Even if it meant defying the emperor himself.
By the time they reached the stables, Alek's only concern was tripping in the darkness. The moon was less than half full, and the estate's hunting forests stretched like a black sea across the valley. At this hour even the lights of Prague had died out to a mere inkling.
When Alek saw the walker, a soft cry escaped his lips.
It stood taller than the stable's roof, its two metal feet sunk deep into the soil of the riding paddock. It looked like one of the Darwinist monsters skulking in the darkness.
This wasn't some training machine -- it was a real engine of war, a Cyklop Stormwalker. A cannon was mounted in its belly, and the stubby noses of two Spandau machine guns sprouted from its head, which was as big as a smokehouse.
Before tonight Alek had piloted only unarmed runabouts and four-legged training corvettes. Even with his sixteenth birthday almost here, Mother always insisted that he was too young for war machines.
"I'm supposed to pilot that?" Alek heard his own voice break. "My old runabout wouldn't come up to its knee!"
Otto Klopp's gloved hand patted his shoulder heavily. "Don't worry, young Mozart. I'll be at your side."
Count Volger called up to the machine, and its engines rumbled to life, the ground trembling under Alek's feet. Moonlight shivered from the wet leaves in the camouflage nets draped over the Stormwalker, and the mutter of nervous horses came from the stable.
The belly hatch swung open and a chain ladder tumbled out, unrolling as it fell. Count Volger stilled it from swinging, then planted a boot on the lowermost metal rung to hold it steady.
"Young master, if you please."
Alek stared up at the machine. He tried to imagine guiding this monster through the darkness, crushing trees, buildings, and anything else unlucky enough to be in his path.
Otto Klopp leaned closer. "Your father the archduke has thrown us a challenge, me and you. He wants you ready to pilot any machine in the House Guard, even in the middle of the night."
Alek swallowed. Father always said that, with war on the horizon, everyone in the household had to be prepared. And it made sense to begin training while Mother was away. If Alek crashed the walker, the worst bruises might fade before the princess Sophie returned.
But Alek still hesitated. The belly hatch of the rumbling machine looked like the jaws of some giant predator bending down to take a bite.
"Of course, we cannot force you, Your Serene Highness," Count Volger said, amusement in his voice. "We can always explain to your father that you were too scared."
"I'm not scared." Alek grabbed the ladder and hoisted himself up. The sawtooth rungs gripped his gloves as Alek climbed past the anti-boarding spikes arrayed along the walker's belly. He crawled into the machine's dark maw, the smell of kerosene and sweat filling his nose, the engines' rhythm trembling in his bones.
"Welcome aboard, Your Highness," a voice said. Two men waited in the gunners' cabin, steel helmets glittering. A Stormwalker carried a crew of five, Alek recalled. This wasn't some little three-man runabout. He almost forgot to return their salutes.
Count Volger was close behind him on the ladder, so Alek kept climbing up into the command cabin. He took the pilot's seat, strapping himself in as Klopp and Volger followed.
He placed his hands on the saunters, feeling the machine's awesome power trembling in his fingers. Strange to think that these two small levers could control the walker's huge metal legs.
"Vision at full," Klopp said, cranking the viewport open as wide as it would go. The cool night air spilled into the Stormwalker's cabin, and moonlight fell across dozens of switches and levers.
The four-legged corvette he'd piloted the month before had needed only control saunters, a fuel gauge, and a compass. But now uncountable needles were arrayed before him, shivering like nervous whiskers.
Excerpted from Leviathan by Scott Westerfield. Copyright © 2009 by Scott Westerfield. Excerpted by permission of Simon Pulse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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