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Chapter Fifty-Five


The desert, north-east of New London, 1880


"We cannot be more than a fortnight away from the city," said Farfarello, idly drawing the tip of his knife down his forearm and admiring the thin track of blood that followed the bright metal's progress. "How pleasant it will be to have enough water!"

"Are you thinking of drowning a priest?" asked Schuldig, wincing a little.

Farfarello looked at him as if he had never before considered Schuldig to be so intelligent. "It's something I haven't tried," he said, clearly considering the best way to go about such a murder. "In the font," he murmured to himself, "or one of the canals? I must think further on this."

"Must you give him ideas?" grumbled Crawford in what was clear to Nagi as a good humour.

"I grow tired of the blood," explained Schuldig with a wicked smile. "Think how diverting it will be to see priests laden down with rocks, lying pale and bloated beneath the still surface of the canals!" He favoured Farfarello with a serious and intelligent look, continuing, "There would not be enough room in the average font for you to be properly artistic."

"I suppose not," said Farfarello. "Thank you, Schuldig, for such consideration."

Nagi joined in the general laughter, seeing then how Micah stared into the little fire glumly. The young American had, over the course of the previous days, become more and more withdrawn until Nagi could feel scarcely anything from him, as he had been when first he had encountered the band of friends. Nagi was sure it was disgracefully childish for him still to be sulking over the fight with Schuldig, for the bruises on both their faces had faded.

"Two weeks," muttered Micah. "How close it seems."

"Don't be afraid," said Nagi quietly, feeling sudden sympathy for the man. "Crawford won't let them catch us."

Micah looked at him silently for a moment before smiling, his usual bright and sunny smile lightening his humour. "I'm not afraid," he said cheerfully, patting Nagi's hair. "Why, of all of you I have the least reason to fear, for no one suspects me of the butchery you inflicted on the city and its soldiers!"

"That's true," said Crawford, putting aside with a grimace the remains of the food he had himself prepared for their evening meal. "No doubt the etherflyer stewards on all lines will have been instructed to report us should we attempt to use our tickets back to Earth. You can be of great use in buying us new passage, Micah."

"First class," said Schuldig quickly. "We can afford it, Crawford."

"That would attract undue attention, don't you think?" said Micah politely, looking back into the flames, morose once more. "If I were to buy so many first class tickets with native gold? We should rather appear to be unassuming passengers of lower degree."

"Pah!" ejaculated Schuldig, stretching himself out comfortably. "A journey should be comfortable! Crawford and I will want some pleasures on the trip back - but by all, means, Micah, if you feel that you belong in steerage, do not let me sway you! You may," he said with a cruel twist to his mouth, "feel more at home there, after all."

"Schuldig!" snapped Crawford as Micah looked up from the fire.

"And why," said Micah quietly, "should I feel so?"

"You'd no doubt feel awkward being with those the rest of society would consider to be your betters," said Schuldig with a casual air, ignoring Crawford's angry look.

"You too would consider them so, I see," said Micah, throwing a piece of thorn into the fire.

"Some I would consider better than you, yes," said Schuldig, his eyes glittering with malice and pleasure.

"Stop it, Schuldig," said Crawford. "This is unworthy of you."

"Unworthy?" said Micah. "Surely that sums him up. Unworthy and unmanly. Look how he plays with his feminine tresses."

"Don't think my hair makes me a girl," snapped Schuldig, sitting bolt upright, mean pleasure in his face at his success in provoking the other to irritation.

"He's such a vain and prettified creature," said Micah to Crawford. "Does he ask you to brush that hair for him?"

"Micah, please," said Crawford wearily. "Let's not have fighting again."

"It is not I who wishes to fight," said Micah bitterly. "That lies at the door of your pretty little companion. Why not learn to act the man, Schuldig?"

"I already do," said Schuldig. "It is not my fault you are so close-minded that you think manliness connected so strongly with short hair. Ask Farfarello here about Bible stories, you'll find he can give you other opinions."

"At least you're hardly in danger of temptresses who will beguile you with their charms and their shears," said Farfarello with the smallest of smiles, winking at Nagi.

"That is certainly true," said Micah before Schuldig could answer. "Nothing natural could appeal to this fey, vicious creature. Bradley," he went on, "When we are back in civilisation you should insist he curb his theatrical inclinations - he is altogether too memorable and should have long since been brought to heel."

"Must we judge by outward show, as does the world? Bah! I am done with the pair of you," said Crawford, throwing the last remnants of their dinner towards the dov, who regarded it with more reluctant reticence than the young men had shown when confronted with it earlier. "Nagi, leave that alone," he said, as the lad started to make the scraps float within reach of his mount. "If they'd rather hunt, let them."

"I should curb myself," said Schuldig wonderingly. "Why, never before had such a thought occurred to anyone around me! Thank you, Micah! For you, I shall forgo my favoured appearance and deny my own nature. You must help me should I falter, for it shall no doubt be a difficult task. The leopard cannot change its spots, after all, no matter how society judges it therefore, nor - as you well know - the Ethiopian his skin." He looked at Micah with a practiced eye, murmuring, "Although perhaps a little preparation of white lead might make your complexion more unnoticeable to civilised eyes."

"Any man who makes his judgement of others based on the colour of their skin is a fool, and --" started Micah with fury.

"Micah!" cried Schuldig in mock surprise. "When did I mention anything on my opinion of the colouration of anyone's complexion? Truly, you have taken me up wrongly. It makes no difference to me whether you are as dark as one of the natives of this savage world or as fair as a Nordic maiden who does not see the sun for half the year." He smiled with great delicacy, continuing, "Let your face even be green or striped -- I should not like you in any case whatsoever."

"Be damned to you," said Micah hotly, his eyes angry.

"Oh, be quiet and get us more coffee like a good boy," said Schuldig, his words being suddenly drowned out by Farfarello.

"I am feeling quite left out," said Farfarello. "Why, I put so much effort into changing my appearance and yet I haven't been mocked once this evening by either of you! What is a man supposed to do to attract notice, I wonder? Come now, perhaps you can laugh at my scars or my lack of an eye. Come to that," he said, patting Nagi's arm to show the boy he was not serious, "You could tease Nagi for the shape of his eyes, or their colour. Or perhaps his skin might attract your amusement - or mine, it never seems to darken much in this sun, after all. Or maybe you could poke fun at Crawford's spectacles for a while. Aren't we also your friends? And yet you don't insult us!"

"All right, all right," muttered Schuldig. "I'll say no more. It's a stupid argument, anyway. I have no wish to darken my mood further." He fell silent, glaring at the sand as Micah sprang to his feet and stalked away.

"Micah!" said Crawford, following him after a quelling look in Schuldig's direction. "Micah, do not be angry."

"Angry," echoed Micah bitterly. "Why should I be? I have heard much worse."

"Schuldig is being silly," said Crawford. "He loves to find something to annoy people with, you've seen that. He does not mean it as a serious insult."

"Yes, he does," sighed Micah. "Don't take his part in this, brother. Please. He should not say such things to me."

"Well, he was responding to your gibes at him," said Crawford, trying to lighten the other's mood.

"That was different," said Micah. "He can cut his hair and not act in so flamboyant a manner, and no man would look at him askance. He does not have to endure people looking at him as I have in my life. I did not think to hear such things from friends." He looked away from Crawford, saying, "Poor little Nagi. Do you think he likes to hear such things? Do you think he doesn't apply them to his own situation?"

"Nagi knows Schuldig loves him," said Crawford reassuringly.

"Yes. Despite his skin," said Micah, shaking his head. "Well, perhaps he does not feel it. I'm not angry, Bradley. I just --" He paused, looking unhappy. "When a boy said such a thing to me in Germany," he said at last, "the instructors laughed at me as a fool for taking it. So I broke that boy's arm and none of the students ever spoke to me except as an equal again. If we, seen as spoil to be rejected, could see past the accidents of birth then one trained in the Schloß itself should do so all the more easily." Stooping to snatch up a stone he flung his prize hard and fast from him, the misery in his face touching Crawford greatly.

"Micah," said Crawford, and seized the other's hand in his. He smiled, holding up their joined hands before Micah's face. "Look how dark I have become in the harsh sun of this world. Why, if you had not also darkened in the sun's rays I believe I might be darker than you at this point. These things are foolishnesses in which the world indulges, brother. They should not concern us." He embraced Micah, murmuring, "And have you not used it to your advantage, letting fools blind themselves to what you are so that you might carry out your tasks with ease?"

"Yes," said Micah. "But a man grows weary, Bradley. For so long I simply wanted them to look at me and to see a man. That's all."

"I look at you and see a man who is very obviously my family," said Crawford, ignoring the whisper of sardonic laughter in his mind from Schuldig.

"You wouldn't have said so in Virginia."

"We're not in Virginia - and I would have been overjoyed to consider you my brother when I was a boy," said Crawford.

"Not as a man," said Micah, wiping at his eyes.

"I am a man," said Crawford simply. "And I am overjoyed."

Micah wiped his eyes once more, blinking rapidly. "This damned dust," he said brokenly, "it insinuates itself everywhere. Oh, Bradley, I was so glad to have found you once more. I should not like you to doubt that. These last weeks --" he gestured helplessly, continuing, "I an so glad to have had them with you. Truly, even with Schuldig's animosity. Let me be honest with you, brother, I feel some slight jealousy of your affection for him."

"Really?" said Crawford dryly.

Micah laughed ruefully. "Well, perhaps more than a little," he admitted. "He and I, we started our acquaintanceship on, as it were, the wrong foot -- perhaps we could never learn to love one another, but there is no point in our indulging ourselves in silliness any more. I know that, brother, and I shall do my utmost to act as a man around him." He looked out across the desolate sands with a melancholic air. "I should have liked to go to India with you, and to see my friend once more," he said quietly, then shook his head, seeming to pull himself together. "Two weeks to the city. We should think more on how we shall escape capture. I am still fully of the opinion that we should not buy first class tickets and should attempt to avoid as much attention as we may."

"You are quite right," said Crawford. "First class is too memorable by far, I agree completely. We'll travel second class. None of us shall travel steerage - why should we? As you say you are not under any suspicion in the city, and we shall explain Nagi in some way - if you and he travel together they shall see only two who are not European."

"Is that your opinion," said Micah, "or your foresight? And shall Schuldig allow such a thing?" he went on with a laugh that seemed more sad than bitter.

Crawford quirked a smile at him, saying, "People see what they wish to, don't you find? It will be easy enough, I should think. As for Schuldig, let me speak to him. He is proud and will not allow himself to back down of his own accord once he has spoken in anger. He will accede to requests from me, however, I am sure." He forbore to say that he had had no vision of them leaving the planet, nor any sight of the future that might lie past that now familiar melancholy sensation of loneliness and sorrow. "Come," he said, "Let us return to our friends." So saying he led Micah back to the little fire, where both of them accepted the coffee Nagi silently held out.

"Well now," said Schuldig's voice in Crawford's mind. "That was so terribly moving, Crawford. Do you think he is truly unhappy about such gibes or is it but a convenient excuse for him to express offence with me?"

"You don't know what America was like," replied Crawford in like manner. "Find another way to annoy him, Schuldig, please."

"You ask so prettily," said Schuldig in the queer silent communication he so often employed. "Very well, you know I can deny you nothing -- come now, what do you mean, 'If that were only true'? Moreover," thought Schuldig, ostentatiously winding a lock of his hair about his finger, "you well know I have never considered Nagi's race something of comment. If he has had such thoughts put in his head it is not by me, I assure you."

"Nonetheless," thought Crawford, "modulate such statements."

Schuldig held up his hands in surrender. "Jawohl, Herr Crawford," he said aloud with his most charming smile. "Nagi! Come and read to me, mein Herz."

"But we've finished all the books we have," said Nagi.

"Then I shall write something for you," said Schuldig. "Auf Deutsch. No, don't look so glum, you must practice reading in German too! You're a good, clever boy. It should be no hardship to you."

"Will you write a story about Crawford when he was a boy?" said Nagi hopefully.

"Could mere paper hold such exploits?" laughed Schuldig gaily, sweeping his gaze round to include the others in the jest. "Why, I was but a little fellow, Nagi, smaller than you, when the esteemed Herr Crawford was a student at the Schloß. And the first thing little fellows learnt, those who possessed even a modicum of sense at least, was to stay well out of sight of the big boys. I cannot say I remember Crawford at all as a boy, my first clear memory of him," he said with a gay laugh, "was when he hit me in disappointment for not being another lad, and then dragged me to Egypt."

"You must have been very meek as a child," said Crawford, helping himself to another cup of coffee. "For you did not come to my attention at all in the Schloß." He grinned at Micah, continuing, "If one might imagine Schuldig ever being meek!"

"Ah," said Schuldig in mock seriousness, "how can you say such a thing after stating your views that one should not judge by appearances! Your bad memory has a simple explanation, Crawford. You oracles and starters of fire and - well, whatever you might be, Farfarello - your childhoods were smooth and easy, I have no doubt. Strong mind readers, so the doctors assured me, have in the main a more turbulent time as their bodies mature. I saw the inside of the sanatorium more often than I would have wished, and never because of fights with other students or accidents in the course of my training. I didn't know it was due to your influence, Crawford, and in fact never realised you were the cause until I had known you for some time as a man, but all I can say with certainty that I remember of you from the Schloß is your war. I was in the sanatorium when they started bringing the wounded in." He smiled at Nagi's eager face. "That was impressive. So much bloodshed, caused by children so young! Just think, he has improved since then! We shall be back on Earth and free before we scarce have time to blink."


* * *



Schloß Rosenkreuz, 1870


"You have become boring, Crawford," said Scherer, keeping his voice light so that it might be obvious he but jested.

"Have I?" said Crawford, noting his second-in-command was sensible enough to say such a thing only when they were unobserved and alone, lest other boys think he was aiming to take Crawford's place. "How so, Franz?"

"You think of your classes, you think of the problems set by the instructors, you think always of how you may better yourself in the service of our people," said Scherer. "Not once have I found you thinking about what we might do now that we have the girls."

"They are our allies," said Crawford mildly.

"So let us use them!"

Crawford laughed shortly at his lieutenant's tone and laid a reproving hand upon the other boy's shoulder. "Franz, Franz," he said chidingly. "How impatient you are! We shall reap the rewards of this soon enough. Don't you think we should at least wait and enjoy the respect of those others who see that our strengths have increased while theirs have not?"

"Respect?" said Scherer angrily. "They plan to take you down - to take us all down, Crawford."

"I know," said Crawford, a small grin on his lips. "There will, in fact, be a concentrated attack on us tomorrow."

"What?" said Scherer. "And you said nothing to me? Crawford, we have planned no tactics, no traps --"

"I have planned," said Crawford.

"You haven't been thinking about this at all!" said Scherer hotly.

Crawford glared at him, wondering if he would have to beat the other boy to remind him of the need to stay loyal. Relenting then, for he saw true worry in the face of the other, he said, "I've had to be careful. A man cannot guard his thoughts every moment of the day and it would be sheerest insanity to run the risk of allowing an enemy to divine our purposes. We must also consider the way in which the instructors would see plans of the nature needed to deal with this threat. People will die, Franz. Nothing less will make them all bow down to us. I have done my planning in the future."

"What the devil do you mean by that?" said Scherer. "You can see it, not take actions in it!"

"That's true," said Crawford. "It is more that I have been allowing myself to see as many of the possible outcomes as I can imagine, and following them to their ends. Often several reveal themselves to me at the same time." He smiled ruefully at the other boy, saying, "It gives one the very devil of a headache! However, such confusion is not easy for a mind reader to tease out - or you would already have done so!"

"Headaches," muttered Scherer. "I get one whenever I stay in your mind too long if you are in an oracular frame of mind. And what do you mean," he continued, "You think they shall all submit? How can you be serious in such a statement?"

"I am quite serious," said Crawford. "Every boy in the Schloß will acknowledge me as their chief."

"Why?" said Scherer, "Why set yourself such a goal?"

"I want to do great things," said Crawford. "I want to carry out the tasks for which I have been trained, I want to force the world into the mould I see fit. I have no intention of being some older man's apprentice while I wither and age, to be given at last underlings of my own! No," he said firmly. "I shall lead my own team when I have attained my majority, I shall not wait for year upon year."

"You think they'll give you a team when you are but twenty-one?" said Scherer. "Have you seen such an unprecedented thing in a vision?"

"No," admitted Crawford. "But I shall and soon. When the instructors see what a leader I can be there shall be no more impediments. This, Franz, will catch their attention in a way they cannot pretend to ignore."

"They'll kill you," warned Scherer.

"Not if I am successful," said Crawford. "You know that success may win a rewriting of the rules. I shall triumph, and so will all those that stand with me, Franz. No one shall forget us, not for year upon year."

Scherer looked at him in silence and then shrugged. "I'll be by your side," he said.

"Of course," said Crawford mockingly. "Where else would your love take you?"

"Where else would I go?" muttered Scherer. "You haven't led me wrong since we were but twelve years old." He looked aside as if embarrassed. "When you are the youngest man to be given a team of agents you shall need a mind reader - you won't ask for someone other than me, will you?"

Crawford shrugged. "By that time we shall both have been assigned tasks, Franz. You may no longer wish to be under me." Relenting at the expression on the other's face he said, "If you are not engaged in work of your own, I shall by all means ask for you, and we can become famous together. That is a hope for fame, not a prediction, mind you - I cannot see so far."

"It's good enough for me," said Scherer. "Now, to things that you can see -- what of this attack?"

"Tomorrow, after lunch," said Crawford quietly. "While we are allowed free exercise time, Giordano and Koltsov's boys will join forces against us - they will draw in some other boys who want to defect to them."

"None of ours!" said Scherer hotly. "They all worship you, Crawford."

"Well, let us hope I can get them off their knees long enough to fight," laughed Crawford. "Don't worry, Franz - neither Giordano nor Koltsov trust each other. They don't like our strength since Andersson came to us, but they won't fight as well as we shall. And they'll discount the girls' strength to their own detriment."

"Perhaps they are right to," muttered Scherer. "Are you so sure the girls will fight for us? Can they even fight properly? It's foolishness to depend on girls, Crawford! They're not proper allies, that's what other boys think!"

"Then the other boys are even more stupid than I believed," said Crawford. "To judge someone's worth on whether the person is male or female! It's what one can do, that's what's important, not what one looks like!"

"Well, if you say so," grumbled Scherer. "How are you to get them to come to our courtyard?"

"They came when they wanted something, did they not?" said Crawford. "Let them prove themselves allies, or I'll take it out of Andersson's hide myself. I want you to contact them, tell them to come when called."

"Andersson and her best girls are trained to erect defences about their minds," said Scherer. "They keep them as strong as they might at all times, to deflect the attentions of mind readers." He coloured slightly at Crawford's amused glance, adding, "Some foolish boys have too much liberty for silliness. I should be able to force my way into one of the little girls' minds."

"Do so," said Crawford, reaching out to steady the other boy as he closed his eyes and frowned in concentration. "Is it so difficult to reach past their walls and locks?" he said as Scherer swayed, his face going white.

"Stop distracting me!" snapped Scherer. "Fraulein Jensen almost caught me! If you want someone to blast their way through all defences without effort or forethought, find something without its name left to it!" He fell silent, propped against Crawford's shoulder, breathing heavily. "There," he said in satisfaction. "One child gone running to the bigger girls, her mind full of warnings and orders."

"Good," murmured Crawford, pushing his lieutenant gently back to stand unsupported. "Let us go and find the rest of our lads, Franz. I don't want anyone caught by surprise tomorrow."


* * *



"I believe the kitchens have outdone themselves in their hatred of humanity this day," said Herr Dorfmann, prodding at his fish with distaste. "How they expect us to eat such swill I do not know. We should kill one of the cooks as a warning to the others." He pushed his plate back and glared in disinterested animosity at the faded tapestries that hung upon the walls. "The soup was foul too. We have been fed potato soup three times this week already."

"Root vegetables keep, Dorfmann," said Fraulein Albrecht in a bored tone. "Do you expect the kitchens to provide us with fresh produce so far out of season?" She finished her fish and smiled at him with gentle malice. "I hope you like elderly mutton, for that is what the meat course shall consist of."

"Damn," muttered Herr Dorfmann. "Have they confused our food with that of the students? We are not all blessed with your constitution, Albrecht." Fraulein Albrecht said nothing, merely taking up her glass in one thin hand as the silent maid removed her plate and, with some hesitation, took Herr Dorfmann's untouched fish from the table. "Yes, take it, take it, girl!" he snapped. "And bring me more bread! That is at least something the fools in the kitchens can scarce damage." He rose from his seat and stared moodily out into the courtyard as the meat was brought in. Below him, boys congregated and moved with varying degrees of stealth about the yard, the smaller of them secreting themselves in corners and doorways.

"You shall become ill if you do not eat properly, Dorfmann," said the man at the head of the table. "Come, seat yourself. There are plenty of condiments to disguise the taste of the meat if you truly cannot stomach it." He raised an eyebrow as Herr Dorfmann stayed where he was, peering out of the window. "Dorfmann."

"My apologies, sir," said Herr Dorfmann, turning about quickly and sitting down once more.

"Is there something of which we should be aware, Dorfmann?"

"We endure childish stupidity enough hours of the day," said Herr Dorfmann in mild tones. "Let us be free of it while we eat!"

"Good," said the man, and watched until Herr Dorfmann had taken up a forkful of the grey and unappealing meat. Conversation was subdued thereafter, restricted to requests for the salt and pepper to be passed, or for the servants to bring more mint jelly, branching out into discussions of the weather and some desultory talk of the great political matters of the day. The bread and butter pudding had not yet been brought in when every one of the instructors paused suddenly, looking at each other in consternation.

"What," said Herr Blumenthal, his spectacles still in one hand as he stopped polishing them, "was that?"

"Are all the students together?" said Herr Dorfmann, putting one hand to his temple as if a sudden headache assailed him.

"The girls!" exclaimed Fraulein Jensen, standing abruptly and hurrying away from the bemused Herr Zahn who had been holding forth to her on harmonic scales. She rushed to the windows and stared down into the main courtyard. "The girls are in the boys' courtyard!"

"So much for our careful regulation of the programme," muttered Fraulein Albrecht in annoyance. "We must try to quiz the boys on their involvement afterwards. Some of them would provide useless offspring."

"It's all the girls!" cried Fraulein Jensen, clasping her hands to her bosom. "They're fighting! All the students are fighting!"

All the instructors jumped to their feet and hurried over to join her, staring down in consternation.

"We should have felt it before now," said Herr Blumenthal. "Shouldn't we?"

"Look there," said Dorfmann in fury, pointing to children huddled in knots about the fighting, their eyes closed and expressions of utmost concentration upon their faces. "The little fools have the mind readers on all sides blocking us! Wait till I get my hands on the ringleaders! None of them will be able to sit down for a week!"

His angry outburst died away as the man from the head of the table leaned forward, his gaze intent. "Fascinating," he said. "They are all so fixed on finishing this matter without interference from us. What prize is worth so much?" His eyes followed a tall, dark-haired boy as the lad shattered an enemy's nose with a powerful punch, following this assault with a flat-handed blow upwards against the site of the previous injury. "You have proved yourself interesting," he murmured as the boy laughed scornfully at another lad who ran up, sabre in hand. "My friends," he said, "it would seem we have a contest for the throne on our hands. Young Herr Crawford does not seem overly distressed to face Koltsov's weapon unarmed -- Americans are so brashly self-confident, don't you think?" He looked towards the door. "Birgitta, where are you going?"

"The girls!" cried Fraulein Jensen, ceasing her agitated exit from the room. "Sir, we must --"

"They seem to be holding their own," he said, looking out the window once again. "Crawford's boys are actually fighting alongside them as equals with no insubordination. Our young friend must have a strong will indeed! Ah -- I'm sorry, Birgitta, Andersson has fallen into the hands of Giordano's lieutenants."

With a little cry, Fraulein Jensen ran to the window, pushing Herr Blumenthal aside. Below them she saw a struggling fair haired girl go down under the weight of her opponents. To her right, the tall girl with light brown hair cut the boy facing her across the chest with a wickedly sharp long knife, then, with a cry of rage that reached faintly to the instructors' ears, stamped down her foot and flung out an arm towards the boys that tore at the other maiden. A torrent of flame knocked them aside to roll, screaming in pain, on the cobblestones of the courtyard as the tall girl and one of Crawford's boys pulled the fair haired girl to safety.

"I believe we have seen enough," said the man pleasantly. "The tide cannot be turned back, and look! Undecided lads are joining Crawford's side. Enough damage has been done for one day - we should go down there before he kills Koltsov for refusing to yield. Come along!"

Down in the courtyard, Crawford risked a glance up at the windows to see the instructors, no longer frozen in surprise, hurrying down the length of their dining hall to reach the corridor where they might find the nearest staircase. "I was lucky to have this much time," he thought, and avoiding Koltsov's sabre with ease, swept the other boy's feet from under him. "Stay down!" he cried, leaping up to avoid the desperate slash the supine boy would aim at his ankles. "You're beaten and you know it!"

"Niet!" screamed Koltsov, trying to roll to one side and regain his feet. Crawford stopped his attempt for freedom by means of a vicious kick to his chest, setting then his foot firmly upon the whimpering boy's throat.

"Do you think," he said in a bored voice, "that I cannot kill you before the instructors reach us? Annoy me further, and I'll risk their ire." He trod down, smiling faintly to see the Russian lad gasp for breath and claw futilely at his heavy boot.

"Please," gasped the other lad, "please." As Crawford lifted his foot a little, he lay back, shaking. "Damn you, Crawford," he rasped hoarsely. "I submit."

"All of you!" roared Crawford, snatching up his fallen enemy's weapon. "Yield! Bow your damned heads, you bastards! Is any of you fool enough to challenge me? Stand forth!"

"You've won," said Scherer, coming up to him. "Koltsov's humiliated, Giordano's dead - one of his own boys took him down." He smiled ferally, throwing an arm about Crawford's shoulders. "You're victorious, Brad!"

"Yes," said Crawford exultantly, enough still of the boy remaining in him to allow familiarity at such a time. He looked about as boy after boy bent their head to him, some willing, some unwilling, but all obedient. He breathed deeply, savouring his triumph. "Andersson," he called to where the leader of the girls stood in the protective embrace of her lieutenant, the tall English girl. "You girls keep your backs straight, you're allies, not conquered enemies." Raising his voice he cried, "And until I'm gone from the Schloß you girls walk where you will. Do you hear me, all you boys? The girls go where they want without hindrance, you hear?" He nodded in satisfaction as no one raised an objection and the girls smiled, sharing in his victory. "We won't be forgotten, Franz," he said. "This is the start of things for us."

"We'll have whippings to get through first," said Scherer as the instructors flung open the door to the courtyard and poured through, fury in their faces. The combatants, reduced to fearful children once more, quailed before their wrath.

"Oh, we'll all be whipped," said Crawford cheerfully. "But we've won and that's what counts. They've taught us that enough, haven't they? They can hardly blame us for taking their lessons to heart." He laughed in purest pleasure. "I hope they like the means I have employed to garner their full attention," he said, "for I think that the future end shall quite be worth it."
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mars_assassins

September 2006

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