But the sheer power of the machine kept him anxious. Heat from the engines built in the cabin, the night air blowing in like cold fingers. Alek tried to imagine what piloting would be like in battle, with the viewport half shut against flying bullets and shrapnel.
Finally the pine branches cleared before them, and Klopp said, "Turn here and we'll have better footing, young master."
"Isn't this one of Mother's riding paths?" Alek said. "She'll have my hide if we track it up!" Whenever one of Princess Sophie's horses stumbled on a walker footprint, Master Klopp, Alek, and even Father felt her wrath for days.
But he eased back on the throttle, grateful for a moment of rest, bringing the Stormwalker to a halt on the trail. Inside his piloting jacket Alek was soaked with sweat.
"Disagreeable in every way, Your Highness," Volger said. "But necessary if we're to make good time tonight."
Alek turned to Otto Klopp and frowned. "Make good time? But this is just practice. We're not going anywhere, are we?"
Klopp didn't answer, his eyes glancing up at the count. Alek pulled his hands from the saunters and swiveled the pilot's chair around.
"Volger, what's going on?"
The wildcount stared down at him in silence, and Alek felt suddenly very alone out here in the darkness.
His mind began to replay his father's warnings: How some nobles believed that Alek's muddled lineage threatened the empire. That one day the insults might turn into something worse....
But these men couldn't be traitors. Volger had held a sword to his throat a thousand times in fencing practice, and his master of mechaniks? Unthinkable.
"Where are we going, Otto? Explain this at once."
"You're to come with us, Your Highness," Otto Klopp said softly.
"We have to get as far away from Prague as possible," Volger said. "Your father's orders."
"But my father isn't even..." Alek gritted his teeth and swore. What a fool he'd been, tempted into the forest with tales of midnight piloting, like luring a child with candy. The whole household was asleep, his parents away in Sarajevo.
Alek's arms were still tired from fighting to keep the Stormwalker upright, and strapped into the pilot's chair he could hardly draw his knife. He closed his eyes -- he'd left the weapon back in his room, under the pillow.
"The archduke left instructions," Count Volger said.
"You're lying!" Alek shouted.
"I wish we were, young master." Volger reached into his riding jacket.
A surge of panic swept into Alek, cutting through his despair. His hands shot to the unfamiliar controls, searching for the distress whistle's cord. They couldn't be far from home yet. Surely someone would hear the Stormwalker's shriek.
Otto jumped into motion, grabbing Alek's arms. Volger swept a flask from his jacket and forced its open mouth to Alek's face. A sweet smell filled the cabin, sending his mind spinning. He tried not to breathe, struggling against the larger men.
Then his fingers found the distress cord and pulled --
But Master Klopp's hands were already at the controls, spilling the Stormwalker's pneumatic pressure. The whistle let out only a miserable descending wail, like a teakettle pulled from the fire.
Alek still struggled, holding his breath for what felt like minutes, but finally his lungs rebelled. He scooped in a ragged breath, the sharp scent of chemicals filling his head...
A cascade of bright spots fell across the instruments, and a weight seemed to lift from Alek's shoulders. He felt as though he were floating free of the men's grasp, free of the seat straps -- free of gravity, even.
"My father will have your heads," he managed to croak.
"Alas not, Your Highness," Count Volger said. "Your parents are both dead, murdered this night in Sarajevo."
Alek tried to laugh at this absurd statement, but the world twisted sideways under him, darkness and silence crashing down.
Research shows that 90% of Americans value public libraries(Dec 11 2013) According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, about 90% of Americans aged 16 and older said that the closing of their local public library would have an...