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Chapter Fifty-One


The ruined city, 1880


Nagi awoke, feeling something was wrong. The early morning light was creeping into the tent, and he was sure it would soon be time to arise and begin the business of the day. Perhaps, he thought sleepily, he should ask Crawford for a pocket watch. The thought of his older friend alerted him to what was unusual about his manner of waking, for he was not enfolded in the cosy safety he was by now so used to. Instead he was securely covered with a blanket, and curled up at the edge of the bedrolls, though he had made sure to lie down in the centre the night before. Rolling over, he saw Crawford and Schuldig, arms wrapped as tight about each other as could be, huddled under their blankets. Feeling a little put out that he should have been moved from what he now considered his customary place of repose and thinking that Schuldig must have kept him asleep while he was so moved, Nagi crept a little closer, still wrapped in his blanket like a creature half-boy half-caterpillar. At once he saw that Crawford was awake, a thing Nagi thought most unusual, as Crawford was accustomed to rise almost as soon as his eyes opened in the morning.

"Good morning," said Nagi.

Crawford lifted his gaze from Schuldig's sleeping face and fastened it upon Nagi, whispering, "Shhh."

Nagi nodded solemnly. "Is he still asleep?" he whispered.

Crawford merely raised an eyebrow, as if he were disappointed to be so immediately disobeyed, and Nagi fell silent, watching them. Schuldig who normally slept, as it were like a cat, so diligent and earnest did his efforts towards comfortable oblivion seem, looked strained and unhappy, as if he had fallen asleep while weeping and would resume this lamentable occupation upon his arousal to the waking world once more. Crawford, too, bore the signs of an unrestful night, the dark circles under his eyes plainly visible and his face drawn with the marks of misery. Nagi was alarmed at this sight, for it seemed to him inconceivable that Crawford should be afflicted by such ordinary things as sleepless nights.

"Would you like some coffee?" he inquired in the merest breath of a voice.

Crawford shook his head slightly, turning his attention quickly to Schuldig as the mind reader muttered and moved restlessly. "Shh, everything is all right, go back to sleep," he murmured in response to Schuldig's sleepy utterance of, "Brad --"

"Oh, I didn't mean to wake him!" cried Nagi loudly.

Crawford sighed as Schuldig's eyes flew open. Nagi's embarrassment at his silliness turned to alarm at the fright and sorrow in Schuldig's face. "Schuldig," he said, patting his friend's arm, "What is wrong?"

"Nothing," said Schuldig shortly, scrubbing at his eyes and not meeting Nagi's gaze. "I was having a bad dream."

"But that is not as bad as Crawford having a bad dream," said Nagi to reassure Schuldig that he had been subject only to the queer fantasies that might afflict any sleeping mind, and had not seen anything that might in truth come to pass. His voice died away as the feeling of wrongness and misery that had been worrying at him for some time became stronger and Schuldig turned away to embrace Crawford wearily.

"I think perhaps we would like some coffee after all," said Crawford. "Would you make some for us, Nagi? You make it so very well."

"Yes," Nagi said, patting Schuldig's bowed head. "I'll make sure it's very nice." Saying no more he left the tent and rushed to the fire to start the preparation of the morning meal also, for he felt sure that his friends would feel better if they but ate. "Oh, they have been working too hard and not taking enough care of their health," thought Nagi in worry. "I will make sure they get my share of the dried fruit in their porridge." He felt quite pleased at this self-sacrifice, this pleasure being immediately followed by worry that there would not be enough fruit to last until they returned to the city, and he would have to eat his porridge in a plain state, without even sugar, for their supplies were low. "We shall have to hunt all the time," he thought sadly, seeing a diet of the native sheep stretch before him. This displeased him greatly, for although he would in his past have been glad of any food at all, his association with his friends had accustomed him to plenty of tasty things and to little treats, for they all took some enjoyment in spoiling him and indulging his childish love for sweet things. Thinking that only the most selfish of boys would deny a friend's needs, however, he surreptitiously looked about him and took an extra spoonful of sugar to add to Schuldig's bowl. "That will make him happy again," thought Nagi with satisfaction, anticipating already how good it would be to see his friend's gay smile once more.

Within the tent, Crawford set Schuldig back a little, looking into his unhappy face. "Come now," he said. "No more weeping, we must get up and finish the preparations for our departure. There's so much we must do, Schuldig."

"There are years of things we need to do," said Schuldig in a low voice.

"Well, we'll finish what we can," said Crawford gently. "No, no! Schuldig, please --"

"But it's my fault," said Schuldig, trying to obey Crawford's desire and wiping at his eyes angrily. "Mine! All this time, you've seen that I'll be gone. So, it will be my fault when you break your neck trying to reach some old pot, or mislay your spectacles and do not see the Martians creeping up behind you. When will this happen, Crawford? When?"

"I am hardly absent-minded," said Crawford, smiling despite himself at his friend's agitation. "I'll do my best not to fall and break my neck." No intimation of the future brushed against him to deny this, a fact of which he was most terribly glad, as he had no desire to meet such a mean and ignominious end. "As for when," he went on, "The future has not yet vouchsafed that to me. All I can say is that I still see the desert, so that it must surely be before we return to New London, and that by that time I am alone."

"Why will I be gone?" said Schuldig. "What stupid fit of pique causes me to abandon you?"

"Hush," said Crawford. "I haven't seen a cause, just that I'm alone."

"And that you die," said Schuldig grimly. "And that it shall be my fault."

"I did not see that," said Crawford. "Don't blame yourself ahead of time, Schuldig, and don't be so eager to cast yourself in the wrong!" He threw back the blankets, not wishing to continue such a track of conversation and risk Schuldig blaming himself until the mind reader could think of nothing else and became distracted and ill with misery. "Let's get up," he said. "Nagi will be bringing us our coffee - and our breakfast!" he added, suddenly seeing that this would indeed be so.

"I'm up, I'm up," said Schuldig, springing to his feet, his voice suddenly carefree though his eyes were still shadowed. "See?"

"You are indeed," smiled Crawford, as they both turned toward the tent opening, their differing abilities alerting them to the arrival of their coffee. "Ah, thank you, Nagi," said Crawford as the lad came in, bearing two cups in his hands. "This is very welcome, isn't it, Schuldig?"

"Yes," said Schuldig sipping his coffee. "Thank you."

"Are you feeling better?" asked Nagi with hope. "I have made your breakfast. I put extra sugar on your porridge," he whispered to Schuldig. "And you can have my dried fruit too." He felt displeased that he could not stop a childish squeak of surprise as Schuldig suddenly, with his unnatural speed, embraced him tightly and kissed the top of his head.

"You are very good to me," said Schuldig, his voice almost as gay as it usually was. "We shall be out directly, Nagi. Run along for a moment, Kaninchen." He smiled as Nagi obeyed his injunction, rushing from the tent once more. "You see?" said Schuldig, turning again to Crawford. "No more weeping. It serves nothing. I shall enjoy every moment of your company while I still have it." He brushed Crawford's hair back, noting how his friend's eyes were darkly circled with tiredness and worry. "And I will not let you die," he went on in thought, before changing back to impassioned speech.

"I am going to save you."


* * *



SchloƟ Rosenkreuz, 1873


Schuldig idly dipped his pen in the inkwell and flicked it to one side, keeping his mind quite calm and full of theorems. The boy beside him, a French lad named Jean, snarled quietly as his neatly drawn diagrams were splattered with black drops. Such inexcusable sloppiness would earn him a beating and the mockery of his classmates, but disrupting the class to remonstrate with Schuldig would earn him a worse beating. He subsided into glowering silence and Schuldig directed a tight and amused smile at Antoine, seated two desks ahead, calling the Belgian boy quietly with his mind. Antoine peeped round with a little grin, for he and Jean were engaged in perpetual warfare and the image Schuldig provided of the ruined work seemed very funny to him. Heartened by this, and feeling sure that he and those of the boys whom he could influence would help him defeat Jean and his friends, Schuldig flicked more ink onto Jean's desk, following this assault with as strong a mental admonition as he could that Jean should squawk like a chicken. The French boy clapped his hand over his mouth and managed, with some red-faced effort to turn the sound into a cough.

"Stop that noise, Duval," said Fraulein Albrecht.

"Sorry, Fraulein," said Jean, rising respectfully and bowing. He sat again, scowling at the surreptitious laughter, both audible and mental, that rippled around the room. "You'll pay," he mouthed at Schuldig, who raised his eyebrows and replied with a vague and innocent smile.

The lesson was never ending, thought Schuldig, imagining what a pleasure it would be to leave the stuffy classroom and have his dinner. There was a rumour that the students would be given fruit for dessert and he had already chosen the unfortunate younger boys who would be forced to hand over their treats to him. The torture of sitting quietly was almost more than he could bear, and he could not bring himself to pay more than cursory attention. He snapped fully awake as he became aware that Fraulein Albrecht was walking between the rows of desks, examining the students' work. Thwack. Schuldig frowned. The English boy, Palmer, was sloppy in his work yet for some reason was unfairly favoured by Fraulein Albrecht. He deserved more than one blow of her cane. He proffered his exercise book as she stopped by him and breathed a sigh of relief when she put it down again, wordlessly and turned to face Jean.

"Your work is abominably untidy and dirty, Duval," she snapped. "Stand up!"

"Fraulein Albrecht --" started Jean miserably, his words changing to a hiss of pain as the cane came down on his knuckles.

"Stand up when you address me," said Fraulein Albrecht angrily.

Jean stood and winced as his messy theorems were ripped from his notes and flung on the desk. "It's not my fault!" he cried unwisely.

"Don't raise your voice to me!" snapped Fraulein Albrecht. "Hold out your hand! Hold it out, Duval."

Thwack. Schuldig kept his eyes politely on his own notes and enjoyed the noises Jean was making in his mind, as he, like all students being punished, was not allowed give audible voice to his misery. By the time Jean had been caned for both possessing untidy work and for the sin of raising his voice to an instructor both his hands were reddened and bruised, and he sat with tears of pain shining in his eyes. Fraulein Albrecht resumed her position at the head of the room. "Let us consider," she said as the chalk drew a complicated plan on the board behind her, "the practical uses to which our knowledge of geometry might be put."

The boys tried not to groan, for mechanics and engineering, though necessary, seemed more than they could bear after a class on mathematics. Obediently they copied down the problem on the board and, one and all, stared at their notes with the incomprehension of all fifteen and sixteen year old schoolboys who long for freedom and food.

"If only," thought Schuldig, "we had had fencing this afternoon! Or firearms!" He found little to enjoy in the more academic of his classes even if, as it turned out, this particular class would involve discussions of the effects of explosives. It was not as much fun as actually using dynamite.

"Fournier," said Fraulein Albrecht. "Explain to the class how one discovers the weakest point of the wall in this example."

Antoine stood, a look of panic on his face. "One, um, measures the -- length?" he said desperately.

"And? Which of the geometrical problems you have spent the last hour working on might be applicable?" said Fraulein Albrecht, glancing at the board.

"I -- don't know, Fraulein Albrecht," whispered Antoine, looking down from the savagely pleased gaze she turned upon him. "I'm sorry, Fraulein."

"Now," whispered Jean with satisfaction to Schuldig, "let's see how funny you find it when she breaks her cane over your friend's hands!"

Schuldig scowled, thinking, "Shut up, idiot!" Antoine was not his friend, he told himself. That the older boy followed him about and laughed at his jokes meant nothing. His jokes were, after all, extremely funny. Anyone would laugh at them. It didn't matter that Antoine sought his opinion above that of every other student, that he followed Schuldig's lead and example in every action. What did Schuldig care if he was to be punished for laziness and stupidity? If it were not the Belgian lad it would be another boy, for the instructors liked to make examples and thereby keep their students cowed and afraid. No, Schuldig thought, he would not give Jean and his friends the satisfaction of looking unhappy when Antoine was beaten, not even if Fraulein Albrecht broke his fingers along with her cane, which she was thinking about at that very moment. Schuldig looked hard at his desk, hoping no one had noticed such disrespect. Reading an instructor's mind uninvited was a very great sin indeed, and he would not escape with a mere caning if anyone felt moved to report his actions. "Let Antoine suffer," he thought viciously. "At least it's not me." Maybe he'd give him an extra apple later. Thwack! The whole class of boys shook a little at the force of the blow. Antoine went white and supported his wrist with his other hand to keep his hand outstretched and steady. It didn't matter, thought Schuldig, glaring at the wood of his desk as Jean sniggered beside him. So what if Antoine had hit that bigger boy who'd been looking for trouble last year? Schuldig could have managed. So what if Antoine silently held his hand when he returned to the dorm after seeing an angry Herr Dorfmann, and never complained, even when Schuldig crushed his fingers with the force of his grip, the same fingers Fraulein Albrecht now wanted to break?

Schuldig looked up from his desk.

"Hey," he drawled, leaning back in his chair in a vulgar manner. "How come you never got married, Fraulein Albrecht? There must be a man out there somewhere who likes a girl with a temper."

The silence in the room was so deep it seemed solid. Everyone looked at him and he grinned. "I mean," he went on, "it's not that you're so bad looking, even if you're a bit past your best years. What do you think, lads? Adele'd be quite pretty if she did her hair another way --" He smiled charmingly up at her as she reached his desk.

"You will refer to me as 'Fraulein Albrecht'," she said in a cold voice.

"It's that standoffishness that keeps you a spinster," said Schuldig, noting out of the corner of his eye that Antoine had sunk safely down into his seat. "You're a bit old for me, but if you haven't found anyone in a year or two I might be charit--" He caught his breath as her cane slashed neatly across the half-healed duelling wound on his left cheek. No one laughed. That was interesting, he thought past the pain. This might yet be something that could win him an advantage with someone. "You're such a feisty girl, Adele," he said, keeping the tremor from his voice. "You must like being the only woman in this room of young men, it must be quite thrilling for you to have our attention. Doesn't it scare you at all? How much of our attention would you like, Ade--" The cane caught him across the other cheek.

"Be quiet, you stupid boy," she cried.

"There are a lot of us," said Schuldig, suddenly furious. "A lot, Adele. Do you really think the other instructors could reach you in time?"

With an obscenity he could not control, he found himself flying backwards through the air to hit the far wall of the classroom, his desk splintering against the stones by his head. Fraulein Albrecht stalked down the room towards him, desks overturning as she passed both from her fury and from the haste of the boys sitting at them to remove themselves from her gaze. "Sit down, boys," she said quietly. "Carry on with the problem."

Schuldig forced a smile back onto her face, for he knew that, just as he could not have deviated from his course once begun lest he lose all influence and admiration from the other boys, so she, in order to repair her damaged authority, must now deal with him without recourse to the aid of the other instructors, now that he had invoked them as the reason for her safety. "Bear up," he told himself. "You will be all the more esteemed for it."

"Let down your hair," he said cheekily, finding himself pinned spread-eagled against the wall. "Wear a little rouge."

"You foolish child," she hissed. "You think to threaten me? You little animal, you need more rigorous training in how to speak to your betters." Her cane hit him hard across the stomach and he bit the inside of his lip to keep from crying. Like many of those who could move things with their minds, Fraulein Albrecht was small and thin and, one would think, unable to hit with quite so much force. Near the head of the room, Antoine had half-risen from his desk, a look of horror in his face. "Do you think that because you are rare in your strengths that you will escape punishment? You will very much regret this day, Schuldig," said Fraulein Albrecht and, without turning her head, snapped, "Sit down, Fournier!"

"Yes," thought Schuldig with all his might, "Sit down, Antoine. Please, sit down." To his relief, the other boy sat again, his eyes fixed sorrowfully upon Schuldig's face. "You wouldn't last long without your cane," he said aloud, to keep his tormentor's mind fixed firmly on him.

"I do not need it," said Fraulein Albrecht in an almost kind voice, dropping it to the floor. She raised her hands and Schuldig felt a wind begin to swirl up out of nowhere, the same odd smell of lightning that came with storms tickling his nose. As the air seemed to thicken before him and one boy after another fled the room, crying out for the other instructors to come quickly, Schuldig smiled. No one could say he was a coward or that he had backed down like a snivelling baby, the other boys would not lose respect for him. And he'd protected a friend. He hoped he'd be able to tell Antoine that was what he was, after.

Everything went black.
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