Alek let go of the knife, expelling a sigh of relief. It was just old Otto Klopp, his master of mechaniks.
The first figure began rifling through the dresser, pulling at clothes.
"The young prince has been awake all along," Wildcount Volger's low voice said. "A bit of advice, Your Highness? When pretending to be asleep, it is advisable not to hold one's breath."
Alek sat up and scowled. His fencing master had an annoying knack for seeing through deception.
"What's the meaning of this?"
"You're to come with us, young master," Otto mumbled, studying the marble floor. "The archduke's orders."
"My father? He's back already?"
"He left instructions," Count Volger said with the same infuriating tone he used during fencing lessons. He tossed a pair of Alek's trousers and a piloting jacket onto the bed.
Alek stared at them, half outraged and half confused.
"Like young Mozart," Otto said softly. "In the archduke's stories."
Alek frowned, remembering Father's favorite tales about the great composer's upbringing. Supposedly Mozart's tutors would wake him in the middle of the night, when his mind was raw and defenseless, and thrust musical lessons upon him. It all sounded rather disrespectful to Alek.
He reached for the trousers. "You're going to make me compose a fugue?"
"An amusing thought," Count Volger said. "But please make haste."
"We have a walker waiting behind the stables, young master." Otto's worried face made an attempt at a smile. "You're to take the helm."
"A walker?" Alek's eyes widened. Piloting was one part of his studies he'd gladly get out of bed for. He slipped quickly into the clothes.
"Yes, your first night lesson!" Otto said, handing Alek his boots.
Alek pulled them on and stood, then fetched his favorite pilot's gloves from the dresser, his footsteps echoing on the marble floor.
"Quietly now." Count Volger stood by the chamber doors. He cracked them and peered out into the hall.
"We're to sneak out, Your Highness!" Otto whispered. "Good fun, this lesson! Just like young Mozart!"
The three of them crept down the trophy hall, Master Klopp still clomping, Volger gliding along in silence. Paintings of Alek's ancestors, the family who had ruled Austria for six hundred years, lined the hallway, their subjects staring down with unreadable expressions. The antlers of his father's hunting trophies cast tangled shadows, like a moonlit forest. Every footstep was magnified by the stillness of the castle, and questions echoed in Alek's mind.
Wasn't it dangerous, piloting a walker at night? And why was his fencing master coming along? Count Volger preferred swords and horses over soulless mechaniks, and had little tolerance for commoners like old Otto. Master Klopp had been hired for his piloting skills, not his family name.
"Volger...," Alek began.
"Quiet, boy!" the wildcount spat.
Anger flashed inside Alek, and a curse almost burst from his mouth, even if it ruined their stupid game of sneaking out.
It was always like this. To the servants he might be "the young archduke," but nobles like Volger never let Alek forget his position. Thanks to his mother's common blood, he wasn't fit to inherit royal lands and titles. His father might be heir to an empire of fifty million souls, but Alek was heir to nothing.
Volger himself was only a wildcount -- no farmlands to his name, just a bit of forest -- but even he could feel superior to the son of a lady-in-waiting.
Alek managed to stay quiet, though, letting his anger cool as they stole through the vast and darkened banquet kitchens. Years of insults had taught him how to bite his tongue, and disrespect was easier to swallow with the prospect of piloting ahead.
One day he would have his revenge. Father had promised. The marriage contract would be changed somehow, and Alek's blood made royal.
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