The Kaiserine's Champion
by Derek Paterson
Originally published in 2001 by
EGGPLANT LITERARY PRODUCTIONS
Raechel Henderson, Publisher
Available again on Amazon.
Being the 1st story of the adventures of Manfred, which continue in
The Vampyre's Kiss and The Werewolf's Curse.
A heavy key clattered in the lock, then the door swung open and the sergeant said, "Here's your breakfast, Manfred my boy. Enjoy your last meal!" With this he emptied the contents of the night bucket over me and stood there laughing heartily, while I choked and gagged at the rancid stench.
"You hear that?" he said, jerking a callused thumb toward the barred window. I'd been listening to the sawing and hammering since dawn. "You're going to swing soon, m'lad. Rest assured, I'll be in the front row, cheering as you gasp and kick your way to Hades."
I wiped filth off my face with my sleeve and glared at him. There really wasn't much else I could do, sitting there chained to the wall. He laughed again, turned away and made to step into the corridorthen snapped to attention, his expression changing from amusement to outright fear in the space of a single heartbeat.
I'd heard the footsteps approaching and assumed it must be one of my gaolers, but apparently not. An oil lantern came into view, held by a tall, well-dressed noble with dark eyes, a hooked nose and lips that looked as though they'd never smiled. He wore his arrogance like an impenetrable cloak. His cold, unblinking gaze studied every inch of the cell before coming to settle upon me. A shiver ran up my spine unbidden, though I'd no idea why.
"So, this is the swordsman," he said. "You have him in chains, I see."
"Yes, sir," the sergeant said. "Extremely dangerous, sir. Killed six of the Duke's Wardens single-handed, he did, and put another three in hospital. The doctor says they'll be out of action for weeks. Duke Wilhelm is"
"I know what Duke Wilhelm is," my visitor said softly, and the chill in his voice did not go unnoticed. He nudged my foot with the polished toe of his boot. "So, what have you to say for yourself, you scoundrel?"
I had nothing to say, to him or any other passing aristo who thought it might be amusing to drop in and taunt me before I died, so I kept my mouth shut.
"Cat got your tongue, mmm? Sergeant, I want to talk to this rogue in private. Close the door on your way out."
"He's chained to the wall, Sergeant," the tall man said wearily. "I think I'll be safe enough, don't you?"
The sergeant frowned, not quite sure what was going on, but did as he was told. The door clicked shut behind him. At that moment the hammering stopped, as if the two events were somehow related.
"It sounds like they're ready for you," my nameless visitor said. "In which case I'd best make this short, lest we're interrupted before we conclude our business."
Curiosity made me ask, "What business? Who are you, and what do you want of me?"
Ignoring my questions, he said, "It isn't every day I get to meet a swordsman of your caliber. Six Wardens dead and another three wounded, eh? Remarkable." He took a silk handkerchief from his sleeve and dropped it onto my lap. I hesitated to touch it, but he nodded, so I picked it up and used it to wipe my face. When I offered to return it he shook his head. "Why don't you tell me what happened last night?" he said.
"I think you already know."
"They say you picked a fight with the Duke's men."
"The Duke's ruffians, you mean." I couldn't keep the anger and resentment from my voice. "They're the ones who swaggered into the tavern and picked a fight, not me."
"They picked on you?"
I hesitated before answering. "No. A young lad, sitting quietly in a corner with his girl, doing no one any harm."
"A friend of yours, was he? Your brother? A cousin?"
I shook my head again, and my visitor chuckled darkly. "Let me guess what happened," he said. "The Duke's Wardens decided they wanted the girl for themselves, and pretended to take insult at something the boy said or did. Am I right?"
"Close enough," I said, wondering how he knew so much.
"And sofor reasons known only to yourselfyou decided to interfere, decided to help a stranger you didn't even know." He gave another humorless chuckle. "I shouldn't imagine the Wardens took kindly to your interfering in their business?"
They most certainly hadn’t. They’d overpowered me through sheer weight of numbers and forced me outside, into the dark alleyway behind the tavern. Instead of arresting me, as I’d expected, their drunken fool of a corporal had drawn his sword and tried to cut me in two. I’d avoided his clumsy attack and run him headlong into the wall, relieving him of his blade in the process. His men came at me then, roaring with blood-lust, demanding vengeance. I’d wounded when I could, killed only when they gave me no other choice. But, outnumbered as I was, they would have butchered me for certain if a squad of Noseys, or City Constabulary to give them their full title, hadn’t chanced by and dragged me to safety. Before I’d a chance to thank them for saving my life, they’d beaten me unconscious with their wooden clubs. The lumps on the back of my head still throbbed painfully.
“The Duke’s Wardens are indeed ruffians,” the noble said. “But they are also excellent swordsmen. They are trained by the Duke’s swordmaster, Schwertkampfer, who is no slouch with the blade. Yet you managed to kill six of them. You’re either very good, or you’re the luckiest man alive. Which is it?”
“Perhaps a little of both,” I suggested modestly.
“A good answer. It may be that I have a use for someone who possesses such luck, and knows how to use a sword.”
“I don’t quite follow you,” I said, but a tiny flame of hope sparked within my breast.
“Tomorrow, as you may know, is the Kaiserine’s birthday. It’s a very special occasion, and special entertainment is arranged. I’m looking for someone to put into the Arena. You may be that man.”
The Arena! Professional fighters battled in the Arena for the entertainment of the Kaiserine and the Empire’s aristos. If they won, they received riches and anything else they might desire. Losing, on the other hand, often earned mutilation, or worse.
“What exactly are you offering?” I asked.
“Your freedom, a large bag of silver, and a fast horse to take you out of the city. Assuming, of course….”
He left the rest unsaid. Assuming, of course, that I lived. The Arena was far different from the crowded alley behind the tavern where drunken soldiers had tripped over each other and botched their attacks. I’d be matched against the toughest killers in the Empire. Then again, what was the alternative? A rope, a trapdoor and a quick end, if I was lucky. If I wasn’t lucky, I might dangle there for hours, dying a very unpleasant death. My bowels turned liquid at the very thought.
“I’m your man, if you can get me out of this,” I said, not bothering to mention that I’d be running for the hills at the first opportunity.
“Very sensible. I like that.” He rapped on the door. The sergeant opened it at once and examined me closely, as if making sure I hadn’t escaped. I rattled my chains to set his mind at rest.
“Sergeant, release this man,” my visitor said. “I’m going to send someone up to collect him. Make sure he’s ready by the time they arrive.”
The sergeant protested. “With respect, sir, he’s the Duke’s prisoner. He killed the Duke’s Wardens.”
The nobleman shook his head. “You’re wrong, Sergeant, he is my prisoner. He was arrested and brought here by my Constables, not the Duke’s Wardens, who displayed remarkable incompetence by failing to kill him, wouldn’t you agree?”
Realization struck me like a lightning bolt. The Noseys were his men. I’d been talking to none other than Otto Thenck, head of the Ministry of State Security and the most feared man in the Empire.
The tired old joke about the Secret Police sprang to mind unbidden. A man limps into his local tavern and collapses over the bar. His face is swollen and his teeth have been kicked out, but he buys drinks for everyone and tells them he’s celebrating. Why? they ask. “The Secret Police paid me a visit tonight,” he explains, “but they got the wrong address. They wanted the fellow who lives next door.” And everyone gets drunk, because they all know it’s better to have your teeth kicked out by mistake than taken down into the dark cellars beneath Ministry headquarters, never to be seen again.
Only it wasn’t really a joke, it was a true story, and the man responsible for such casual, fear-inspiring brutality stood before me.
“But what will I tell the Duke, sir?” the sergeant said, a pleading note in his voice. “He’s bound to ask.”
“You have prisoners in the other cells, haven’t you?”
The sergeant scratched his head, plainly puzzled. “Yes, sir. Petty thieves for the most part. A pair of smugglers, a husband who cut off his unfaithful wife’s ears, a forger—”
“A forger!” Thenck’s scowl made the sergeant flinch. “When was he arrested?”
“Yesterday, sir. Caught passing wooden coins painted silver. Not too clever, sir. It’s fifty lashes for him, then a lengthy spell in prison, breaking rocks.”
“I disagree. Inept as he is, his is the worst crime of all, for he was attempting to undermine the economy of the Empire. I’ll respect assassins and even spies, but never forgers. Let me tell you what you will do, Sergeant. You will go to the forger’s cell. There, you will bind his arms and legs securely, then gag him and put a hood over his head. When the Duke’s men come looking for this prisoner”—he pointed at me—”you will give them the forger instead. Do you understand?”
His tone carried a distinct element of threat, hinting that failure to comply would bring swift and unwelcome retribution. The sergeant swallowed hard. So did I. “Yes, sir,” he said weakly.
Thenck nodded, satisfied, and without another word he left the cell and went back down the corridor.
The sergeant sighed with relief. “It seems you have friends in high places, lad,” he said quietly. “You know who that was? Otto Thenck! The Magician! You know why they call him that? Because he makes people disappear.” He laughed. “Maybe you’ve escaped the noose, but there are worse deaths than hanging, mark my words. That’s something else for you to think about, eh?” He found the key on his ring that unlocked the iron manacles around my wrists and ankles, thus releasing me.
“Thanks,” I said, driving my fist into his face as I rose, sending him sprawling. He cried out and rolled onto his back, trying to get up, but my boot quickly put paid to that idea. He howled and rolled in the night soil, clutching his crotch with both hands.
Having extracted some measure of revenge for my ill-treatment, I turned to the doorway. All thoughts of fleeing the prison and losing myself in the alleyways and backstreets of High Sazburg dissipated abruptly as I discovered two men standing there, watching me. They wore long black cloaks, tricorn hats and scarves that covered their faces so that only their eyes were visible. Both carried flintlock pistols, cocked and pointed at my belly. They looked more like highwaymen than anything else, but I didn’t need a soothsayer to tell me they were Otto Thenck’s Noseys in civilian garb, come to fetch me for their master’s pleasure.
I felt no great need to say fond farewell to the sergeant. Without a word spoken, the two men escorted me upstairs, along a narrow corridor and outside into a high-walled courtyard. We’d passed no one else en route. A coach drawn by matching black stallions waited in the courtyard. The highwaymen gestured with their pistols, and I reluctantly climbed inside. The door slammed shut behind me and the coach immediately set off. There were no handles on the inside of the door, and no windows, either—the coach was a miniature prison on wheels.
The coach slowly made its way through the winding city streets, shaking and rattling over cobblestones and brickwork. Several times during the journey, the driver opened his peep hole and looked down at me, as if satisfying himself that I wasn’t up to any mischief. Like the highwaymen, he wore a scarf over his face so I could only see his eyes. I wondered at this need for disguise, but I had other things to worry about, not the least of which was Otto Thenck, the Magician, so I thought no more of the driver, trying instead to imagine what must lie ahead.
A short time later, the coach stopped. The door clicked open and I surmised that the driver possessed a mechanism which allowed him to control the door locks from above. Very clever. I climbed out and looked up at him, expecting to receive further instructions, but he said nothing. Instead he jiggled his reins and the coach moved off again, leaving me behind.
I found myself standing alone before a dark, gloomy building made of plain brick. Steps led up to the front door and the tall windows on either side were closed and shuttered. It occurred to me that my path to freedom now lay open—all I had to do was run. And I might have, but at that moment a group of Wardens turned the corner at the end of the street and began walking in my direction. Their appearance made my mind up for me. I climbed the steps, rapped on the wood and waited for an answer. Distant footsteps came closer, then a spy-hole opened and a suspicious eyeball peered out at me.
“What do you want?” a muffled voice demanded.
“Otto Thenck sent me,” I said, watching the Wardens, who were bound to question my appearance if not my smell. Or would they? After all, I was outside the headquarters of the Ministry of State Security and might have authorized business there, for all they knew. But I didn’t dare take that chance. If any of them recognized me….
Heavy bolts were drawn back at last and the door swung open. A dwarf who’d had to stand on a wooden stool to reach the spy-hole scowled up at me. He wore a black uniform with silver buttons and epaulettes, high riding boots and a curved cavalry sword that trailed on the stained wood floor because of his lack of altitude. His squashed face was wrinkled and lined, and his dark curly hair had turned white around the edges.
“And who might you be?” he asked.
“I said, Thenck sent me. Let me inside, quickly.”
“He didn’t tell me to expect any visitors. Go away.”
He tried to shut the door but I stopped it with my foot and grabbed him by the front of his jacket, pulling him up so his boots kicked air. The Wardens were less than a hundred paces away. I wanted to be safely inside before they reached the doorway.
“Listen, Stumpy, I told you, Thenck sent me. This is where he lives, isn’t it? So you’ll let me inside, unless you want me to bash your face in.”
The dwarf rolled his eyes, inviting me to look behind him. I did, and saw two soldiers armed with muskets at the other end of the entrance hall. They had me in their sights. The Tirpitz musket is the deadliest piece of weaponry ever developed by the Kaiserine’s clever scientists, and rarely misses at ranges under five hundred paces. I put the dwarf down gently and brushed the front of his jacket to iron out the creases.
“Thank you,” he said, grinning.
“Don’t mention it,” I said through clenched teeth.
He snapped his fingers in sudden realization. “You wouldn’t be from the prison, would you?” He looked me up and down, his nose wrinkling in distaste at my sweet bouquet.
“How astute of you,” I said. “Indeed I am.”
He turned his head and said to the soldiers, “Easy, lads. This one’s expected, after all.” To my relief they lowered their muskets, carefully thumbing the hammers forward.