Volger switched off the wireless, and the cabin fell into silence. The flutter of birds filtered down from the rafters of the barn.
"You matter more than anyone knows, Aleksandar."
"How? I have no parents, no real title." Alek looked down at himself, dressed in stolen farmer's clothes and covered with hay. "I haven't even had a proper bath in two weeks."
"No, indeed." Volger sniffed. "But your father planned carefully for the coming war."
"What do you mean?"
"When we get to Switzerland, I will explain." Volger switched the wireless on again. "But that won't happen unless we can buy fuel and parts tomorrow. Go wake the men."
Alek raised an eyebrow. "Did you just give me an order, Count?"
"Go wake the men if you please, Your Serene Highness."
"I know you're only being insolent to distract me from your little secret, Count. But that doesn't make it any less annoying."
Volger let out a laugh. "I suppose not. But I can't give up my secret yet. I promised your father to wait till the proper time."
Alek's fists tightened. He was growing tired of being treated like this, never told what Volger's plans were until the last moment. Maybe he'd been a child the day his parents had died, but no longer.
In the last two weeks he'd learned how to start a fire, how to replace the engines' glow plugs, how to track their nighttime progress toward Switzerland with a sextant and the stars. He could squeeze the Stormwalker under bridges and into barns, and strip and clean the Spandau machine guns as easily as washing his own clothes - another thing he'd learned to do. Hoffman had even taught him to cook a little, boiling dried meat to soften it, adding the vegetables they'd gathered while trampling some unlucky farmer's field.
But most important, Alek had learned to shut away despair. He hadn't cried since that first day, not once. His misery was locked away in a small, hidden corner of himself. The only time the awful hollowness struck now was when he was alone on watch, while the others were asleep.
And even then Alek practiced the art of keeping his tears inside.
"I'm not a child anymore," he said.
"I know." Volger's voice softened. "But your father asked me to wait, Alek, and I intend to honor his wishes. Go wake the men, and after breakfast we'll have a fencing lesson. You'll need your reflexes sharp for this afternoon's piloting."
Alek stared at Volger another moment, then finally nodded.
He felt the need for a sword in his hand.
"On guard, if you please."
Alek raised his saber and assumed his guard. Volger walked in a slow circle around him, inspecting Alek's stance for what felt like a solid minute.
"More weight on your back foot," the man finally said. "But otherwise acceptable."
Alek shifted his weight, his muscles already beginning to cramp. Long days in the pilot's cabin had ruined his form. This lesson was going to hurt.
Pain was always Count Volger's objective, of course. When Alek had started his training at ten years old, he'd expected swordplay to be exciting. But his first lessons had consisted of standing motionless like this for hours, with Volger taunting him whenever his outstretched arm began to quiver.
At least now, at fifteen, he was allowed to cross swords.
Volger took his own guard.
"Slowly at first. I shall call your parries," Volger said, and began to attack, shouting out the names of defensive movements as he lunged. "Tierce ... tierce again. Now prime. That's awful, Alek. Your blade's too far down! Two in tierce. Now go back covering. Now quarte. Simply dreadful. Again ..."
The count's attacks continued, but his voice dropped off, relying on Alek to choose his own parries. The swords flashed, and their shuffling feet stirred up dust into the shafts of sunlight lancing through the barn.
It felt odd fencing in farmer's clothes, without servants standing ready to bring water and towels. Mice scrambled underfoot, and the giant Stormwalker watched over them like some iron god of war. Every few minutes Count Volger called a halt and stared up at the machine, as if hoping to find in its stoic silence the patience to endure Alek's clumsy technique.
Then he would sigh and say, "Again ..."
Alek felt his focus sharpening as they fought. Unlike in the fencing salon at home, here there were no mirrors along the wall, and Klopp and the other men were too busy checking over the walker's engines to watch. No distractions, just the clear ring of steel and the shuffle of feet.
As the sparring grew more intense, Alek realized they hadn't put on masks yet. He'd always begged to fight without protection, but his parents had never allowed it.
"Why Serbia?" Volger suddenly asked.
Alek dropped his guard. "Pardon me?"
Volger pushed aside Alek's half-ready parry and landed a touch on his wrist.
"What in blazes?" Alek cried out, rubbing his hand. The sporting saber's edge was dull, but could still bruise when it landed on flesh.
"Do not drop your guard until the other man does, Your Highness. Not in time of war."
"But you just asked me ...," Alek began, then sighed and raised his sword again. "All right. Continue."
The count began with another flurry of blows, pushing Alek backward. By the rules of saber any contact with the opponent's sword ended a legal attack. But Volger was ignoring every parry, using brute strength to gain his ground.
"Why Serbia?" the count repeated, pushing Alek toward the back wall of the barn.
"Because the Serbs are allied with Russia!" Alek cried.
"Indeed." Volger suddenly ended his attack, turning his back and walking away. "The old alliance of the Slavic peoples."
Alek blinked. Sweat was running into his eyes, and his heart was racing.
Volger took up his stance in the center of the barn. "On guard, sir."
Alek approached warily, his sword up.
Volger attacked again, still ignoring the rules of priority. This wasn't fencing, Alek realized, this was more like ... a sword fight. He let his concentration narrow, his awareness extending down the length of his saber. Like the Stormwalker, the length of steel became an extension of his body.
"And who is most closely allied with Russia?" Volger asked, not even a little breathless.
"Britain," Alek said.
"Not so." Volger's blade slipped inside Alek's guard, whacking his right arm hard.
"Ouch!" Alek dropped his guard and rubbed the wound. "For heaven's sake, Volger! Are you teaching me fencing or diplomacy?"
Volger smiled. "You are in need of instruction in both, obviously."
"But the British navy command met with the Russians last year! Father said it drove the Germans wild with worry."
"That is not an alliance, Alek. Not yet." Volger raised his sword. "So who is allied with Russia, then?"
"France, I suppose." Alek swallowed. "They have a treaty, right?"
"Correct." Volger paused for a moment, sword point tracing a pattern in the air, then frowned. "Raise your sword, Alek. I won't warn you again; nor shall your enemies."
Alek sighed and took his guard. He felt himself gripping the saber too tightly, and forced his hand to relax. Did Volger think these distractions were useful?
"Focus on my eyes," Volger said. "Not the tip of my sword."
"Speaking of eyes, we aren't wearing masks."
"There are no masks in war."
"There aren't many sword fights in war either! Not lately."
Volger raised an eyebrow at this, and Alek felt a moment of triumph. Two could play at this game of being annoying.
The man lunged, and Alek parried, counterattacking for once. His saber's edge missed Volger's arm by a hair.
He pulled back and covered himself.
"So let us review," Volger said, his sword still flashing. "Austria gets revenge on Serbia. Then what happens?"
"To protect Serbia, Russia declares war on Austria."
As Alek spoke, somehow his mind stayed focused on the play of sabers. It was strangely clarifying, wearing no mask. He'd met German officers from the military schools where protection was considered cowardly. Scars stretched across their faces like cruel smiles.
"And then?" Volger said.
"Germany protects Clanker honor by declaring war on Russia."
Volger lunged at Alek's knee, an illegal target. "And then?"
"France makes good its treaty with Russia, and declares war on Germany."
"Who knows?" Alek shouted, thrashing at Volger's saber. He'd lost his footing, he realized - too much of his body was exposed. He turned to correct it. "Britain finds her way in somehow. Darwinists against Clankers."
Volger lunged forward and his saber spun, wrapping around Alek's like a snake and yanking it from his grasp. Metal flashed as the sword soared across the barn, burying itself in the half-rotten wall with a thunk.
The wildcount stepped forward and held his saber at Alek's throat.
"And what can we conclude from this lesson, Your Highness?"
Alek glared at the man. "We can conclude, Count Volger, that discussing politics while fencing is idiotic."
Volger smiled. "For most people, perhaps. But some of us are born without the choice. The game of nations is your birthright, Alek. Politics is part of everything you do."
Alek pushed Volger's saber aside. Without a sword in his hand he suddenly felt numb and exhausted, and he didn't have the strength to argue against the obvious. His birth had shaken the Austro-Hungarian throne, and now his parents' death had unsettled the delicate balance of Europe.
"So this war is my responsibility," he said bitterly.
"No, Alek. The Clanker and Darwinist powers would have found a way to fight, sooner or later. But perhaps you can still make your mark."
"How?" Alek asked.
The wildcount did a strange thing then. He took his own saber by the blade and handed it to Alek, pommel first, as if offering it to a victor.
"We shall see, Alek. We shall see."
He eased the saunters sideways and felt the Storm-walker's right foot shift.
"That's it," Otto Klopp said. "Slowly now."
Alek nudged the controls again, and the walker slid a little farther. It was frustrating, maneuvering in tight quarters like this. One bump of the walker's shoulder could send the whole rotten barn crashing down around them. At least the trembling gauges and levers had begun to make sense. A little more pressure in the knees might help... .
With another nudge he'd done it - the viewport was lined up with a ragged gap in the wall of the barn. The late afternoon sun shone into the cabin, the fields stretching out before them. A harvesting combine rumbled along on twelve legs in the distance, a dozen farmers and a four-legged truck following to collect the bundled grain.
Count Volger put a hand on Alek's shoulder. "Wait till they're out of sight."
"Well, obviously," Alek said. With his bruises still throbbing, he'd had enough of Volger's counsel for one day.
The combine made its slow way across the field, finally disappearing behind a low hill. A few workmen straggled behind, black dots on the horizon. Alek soon lost them in the distance, but waited.
Finally Bauer's voice crackled on the intercom, "That's the last one gone, sir."
Corporal Bauer had the uncanny eyesight of an expert gunner. Two weeks ago he'd been on his way to commanding a machine of his own. Master Hoffman had been the Hapsburg Guards' best engineer. But now the two were nothing more than fugitives.