going into your usual stupid 'I'm not going to tell you' dance, because I'm done with fannying around: answer the question, or I'll kill them one by one. And if that isn't the right answer, you'd better have a pretty convincing alternative."

"Don't tell him, Leo!" said Wolfie.

Pasha turned and shot at him – or rather, almost at him. The bullet zipped past Wolfie's ear.

"Yes," I said to Pasha, "that's right. Alex, Joe, Simon and Danny were born in that world and I was there for four years."

"And how do you get there?"

"No!" bellowed Wolfie. "It's better that we all die than that he finds out how…"

I felt thoroughly sick. Of course Wolfie was right: to allow the Russians access to Alex's world would be disastrous: Alex and I had decided against importing technology like petrol engines and nuclear energy, but it was a certainty that Pasha would grab everything available. But even if we did keep quiet and let him shoot all of us there was a chance he'd still find the hole by accident – after all, the Cossacks who had captured us would be able to show him roughly where to look, and he would surely be drawn to that solitary patch of mist, just as we had been. And in that case I'd be condemning all my friends to death for nothing.

"All right," I said. "I'll tell you – in fact I'll take you there myself. But you can't imagine how much of a difference this will make to things, and so there's a price: I'll co-operate fully and guide you there, and I'll help to explain how things work, too, because it's a lot different from here. But in return I want your word that you'll let us go… shut up, Wolfie, there's no choice. All of us, including me. When you see it, you'll realise that it's worth it.

"If you don't agree to that, there's no deal: you can shoot us all, but you'll never learn how to find the hole or how to use it. Because really Wolfie is right: it is better that we should die than that you should find the secret."

"And do you still trust me to keep my word?"

"Yes. You've never broken it yet, and nor have I. So let's be clear here: the deal is that I show you the hole and explain how it works, and you let me and all my friends go – including our driver – and allow us to return to Switzerland. No stopping us at the border, no attacking us before we get there, nothing like that. Is that fair?"

He looked at me. "I'm suspicious," he told me. "If the other world really is better than this, telling me about it would be betraying your country, and I don't see you as a traitor, somehow. What's the catch?"

"No catch," I said. "Patriotism is a wonderful, noble ideal, but to me it comes second to protecting one's friends. Besides, as you can imagine, the hole isn't as simple as all that, otherwise everyone would know about it and people would be pouring back and forth all the time. It's not a path to instant riches. But I know you'll think it's worth it. In fact, if you don't, instead of letting me go with the others you can take me back to Feodosia after all."

"Ah, now that's a much better use of the self-sacrifice gambit," he said, approvingly. "Very well, I accept. So, where's this hole you keep talking about?"

"You'd better go and get changed first," I told him. "That jacket is going to attract far too much attention over there. Same goes for any of your Cossacks who are coming with us. Try to dress like us."

"We can do that easily enough," said Pasha, and he walked up to Simon and said something to him in Russian. Simon queried it, Pasha repeated it, and Simon shrugged and began to get undressed.

"He told him to swap clothes,' Joe explained.

"I'd sort of guessed," I replied.

Both boys stripped to their underwear, and then Pasha pulled the elastic of Simon's boxers forward, looked inside and said something.

"He says he's jealous," Joe translated.

Simon impudently did the same thing, made a remark of his own and Pasha cracked up laughing.

"Si said 'So you should be!' said Joe.

Pasha went and stood beside Simon and rested an arm on his shoulders.

"I like this one almost as much as I like you," he said to me. "Are you sure I can't keep him?"

"Quite sure. And he isn't an orphan, remember?"

"Nor is he," said Pasha, starting to put Simon's clothes on and indicating to Simon that he should get dressed too. "So how exactly did his parents come to be in Baden?"

"They travelled here by train," I told him. "This is the only hole now – there was one in England, but it was destroyed in an accident. This was the only place we could get them across. See, Alex was with me when I found the way back to this world. It was completely by accident… anyway, he decided he liked my world and wanted to stay, and then he invited Joe to come through as well, and he liked it too. So they both wanted to bring their families through to live here permanently, and this was the only place we could do it. You don't think I'd have come back into your territory if there was any way around it, surely?"

"No, I suppose you wouldn't," said Pasha. He picked out a pair of slightly older Cossacks and sent them to change clothes with Alex and Joe, then sent Sergei to swap with Billy. Billy was a bit taller, but he was the smallest in the party, so there wasn't any choice.

Simon finished putting on Pasha's resplendent uniform. Then he turned to the nearest Cossack and said (this time Pasha translated for me), "I'm the captain now, so I want you to shoot him," and he indicated the lieutenant. "Lieutenant, kill this Cossack."

Even the lieutenant managed to smile at that.

Pasha said something to Simon that made him laugh. "I told him not to cause a mutiny before I get back," Pasha explained to me.

"Pasha," I said, hesitantly as we waited for the clothes-swap to finish, "when you were joking around with Simon… well… you looked really happy, even though you weren't hurting anyone and nobody was hurting you. I don't think it's too late for you to live like a normal boy - you know, having fun with friends and stuff like that…"

"Still trying to save my poor black soul?" he replied, grinning at me.

"I'd like to," I said, quietly.

"Well, like you said inside, if you'd met me five or six years ago, maybe you could have. Not now, though – I'm far too set in my horrid, evil, vicious ways!"

He gave me another huge grin and walked off to try to speed his Cossacks up, while I tried to work out if there was any other way to get through to him. I was forced to conclude that there wasn't: as he'd said himself, he was just too far gone.

Once Sergei and the other two were ready, Pasha said, "Come on, then – where's this hole?"

"Wait", I said. "Joe, can you explain to him, and to the lieutenant, about what happens if the wind gets up? If that happens we'll just wait, and it's essential that the lieutenant does, too – I don't want him to panic and start shooting people if we can't get back for a day or two. The forecast was decent, but you never know."

I waited while Joe did that and fielded a couple of questions, and then I asked Pasha if he had any paint on board, or something that could be used to make a mark so that he would be able to locate the hole in future without me. One of the Cossacks went on board the ship and returned with a pot of black paint that was presumably intended to touch up any marks on the hull. Then I led Pasha and his three followers off to the north-east.

I led them down from the summit some distance before the hole, merely to get us out of sight of the ship. I could see that the mist was still there, but I ignored it until we reached the foot of the steep part of the slope, at which point I got my compass out, took a bearing that would lead us to the wooded part of the slope a short distance east of the hole, and started walking.

"It's a bearing of fifty degrees from the foot of the slope," I said. "I'm not quite sure exactly where on the slope that had to be measured from because I've only done this journey here once, and that was in the opposite direction. But if this doesn't take us directly to the hole you just turn left when you reach the edge of the trees."

So we reached the edge of the trees and turned left.

"It seems to be getting a bit misty," I commented – obviously I didn't want them making any connection between the hole and the mist. "It doesn't matter, though – if we stick to the edge of the wood we can't go wrong."

I went on into the mist, moving slowly, counting my steps. Fourteen paces later the mist began to thin, and I could see the other world ahead – I knew we were safely back there because I could see the restaurant.

"We've just passed the hole," I said. "Come back and I'll show you where to mark it, just in case you have a job finding it again."

I led them seven paces back the way we had come, identified a large rock on one side and a big tree on the other and got one of the Cossacks to splash both with copious amounts of paint.

"Now you shouldn't need me next time," I said. "Come on and I'll show you what the other world is like."

And I led them through to the other side. I knew exactly how dangerous this was: I was deliberately leading a Russian nobleman into Alex's world. I had a plan to deal with the situation, but it was entirely dependent on Pasha keeping his word. If he didn't, I might have just handed Russia the means of winning the war.

Talk about this story on our forum
Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily. Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]