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Chapter Forty-Four

Schloß Rosenkreuz, 1865

"You've been pretending the headaches have become no worse," said the doctor, frowning down at the boy sitting naked and shivering upon the edge of the clammy leather examination couch. "You have been lying to your instructors."

"No, sir," said the boy at once.

"Don't lie to me, Crawford. Read the chart on the wall."

Crawford squinted hard, reading, "Z . . . K . . . N . . . P . . ."

"You can't even see the second line," said the doctor impatiently. "What is more, it is known that you are a disrespectful liar, and it has been known for some time. Nothing to say? Good. Hold still." He popped a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles onto Crawford's nose. "Read again."

Crawford read, obediently. The doctor made notes and took away the first pair of spectacles, putting another pair upon him. "And again. Do the headaches worsen if you are in bright light?"

"Yes," muttered Crawford. "Sometimes the visions come with flashes of light as well."

"Just light, or sound too?" asked the doctor, scribbling upon a pad of paper.

"Usually light," said Crawford. "I only remember sound coming once, today." He struggled for words, finally continuing, "it sounded like metal." He paused, frustrated. "I do not know how to explain it," he said, feeling he could not even remember properly for himself how it had been, only that it had been terrible.

"And that was when you were found in the dormitory?"

"Yes," said Crawford, not liking to think how he had been discovered curled into a tight ball under his bed. Of the vision itself he remembered nothing, just the pain and brightness.

"Well, well, well," said the doctor. "If you had been a sensible boy and come to the sanatorium earlier you would not have suffered such an unpleasant experience. Let us try this pair now. Read the chart on the other wall."

Crawford read, wishing he could get dressed. He had been prodded and poked and forced to endure a cold stethoscope, and to sit now in a draught feeling his flesh turn to ice seemed the final indignity. At last the doctor sat back, regarding him with a gaze as chilly as the air in the room.

"Your health seems acceptable enough," he said. "Your heart is steady, there is no problem that I can detect in your lungs and you seem to have no shortness of breath. You shall not attempt to disguise any problems with your fitness again," he continued. "You may feel admitting weaknesses to be shameful or troublesome with the other students, but I assure you that you would find it more troublesome to be blind. Spectacles to correct your vision will be supplied. You shall wear them, Crawford. Why you have not been wearing them for years is beyond me. My fool of a predecessor should have had you wearing them from the moment you were taken, then you would not be half-blind at the age of eleven."

"I'm twelve now, sir," said Crawford quickly, "and my sight used to be better," he continued, hating the feel of the spectacles upon his nose and the way they pinched behind his ears. "I'm sure I didn't need them before I was a student here. Also, my mother considered it unbecoming for a boy to wear spectacles."

"Then she is a vain American fool," said the doctor. "Get dressed. You should find that the headaches are lessened once you have your proper spectacles, and the aversion to light should also subside. If you are subject to any more convulsions you will be put on a course of potassium bromide, but let us not waste resources until that becomes necessary." He smiled thinly, adding, "It is often the case that students find themselves in need of medication as they find themselves becoming pubescent. Something to look forward to, hey?" He shook his head as the boy held out the spectacles he had been wearing during the examination. "No. Wear those until the proper ones are ready. You should at least be able to see the boards in the classrooms. Don't break them, boy, or you'll be punished."

"Yes, sir," said Crawford politely, seething with fury that he knew was safe enough, as long he did not show it upon his face, and wishing he could pay the doctor back properly for his slight upon his mother. At the doctor's gesture of dismissal he went out, dreading the response of the other students when they should see him now branded with a sign of imperfection and weakness. He did not have long to wait, for the other boys and girls in his class stared at him avidly as he slipped into his place for the remainder of their course on political theory, and one of the mind readers smiled slyly, his voice in Crawford's head telling him suddenly they were all looking forward to the exercise break that would follow.

In the courtyard reserved for the boys Crawford attempted to keep all his classmates in view, without displaying fear, as they began to circle about him. He felt annoyed at how clear and sharp his vision was now with the hated spectacles, letting him know how foolish he had previously been when he lied not only to others, as was necessary, but also to himself, telling himself that his sight was not so very bad, for he hated to be proved wrong in any opinion.

"Four eyes," he heard from behind him.

"Unimaginative fool," he said, keeping his voice level.

He was shoved hard all at once, though no hand touched him, and then they rushed him as one. Crawford found himself spun round by one blow, and was left gasping as another boy brought his knee up sharply. Then red rage overcame him and he drove his fist into the stomach of one of his tormentors, stamping down upon the instep of another with the heel of his heavy boot. All at once it seemed to him as if they moved very slowly, and that he saw quite clearly every move they would make in the seconds before they would make it. He stepped to one side to avoid a vicious kick aimed at his knee, punching that boy as he turned to kick another boy's feet out from under him. A feeling of great surety came over him, and he knew as firmly as if he had been told by an adult in whom he had the greatest trust - if any person should have existed - that as long as he obeyed his foreknowledge he should come to no further harm in the melee.

"The exuberance of youth," remarked Dorfmann idly, as he watched the fight swirl and move about the courtyard. "Those boys are showing some progress in their abilities, are they not?"

His interlocutor grimaced. "I am not overly interested in the exploits of small boys, Dorfmann," he said. "I leave that up to you and the other instructors who must deal with them in their unformed state." He paused, watching as Crawford took advantage of the slightest moment in the fight to push his spectacles more comfortably up his nose and then to spin around and slam his fist into an unwary boy's kidneys. "Their fighting is at least of an acceptable standard," said the man, grudgingly.

"Thank you, sir," said Dorfmann.

They watched as the other boys drew back, leaving Crawford alone momentarily amidst them, a purpling bruise on one cheek showing that he was not entirely unscathed. Then, as the fight started once more, the tide turned and a boy whose bloodied nose showed he had previously received more than one blow from Crawford directed a punch not at the American boy but at another of their classmates, turning his back to Crawford and providing him with aid. As the instructors watched, another boy who had clearly not been fired with much enthusiasm for the fight, and who had hung back as much as would not bring him unwanted notice, also joined their little group and it was suddenly not so easy for the other boys to seek to flank their prey in the attack. Dorfmann cast a quick glance upon the other man, finding his gaze intent upon the scene.

"This is interesting," the man said. "What will our other little wolf cubs do?" The question was not long in being answered as another boy and then another switched sides, until finally those who had not backed off and fled, leaving their classmates in victorious possession of the field. The boy who had joined with Crawford first looked at him with an expression that carried within it an equal measure of obsequiousness and bravado, speaking with what seemed to be forced bonhomie and clapping the other boy upon the shoulder.

"Will he accept this little faction?" mused the man, smiling unpleasantly as Crawford's own face broke into a smile that contained no warmth, and he clasped the eager boy's hand in his own. "He is not a fool, good. But what is this?"

From across the courtyard came another, older boy, who called out something in a jeering tone, making an obscene gesture and beckoning to Crawford. The younger boys stood transfixed, their gaze upon the young American who stared back at this new threat with eyes that seemed too cold and harsh for one of his young years. A moment before it seemed that his youthful followers would desert him, he gestured abruptly, giving voice to a peremptory order. As one the boys dashed forward, overwhelming the older, taller lad by sheer force of numbers. There was one last sight of his shocked face, and then he went down under their fists and feet, the laughter of his classmates at his predicament drowned out by the shrill yells and curses uttered in high-pitched boyish voices.

"We must keep an eye on young Crawford's progress, Dorfmann," said the man as he watched. "He has the makings of a leader of men. It grows cold. Come, let us go inside."

"Yes," said Dorfmann, looking back at the noisy scene across the courtyard and frowning. "I believe they are killing him, sir."

The man shrugged. "If he cannot hold his own against children what good is he to anyone? Come along, Dorfmann. The kitchens promised us seed-cake with our coffee today, did they not?"

They left, and the courtyard was once again the realm only of the students, their faces flushed with exertion and the cold. Seeing the older boys approaching en masse, Crawford led his little group away quickly to safety, all of them laughing and buoyed up with their victories. Not one of them mentioned his spectacles, nor made any disparaging comment about his appearance. Crawford grinned fiercely - they were his, and would be as long as he ruled them with a mixture of tyranny and favour, and could promise them success.

He already had so many plans for how he would use them.

* * *

The ruined city, 1880

Crawford lay between sleeping and waking, blinking up at the canvas as it moved above him, grey in the light of the hour before dawn. The air was pleasantly cool, enough so that it was most comfortable under his blankets, but heated to a degree within the tent by his presence and that of the others. Gently he slid his arm from beneath Nagi, peering from close range into the boy's face, relaxed and peaceful in sleep. No hint of dream showed to line the lad's brow, and he looked in truth very young, his cheeks round with baby fat still and his jaw smooth and free from even the merest hint of beard. "How old are you?" thought Crawford, moving Nagi's hair away from his face with a feather-light touch of a finger. The innocence of the boy, despite all that he had seen and all in which he had been of assistance, astounded Crawford, for he could not remember a time, as it seemed to him, when he had himself been but an innocent boy. "Even when I was but a child," he thought, "I benefited greatly from the enslavement of others, though I did not know it. How can I call myself innocent even then?" He drew a deep, quiet breath at the thought that if all had progressed as his family would undoubtedly have wished and as he himself had expected, he would now be a wealthy man holding many others in the chains of bondage. "Micah would be, I expect, one of the most favoured of my slaves," he thought in disgust, "and would have special leave to call me still "Mr Bradley" rather than "Mr Crawford" - and I would think I treated him well thereby!" He strove for calm, seeing both Nagi and Schuldig frown in their sleep and shift restlessly. Lying back, he fumbled beside him for his spectacle case, slipping them on to his face. At once the canvas over him sprang into sharp relief and even the sounds of the wind became, as it seemed, clearer. He let his mind drift, seeking even the merest scraps of foreknowledge that might make themselves known to him, but saw only sand, felt only the greatest of heat such as the Martian noon might afford and found his eyes prickling unaccountably with melancholic loneliness. The thought that he would find comfort in Schuldig's embrace occurred, but how, he wondered, should he accomplish that without disturbing the other sleepers by his side? Finally he sighed quietly and put his spectacles away again, turning over to put a careful arm across Nagi, resting his hand upon Schuldig's waist and closing his eyes. When he woke once more it was to find Schuldig watching him, his face still and half-shrouded in tangled strands of copper hair.

"What is it?' said Schuldig's voice within his mind. "Have you seen something bad?"

"No," answered Crawford in like manner. "It is nothing. I did not sleep well, that is all."

"You always sleep well," thought Schuldig accusingly. Then it seemed to Crawford as if he had the sensation that the mind reader shrugged, though it truth he did not shift a muscle. "No doubt it pleases you to think you can keep cares away from me, you foolish man." He leaned across Nagi to reach Crawford thinking, "You do not always have to be the one who wears himself out with cares and worries. Am I not your friend, whom you trust?"

"Yes," said Crawford.

"Good," said Schuldig, kissing him. He drew back then, his laughter sounding in Crawford's mind. "Good morning, Nagi," he said brightly.

Looking to the side Crawford saw the lad watching them with solemn eyes. "Good morning, Nagi," he echoed, gravely.

"Good morning," said Nagi. "Are we to get up?"

"I suppose so," sighed Schuldig. "You know how Crawford likes to work us from dawn to dusk. We shall be fainting with exhaustion and hunger, Nagi, and still he will want us to go on, as he stands over us with a whip and threats."

"I shall start by forcing you to make coffee," said Crawford.

"You want to drink Schuldig's coffee?" asked Nagi, still too dazed with sleep to make the question sound other than incredulous. He blushed as both Crawford and Schuldig laughed.

"Come! Up!" said Crawford, feeling his spirits much lifted. He rose quickly, drawing the boy up after him. "Maybe you should make the coffee," he said with a smile as Nagi at once darted out, the determination to make the perfect coffee for Crawford to drink clear in every line of his frame.

"What is the matter?" said Schuldig, when they were alone. "Do not dissimulate, Crawford! What terrible thing have you seen?"

"Nothing," said Crawford, "truly, Schuldig. Just the desert, and its dreadful heat, and I feel --"

"What?" said Schuldig.

"Lonely," shrugged Crawford. "How stupid, when I have all of you. I haven't seen anything befalling any of you, after all. It's just -- lonely."

"Dummkopf," murmured Schuldig putting his hand upon Crawford's cheek. "How can you imagine I will not be with you to keep you from falling into holes when you see some old pot to lust after?"

"I have been dreaming of the Schloß," said Crawford, with no knowledge he would say it until he saw Schuldig's face change.

"Crawford," said Schuldig, with sympathy, then with growing sharpness, "of its past or of its future?"

"Its past," said Crawford. "It was just a dream, not a vision, Schuldig. I would not keep such a thing from you."

"Indeed not," muttered Schuldig, embracing him tightly for a moment. "Ah, Brad."

"Let us go and see to whom Nagi has listened most closely on the topic of the making of breakfast," said Crawford, feeling he should not give in to self-indulgence and weakness, though the temptation to not release his friend from his arms was strong. He led the way outside and was soon sitting with a cup of hot, dark coffee given him proudly by Nagi. "It's very good," he said, watching as the lad smiled in delight. "He must have been paying close attention to you," murmured Crawford to Micah, who smiled down into his own cup.

"In India those upon whom I was set in observation had the devil's own thirst for both tea and coffee," said Micah. "Sometimes it seemed to me that I made it from morning to night. If you feel you would like some real variety in the meals I can make a fair attempt at a curry that will give the spiced food of the natives a run for its money."

"I am most dreadfully glad you are here and that you stand with us, Micah," said Crawford, the melancholy that had dogged him receding at last with the breaking of his fast.

"What? Because you are stricken dumb with astonishment that it is possible for a man to prepare food without rendering it inedible like the efforts of you three?" laughed Micah.

"Well, of course," said Crawford with a smile, "but more so because seeing you again has made me know once more how strongly I missed you. You are like the best of dreams come to life."

"No, that shall be our assured freedom," said Micah.

"Yes," said Crawford at once. "That will be the best."

"When we have achieved our aims," said Micah quietly, looking down. "Will you come with me to Virginia, Bradley? I know there is nothing there for you any more, but I would greatly like to see my parents, and I am sure they would be overjoyed to see you again, alive and well."

"I will, and gladly," said Crawford. "You will not object, I hope, to the presence of the others on this expedition?"

"No," said Micah, looking up again with a smile. "Certainly not. Your friends will always have the warmest of welcomes from me."

Crawford nodded in satisfaction, feeling the sensation of loneliness dissipate entirely. It was the isolation enforced upon him as a leader of a team, he thought. He no longer had to live in such a manner, he was surrounded by friends to whom he did not have to act as a despot, by turns benevolent and tyrannical.

He could be at last merely a man among equals.

Date: 2005-11-23 03:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Awww. Now I have the warm fuzzies.

I kind of liked the doctor.

Date: 2005-11-23 11:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
From Crawford, it's practically the equivalent of standing on a mountain top yelling, "I love you all!"

By Rosenkreuz standards, the doctor is practically a saint.

Date: 2005-11-24 12:19 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I was hoping for Crawford after previous chapters :D! And I must say, even if I loved Farfarello's and Schuldig's stories, this one was my favourite. All the details you put into that Rosenkreuz scene were amazing and quite believable (in a psychic assassin way :p). How he dealt with the bullies showed so much of Crawford's character (no wonder he got to lead a team later). "Teachers" watching them showed the essence of Rosenkreuz - especially the not exactly concerned "I believe they are killing him, sir." and the other's reaction to it.

The adorable family scene in the other part was a welcome contrast ;-).

Date: 2005-11-24 12:28 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you! Ah, the softer side of Rosenkreuz, with their offers of 19th century psychiatric drugs! Little!Crawford no doubt had to hit his various classmates quite a lot and organise terrorist activities against bigger boys until it was acknowledged that just wearing glasses didn't make him an easy target. As far as the teachers are concerned, the prospect of cake is far more important.

And Crawford and Schuldig are showing Nagi what a nice, warm, loving relationship between psychic assassins looks like!

Date: 2005-11-24 06:04 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
First thought: Aw.
Second thought: yeah, that great equaliser, sleeping on the floor of a ruin in the middle of the Martian desert...

Still loving the Rosenkreuz. But aren't they going to run out of food being holed up at the temple so long?

Date: 2005-11-24 10:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Hee! All men are equal when they're covered in the Red Planet's dust . . .

Shush, you and your demands for realism! I've had them wander off occasionally to shoot wild Martian sheep, but they do seem to have an infinite cart, all right :-) Still, it's not quite as bad as Fenn's actual novels, where people tend to trek hundreds of miles on the power of a small cheese sandwich . . .

Date: 2005-11-24 12:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Love this, of course. Micah continues to be so sincere he's impossible to trust. e.e Crawford seems to have met his match.

Date: 2005-11-24 03:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh, those Crawford boys! They're clever lads. They set up a resonating area of Crawfordosity.

I love your icon, BTW!

Date: 2005-11-24 05:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Ah, Crawford's very first pair of Reflecting Glasses of Doom. *g* Have I mentioned yet how very much I adore your flashbacks? Because seriously, I love them. It is so very Crawford to turn a situation he was initially insecure about to his own advantage, manipulative fellow that he is. That's why we love him, right?

Date: 2005-11-27 12:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks :-)

Crawford is a smart manipulator, all right. He finds one particular advantage in wearing glasses as an adult, mind you, that wouldn't have occurred to his boyhood self - he can take them off as a sign of trust with someone (ie, Schuldig . . .), and engender vague and probably unconscious fuzzy feelings thereby!

Date: 2005-11-26 02:32 pm (UTC)
ext_14419: the mouse that wants Arthur's brain (Default)
From: [identity profile]
*snuggles Crawford* (omg, how do you do this to me - make me want to snuggle an assassin?*

Date: 2005-11-26 03:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
But he's a warm and snuggly assassin!

Oh, wait. He isn't. But he could probably do with an evil, world-dominating cuddle now and again.

Date: 2005-12-22 03:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Just had a quick reread and ooooh. *______* :pets Crawford with a hand on a barge pole:

Date: 2005-12-22 10:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Hee! That's probably the safe distance for expressing sympathy, all right :-)

Date: 2005-12-23 01:51 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Haha. Wouldn't be able to escape the gunshots though. :-\
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